Monday, 15 February 2010

Afghan Cricket: A Valentine's Day Heart-Warmer

Even the most hardened sports fan can be forgiven for having missed one story this week. The press gave a surprisingly muted reception to the news on Saturday that the Afghanistan national cricket team had sensationally qualified for May's Twenty20 World Cup.

Perhaps timing played a role. Unfortunately for the Afghan cricketers, while they were doing some sterling work at the qualifying tournament in the United Arab Emirates, the British and US governments began a headline-grabbing military offensive in Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan. Still, coming as it did on Valentine's Day weekend, Afghanistan's qualification for the 2010 Twenty20 World Cup in the Caribbean is the stuff of true sporting romance.

Cricket has been played in Afghanistan since the mid-19th century when the country came under British colonial rule, though owing to political instability and patchy infrastructure the sport never really took root. At its nadir, during the Taliban era, playing cricket in the country was banned.

However, parallel to these setbacks to the development of the game, encouraging signs were taking place. Over the border in Pakistan, large numbers of Afghan refugees who had fled during the Soviet invasion, Taliban rule and, more recently, the Allied invasion, began watching and playing cricket again. In 1995 an Afghanistan Cricket Board "in exile" was formed in Pakistan, with the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar becoming a hotbed of Afghan cricketing talent - so much so, indeed, that in 2000 the Taliban relented on their ban, making cricket the only sanctioned sport in the country.

For obvious reasons, since the 2001 Allied invasion cricket has been a secondary concern for most in the country, but following their elevation to international competition in 2008 the team's rise has been meteoric. Consecutive promotions from Division Five to Division Three of the World Cricket League have ensued. 

But these pale into insignificance when compared with the exploits of the team in the UAE last week. In defeating the likes of Ireland and Scotland - both of whom have competed regularly against ICC Test Nations (Ireland famously defeated Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup) - the team demonstrated their readiness to take on the best in world cricket. More than that, their eventual victory over Ireland in the tournament finale, and the awarding of a trophy, represents a tangible achievement. As talented fast bowler Hamid Hassan commented in his blog,

"I am sure that our people want us to bring the trophy back to Kabul and celebrate with us."

One of those brought up on cricket in Peshawar, Hassan, 22, encapsulates the minor miracle of Afghanistan's rise up the world stage. Having fled Afghanistan with his family aged 6, Hassan played club cricket in Pakistan, and as a teenager linked up with the nascent Afghan national side after the fall of the Taliban. According to cricinfo.com's Will Luke,

"[he] was first spotted when playing for Afghanistan in March 2006 in Mumbai when they defeated an MCC side led by Mike Gatting, where the then MCC president, Robin Marlar, noticed his potential, and was stunned to see him bowling in flat trainers [fast bowlers ordinarily wear spikes to add grip]. Hasan toured England with the national side in 2006, playing several matches against county second XIs, winning them all and was drafted onto MCC's groundstaff where he bowled against his hero, Andrew Flintoff, and was quick enough to smash Monty Panesar's helmet in the nets."

It is perhaps tempting to cite the Afghan cricket team as an example of the benefits of the Western-instigated political and social regeneration taking place in the country. Similar sentiments were expressed after Iraq, then in the midst of internecine strife after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, won the Asian Football Confederation's Asian Cup in 2007. 

Then again, one hopes that the team's success will not give rise to a bout of political points-scoring among those who debate the consequences of military intervention in Afghanistan since 2001. Never mind the artificial nature of drawing such conclusions, the upholding of Afghanistan's cricketers as exemplars of the rebirth of the country is rather distasteful. 

Throughout the qualifying tournament none of the Afghan team have shown any desire to send out a political message - even when given an obvious opportunity to do so. When the team defeated the USA on 11th February, Hamid Hassan refused to enter into a discussion of the clear political ramifications of the result, commenting that

"after the match, I had to go to do a post-match media conference and they all wanted to know how it felt to beat USA, but the opposition didn’t matter to me. I was just happy to win another cricket match."

If the story has any message, it is of sport's ability to produce the remarkable. Moreover, events in the UAE can at least provide Afghanistan with some news coverage outside the dominant narrative of war and reconstruction. In these respects, irrespective of where one stands on the political spectrum, Afghanistan's cricketing triumph is something we can all salute.

*A documentary on the rise of the Afghan cricket team is to be aired on the BBC this year. For more details visit http://outoftheashes.tv/

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James