Bowling over the Taliban
Afghanistan recently completed a cricket tour of Pakistan that was over in five days and four matches. Unknown to many in the cricketing world and blessed by the puritanical Taliban leaders, in May the playing fields of Peshawar hosted the first-ever cricket tour by an Afghan team.
Afghanistan may have lost this 40-over war of bat and ball to neighbouring Pakistan by three matches to one. But the one game it won by five showed the skeptics that all is not lost.
‘Although soccer is the most popular sport in Afghanistan, many youngsters are taking to cricket seriously,’ says bearded Allahdad Noori, the 28-year-old team captain.
Afghanistan’s strongly Islamic Taliban rulers – who are averse to any kind of entertainment, including music and fine arts – spent $1,300 buying cricket gear in Pakistan for the tour. The tour was given the go-ahead by sports minister Maulvi Kalamddin, who was previously in charge of the dreaded ministry that handled vice and virtue and enforced a strict Islamic code in the streets and public places of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Ilyas Khan, a journalist who writes regularly on Afghan issues, believes the Taliban agreed to the Pakistani request for a cricket tour to soften its image as a reactionary group. ‘Through cricket they are trying to put up a benign face which is more in line with modern times,’ he says. ‘It’s a public-relations stunt to create good will among the people.’
The passion for cricket comes not thanks to the British, but to the Russians. For when the Russian army came to Afghanistan in 1979, hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled to neighbouring Pakistan. They were housed in refugee camps that dotted the frontier areas and Peshawar, the provincial capital.
While they brought their own culture to Pakistan – including the traditional sport buzkashi that is played on horseback – they also adapted to the local environment. Afghan children born in Pakistan have grown up playing cricket on the streets like the locals.
‘I am here to support my team. They will win, _inshallah_,’ said enthusiastic teenager Zabiullah, who was among 300 spectators at the Arbab Niaz Cricket Stadium braving the heat to cheer on his national side. Zabiullah, like the cricket captain Noori and most of the other Afghan players and spectators, came from the refugee camps scattered around Peshawar.
Noori returned to his native Afghanistan three years ago but his family still lives near Peshawar. It is interaction like this which has made cricket Afghanistan’s newest sport.
‘We want to prove that Afghanistan is not far behind in cricket and we should get associate membership of the International Cricket Council,’ says Noori, who has modelled himself on Pakistani fast bowler Wasim Akram.
But former Pakistan test cricketer Farukh Zaman, who coached the Afghan players in 2000, says: ‘Most of the cricketing world does not recognize them. They do not have the financial resources for building the infrastructure. Above all the cricket culture is missing in them.’
But cricket captain Noori has set his sights high. ‘It may sound odd to you but let me assure you that our aim is to play in the World Cup and win it,’ he says.