BENGALURU: Two decades ago, not many in Afghanistan knew what cricket was. The Taliban were against sports. Millions crossed over to Pakistan and settled in refugee camps in Peshawar, where cricket provided a diversion from the grim reality. Somehow, they managed to convince the Taliban that cricket could be played since it was not a contact sport and even the dress code conformed to their extremist philosophies.
Amid bombing by the US forces after September 11, Afghanistan got ICC’s recognition. In five years, led by an inspirational Nawroz Mangal, they made it to Division 5 of the ICC league. Step by step, each one a giant stride actually, they achieved ODI status in 2009, before narrowly missing out on a maiden World Cup in 2011. As the political landscape changed, the Afghanistan Cricket Board brought in professionals from Pakistan. In 2012 they made it to the World T20. Three years later they were competing in the World Cup.
And now they are in Bengaluru, with a historic Test waiting to begin on Thursday. They have made heads turn on the course of their journey, which has seen players use felled aircraft as the dressing room, a player’s father kidnapped because his son played cricket and another being attacked by terrorists. They have also had scores watching cricket on TV, even if it meant inviting the wrath of extremists.
That is why Thursday will be a big day for Afghanistan, where cricket has been the national headline. Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive Officer of the Government of Afghanistan, will be in attendance and if the Test goes into the fourth day, President Ashraf Ghani will fly in. Hundreds of Afghan settlers and students are expected here over the next five days. Families of players also wanted to come, but could not because of Ramadan.
It was telling that when their captain Asghar Stanikzai and coach Phil Simmons came to address the media, there were more media representatives than when Ajinkya Rahane spoke. Stanikzai, who speaks only Pashto, needed a translator. But if one expected him to show nerves, he did the opposite. “I’m hearing this for the first time,” he said when someone asked if the team was nervous.
Being one who doesn’t speak of the struggles of his countrymen or about terrorism that has ruined many lives back home, Stanikzai wears a cap supporting the Pakhtoons. He doesn’t like to be photographed in it, but he wears the Mazari cap — red and black — made famous by a Pakistani called Manzoor Pashteen, a young leader of Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement, who fights for rights and protests against the harassment of Afghans along the Pakistan border.
Some other players too wear it to show solidarity. Though there are four ethnic groups in Afghanistan — Pakhtoon, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek — the cricket team is comprised mostly of Pakhtoons. The Tajiks are also playing, one of them even captaining the side that finished runners-up in the country’s four-day competition. It was also the tournament that recently made news when terrorists set off three bombs, killing eight and injuring many.
Cricket is no escape from what is happening back home, but when 11 of their players celebrate on the field, the whole of Afghanistan will support and so will the world. In the 10 years since they started playing seriously, they have given many moments to rejoice. Welcome to Test cricket, Afghanistan.
100th international match for a scorer
Noted scorer-cum-statistician HR Gopala Krishna will be officiating in his 100th international match. Hailing from Hassan district, Krishna has played college-level and club cricket, apart from being a qualified umpire. He has been a scorer for Karnataka State Cricket Association and BCCI, and also a statistician for All India Radio and Doordarshan.