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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Born in refugee camps, the Afghan cricket story

Sandip G writes: If not an apostle for peace, cricket has been a messiah of joy. A powerful narrative of hope, a fleeting escape from frightful realities. At least for the endearing identity, charm and innocence, Afghanistan cricket should be preserved and protected.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: August 23, 2021 7:39:16 am
Rashid Khan, Afghanistan’s first cricketing superstar, tweeted this photo on July 29, with the message “National Flag Day”. (Twitter/@rashidkhan_19)

Three days before a blast at a cricket match killed eight people in Jalalabad in May of 2018, Afghanistan cricketer Mohammad Nabi, sitting in a cosy cafe in South Delhi, revealed the two biggest dreams of his cricketing life. First, he said, was to play Test cricket. The second, and a more emotional one, he revealed, was to play an international game in front of his home crowd. “We get a lot of support wherever we play, but to play at home would be something special. I always envy the Indians, so much love, so much support.” Stopping abruptly, he lowered his voice and added, almost as a lament, “I don’t know when we can feel that support and love… You know the uncertainty of our lives.”

The repetitiveness of the turmoil back home sickened him. “We don’t talk about it, it has been like that for 40 years,” he said.

As a writer, I wanted to hear stories that would well the eyes of the world. But I sensed that such questions might be inappropriate.

Still, Nabi loved to talk about home, even if most of his memories were acquired, his nostalgia second-hand. Born in Logar, an eastern province on the banks of river Logar, known once as the Gate of Jihad and the theatre of the war between US-trained mujahideen groups and the Soviet-backed Afghan government troops, Nabi had crossed over to a refugee camp in Peshawar when just two. He talked about “the bright green fields of wheat and multi-coloured glass windows of minarets” of his town, but added, “I have no memories of childhood. In fact, I had no childhood.”

It was in those crammed refugee camps across the Durand Line, which slices the Pashtun heartland into two, was Afghanistan cricket born. Almost every cricketer representing the rife-torn country learned his game in the camps, first from Pakistani soldiers, and later, as they integrated with the local population, the Pakistani kids on the streets.

Like Nabi, Rashid Khan, the country’s first cricketing superstar and arguably the finest T20 spinner of his generation, too grew up in a Peshawar camp, with seven brothers, after the family fled their hometown Bati Kot, over which loom the Hindu-Kush mountains, in Nangarhar Province. So did Afghanistan’s fastest bowler Hamid Hassan, bowling with a headband like his idol Waqar Younis, and sporting a long mane like his favourite cricketer, Shoaib Akhtar.

While the country is yet to produce a tearaway quick, mostly reliant on spinners to win games, the fascination remains. Nabi’s first hero was Wasim Akram, Rashid’s was Akhtar.

About their years of refugee life, Nabi said it instilled in them raw desperation to coerce attention, be different. Nabi called it “smart thinking”, not the cliched “warrior spirit”. “You try to figure a way out of the mess, even before you’re in a mess. You want to be noticed, you want to be different. So when all of them were pacers, I chose to be a spinner,” he recounted. But, in the depth of his heart, he added, he remained a fast bowler.

Even Rashid Khan has fast-bowler-like aggression. The latest evidence is the Afghanistan cricket board appointing former Australian quick Shaun Tait as their fast bowling coach.

Given their genetics and obsession, it may not be long before Afghanistan produces a top-notch pacer of own. While a wave of pessimism is understandable, now that the country has hurled into fresh abyss, the silver lining is that the Taliban, in their first incarnation, were relatively tolerant of cricket, unlike football, which had to be played clandestinely.

Among Indians, for the Afghans the hero was M S Dhoni — in his long-haired, insouciant avatar. Khan called him the first non-Pakistani cricketer who wowed them. This fascination manifests in their own carefree cricket; in Test cricket too, their batsmen look to blast and bash their way out of trouble. Nabi had a rationale: “We have enjoyed little intervals of peace. There is always uncertainty. So we look to enjoy the moments as much as we can.”

This fearlessness is the reason Afghan cricketers took to the shortest format of the game like a duck to water, endearing them to fans at large. They soon developed an identity of their own, in a validation also of the ICC’s success in spreading the gospel of the game.

Unlike several other associate nations of the ICC, they are not an ensemble of failed/ semi-retired/ amateur cricketers from the subcontinent, but genuine homegrown players. Their progress has been rapid — Pakistan Grade II cricket to making Test debut in 2019, from unknowns to party-spoilers (they have beaten Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and West Indies, besides close shaves against India and Pakistan), from holding their first trials in 2003 to producing world-class cricketers.

The team has players from everywhere, Kabul and Jalalabad, Khost and Kandahar. If not an apostle for peace, cricket has been a messiah of joy. A powerful narrative of hope, a fleeting escape from frightful realities. At least for the endearing identity, charm and innocence, Afghanistan cricket should be preserved and protected.

The next step in the evolutionary chain was to be an international home game. The dream of a generation of Afghani cricketers, on the cusp of realisation, with Pakistan scheduled to visit Afghanistan this September. Now that looks as unlikely as ever.

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