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Cricket's most heart-warming story

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Oliver Brett | 06:30 UK time, Tuesday, 27 April 2010

At one level, the ICC World Twenty20, which begins in Guyana on Friday, is just another opportunity for cricket's 10 elite Test nations to squabble over yet another trophy.

Out of dozens of associate and affiliate nations keen for a crack at the big time, there is room for just two additional qualifiers. But one of them, remarkably, is war-torn Afghanistan. The ultimate underdogs, in sport as in any walk of life, they only became recognised as a cricketing nation in 2001.

The 11 men who will take on millionaire Indian superstars like Mahendra Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh on 1 May in the idyllic tourist haven of St Lucia grew up in the bleak surroundings of the refugee camps in Pakistan, following the Soviet invasion of their homeland in 1979.

The journey from there to cricket's top table is one of the most heartening stories in sport, and one of the most unlikely.

An Afghan solider playing cricketThe success of the national team has inspired many Afghans to take up cricket

Throughout the 1980s in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen, supported by the West, battled the Soviet Union in what became one of the most extended and fiercest conflicts of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, over the border in Pakistan, the gentler art of cricket was being introduced to the first children born to the new Afghan expatriates. Those children grew to love the game, and when they were finally able to return home, they continued to play cricket.

Their desire to form an Afghanistan team was eventually approved by the International Cricket Council, though it has largely been self-motivation on a shoestring budget that has carried them through since then. Of the £1m in funding provided by the ICC since 2003, the bulk of it only arrived last year, once full one-day international status had been achieved.

The final chapter of this extraordinary story began in May 2008.

Fledgling appearances in tournaments run by the Asian Cricket Council earned Afghanistan a world ranking of 29 when they arrived in Division Five of the newly-formed World Cricket League in Jersey.

But money was so scarce that debut film-maker Leslie Knott remembers the players scrounging around for pound coins so they could go to get something to eat.

Knott, a Canadian photojournalist based in the Afghan capital, Kabul, was one of a small pocket of Westerners working in the media intrigued by the advent of this young team.

Her friend - the Times correspondent in Kabul, Tim Albone - suggested they follow the exploits of these young cricketers and make what would become the first documentary either had worked on.

All-rounder Samiullah ShenwariSamiullah Shenwari, a 22-year-old all-rounder, is a valuable member of the current squad

Underfed or otherwise, Afghanistan swept aside Japan in their first match in Jersey and topped their group, before beating the hosts in the final. Knott, a newcomer to cricket with unrestricted access to the team through the coach Taj Malik, was hooked.

"The tournament was amazing, but we knew we had to get some more money together so we could carry on filming them. People were starting to get interested," she says.

In Tanzania in Division Four, Afghanistan were involved in some very close finishes but still won every match. They moved on to Argentina (Division Three), and Knott noticed something that appeared to set these cricketers apart from others.

After an early defeat to Uganda, there were worries in the Afghanistan camp. One night leading fast bowler Hameed Hassan was close to despair.

"Hameed had a breakdown, he was crying out and sobbing," she says. "I asked him 'What's going on?' He said 'Leslie, I have seen people killed, I have seen people shot and never shed one tear. But this cricket hits me right in the heart and I can't control it. It's too emotional for me.' "

Again, Afghanistan pulled through, and stayed on course for the big time.

In April 2009, the juggernaut was finally halted. They agonisingly missed out on one of four qualifying spots for the 2011 World Cup in the subcontinent.

But 10 months later that disappointment was forgotten when victory over the UAE in Dubai on 13 February put Afghanistan through to the World Twenty20, and for good measure they followed up by beating the other qualifiers, Ireland, in the final.

A young Afghanistan fan at the under-19 World Cup

I spoke to Hameed on a crackling phoneline as the team made their final preparations before their trip to the Caribbean.

"We are not thinking about playing like Shahid Afridi or Virender Sehwag or Sachin Tendulkar," says the 22-year-old. "We are just playing our best so that we are not nervous for the World Twenty20, just very, very excited.

"I've had a great experience, I love my cricket. And the fans... all the time they follow the team, sending prayers, messages and lots of wishes. When we go back from any tour they come to the airport and celebrate with the team.

"After the troubles of the last few years, everybody now is just trying to think about us doing well, and we are hungry for trophies, and hope we can do better for our nation."

Hameed and his team-mates have shared experiences that their opponents in the Caribbean - after India they face South Africa in their second group game - will find difficult to relate to.

Knott explains: "One of the reserve players was killed by American forces, most of them have lost siblings, either to illness or war, there's been a lot of suffering. But what they are doing now is making history. This is the one chance they have.

"They have known each other since they were six or seven years old and are completely in tune with each other, which is why they are so close. They are like brothers. When not playing cricket, back in Afghanistan they hang out together all the time.

"There's no rivalry between them, they really want to see each member perform well. They are doing everything they can to make Afghanistan proud of them."

Given the continued fragile state of the country, few of the players have an alternative career path if cricket fails. Those whose parents survive work as tradesmen, shopkeepers, or have small businesses. None are wealthy.

Facilities are still non-existent; home games are played in the UAE, in Sharjah. But the first proper ground within Afghanistan is finally being built, near Jalalabad, along with a cricket academy funded by the US embassy. There is also talk of formulating a domestic competition.

"Now is the time for investment to be made," says Knott. "They are riding on a wave of mass excitement with a message that Afghanistan has something else to offer the world other than Taliban, burkhas and war. The talent is there and the will of international agencies to make it happen is there.

Arriving back from the the World Twenty20 qualifierThe team arriving back in Kabul after qualifying for the ICC World Twenty20

"There are so many people with nothing to do. They could be playing cricket a lot. Afghan people are very naturally athletic, they are physically strong and mentally strong. The under-19 team was in the World Cup, which is anther great success story, and there are a lot of girl cricketers. Cricketing success is sustainable."

Hassan adds: "Two or three years ago, nobody was interested in cricket too much. Now you will see lots of children playing around on the streets and fields.

"This is a very good thing. People are learning cricket and lots of people will try to play for Afghanistan. There is more and more interest in the game."

My conversation with Knott takes place on the day the whole Afghanistan team are filming a TV commercial in Dubai. It's a day-long shoot involving rehearsals, make-up, and directed by a Bollywood film crew.

It is seeing the attention lavished on the players that makes her think back to the rainy days in Jersey less than two years previously when they struggled to pay for their fast-food orders. The contrast is hard to absorb.

Hassan, meanwhile, does not see the World Twenty20 as the pinnacle of Afghanistan's achievements.

"The guys in the team are mostly in their early 20s, all the boys are young and fit so we hope to keep the same squad for five or six years. Test cricket is definitely an ambition."

May the dream continue.

Out of the Ashes, a documentary by Leslie Knott, Tim Albone and Lucy Martens, will be screened as part of the Storyville series on BBC4 towards the end of the year.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    An unusual, heart-warming story, wouldn't it be ironic if peace in Afghanistan was promoted on a cricket pitch. Who else is old enough to remember Vitae Lampada in school poetry?

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice blog!
    A really nice story and I will be following their progress at the WC.

  • Comment number 3.

    Fantastic news, cricket can be a very positive force for such a troubled nation...
    A few points however, back in 2001 (I recall), the then Afganistan coach appealed for some very limited funding (on cricinfo) in order to compete in their first ICC tournament. I thought this a worthy cause and contacted my then MP Jim Cunningham, who passed me on to the then overseas development minister Claire Short, who deemed it unworthy of her time. I also contacted SKY and the BBC on the matter, neither of which could be bothered to assist at the time.
    Well done for succeeding despite the indolence of others...

  • Comment number 4.

    All the best to the Afghan team, hopefully sporting achievements will bring peace to the war ravaged nation. Read more about the team on http://www.isport.in/t20-world-cup/afghanistan-in-world-cup-t20-the-new-comers

  • Comment number 5.

    Sport always enriches life but cricket more than others.

    The ICC and other international cricketing nations should support this country in its cricketing infancy for all it's worth to give these people hope and enjoyment.

    I believe the MCC have had talented Afhgan players over.

  • Comment number 6.

    Excellent story. I hope that you'll keep following the development of cricket in Afghanistan, Oliver - and keep us informed (and East Africa too).

  • Comment number 7.

    I am a proud son of a proud Afghan nation, and nothing and no one has made me and my fellow Afghans more proud than the extraordinary exploits of this superhuman group of lads. They are not just a credit to their families, their nation but also to sportsmen, sport enthusiasts and fans all around the world. They play the game in the right spirit, and with an inimitable passion rarely seen in professional cricket teams. Having already qualified for the world T20 they could have taken their collective foot off the pedal against Ireland in the final and qualified for the easier group comprising of England and the West Indies. But they stretched every sinew and flexed every muscle in that final to win the tournament ,just as well because having lived in England for over 15 years my loyalty would have been divided (nah!!!). If anyone bemoans the persence of the British troops in Afghanistan, then all I can say to them is that, the sacrifice of one group of brave men has facilitated the possibility of another intrepid group of guys to take to the oval field and vindicate efforts of the British boys in Afghanistan. Long may the fairytale continue.

  • Comment number 8.

    Brilliant article, thanks for making me smile this morning.

  • Comment number 9.

    It's stories like this that make people really see the true power that sport can have for people. In the creation of a unified team that is doing brilliantly well, they are creating hope for a nation that needs to get back on its feet.

    I wish the Afghanistan Cricket team the very best of luck - I'll be keeping track of their progress with interest.

  • Comment number 10.

    I very much doubt that I am alone in being someone who, as well as his / her home nation, seeks out another nation to follow in a World Cup tournament. Thanks to this story, I have just found my 'adopted' team! Best of luck to Afghanistan and congrats on your journey to date.

  • Comment number 11.

    An excellent story of the great game Cricket struggle in Afghanistan. Now they are facing the big guns India and SouthAfrica. They dont lose anything if they lost. They gain experience. Hopefully in two or three years they will get the Test Cricket qualification. Good Luck....

  • Comment number 12.

    And the missus wonders why I love cricket so much...

    Great story, and wishing them all the best at the WC.

  • Comment number 13.

    Great story. I hope Afghanistan beat India in the Caribbean.

    I am intrigued by the fact that the documentary film maker is female. My uninformed perception of the Afghans is that even the average (i.e. non-Taleban) male Afghan thinks rather poorly of women working outside the home.

    What did Leslie observe about the way the treatment of women amongst the cricketers' families? Were the men wary of her making a movie or was it like "Wow - someone's making a story on us - we don't care they are purple haired donkeys - they're making a story on us!" Or was she, as an outsider, immune to the usual categorization of male and female roles within Afghan society?

    I would hope the answer shows up my ignorance, because I would love my perception not to be true.

  • Comment number 14.

    "Of the £1m in funding provided by the ICC since 2003, the bulk of it only arrived last year, once full one-day international status had been achieved."

    How come? I mean, a large bureacratic organization like the ICC is slow, but six years is a bit much... or was most of the £1m only authorized once they had got ODI status?

  • Comment number 15.

    Now that is one star blog! How often my spirits have been dragged down by stories from Afghanistan. What a difference one article makes. Congratulations to OB for chasing up this story and for recording it so well.

    Very best of luck to the Afghan team in the Caribbean, but even more than that, here's to the continued development of cricket for anyone who wants to play it - anywhere!

  • Comment number 16.

    What a great story! There is no better way of uniting a nation than in sport. If you want to destroy England, put down your Kalashnikov and pick up a cricket bat instead! Reminds me of the film 'Lagaan'. At the rate this is going, we can combat terrorism purely with the love of the sport.

  • Comment number 17.

    Thanks for the comments. I appreciate any feedback, especially when it is so positive.

    Now for a few replies: 3) I suspect it would, indeed, have been in 2001 when an initial appeal for funding was made. That was really the start of the story (as indicated in my second paragraph).

    I cannot comment on why MPs or media groups were not enthused to support the campaign, however we are all aware of the political sensitivity with regard to that part of the world.

    4) Thanks for prividing that link to an alternative blog, from which I would like to quote the third paragraph as an aspect which I did not include in my piece but which is also an extremely interesting factor.

    "Even in comparatively recent times, the sport had little foothold. It was outlawed by the Taliban until the eve of the NATO invasion (whereas soccer was grudgingly permitted), and it was another year before a national side was set up. Even five years ago, its reach extended no further than a handful of knockabouts with the occupying British forces."

    5. There are indeed links with the MCC. Hameed (the player interviewed here) was an MCC cricketer a few summers ago and an MCC team captained by Mike Gatting provided the first organised opposition for Afghanistan.

    7. Excellent comments, haris. And I would have fancied Afghanistan to cause a shock in the Windies/England group.

    13. You can find out more about Leslie by clicking on the hyperlink where she is first mentioned. I certainly don't get the impression that she was viewed with suspicion at any stage by anyone involved with the team, but I cannot really answer your question more fully.

    14. Essentially, and it may seem the wrong way round, the further you go on the cricket ladder the more money you get. So Test teams like India always get wuote a lot of money, while until very recently teams like Afghanistan got very little. It may not appear democratic but I suppose it provides an incentive to improve, I suppose. The key is getting ODI status, that usually opens the floodgates to allow partial professionalism, though actually this has paradoxically provided a few headaches for teams like Scotland and Ireland.

  • Comment number 18.

    Dear buymeespresso wake up and smell the coffee. Although it's certainly true that Afghan men and women lead relatively seperate lives, this is only true of the tribal areas and vilages. Segregation in the capital and other major cities such as Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat etc is not as pronounced. After all there are more women MPs in the afghan parliament than its British equivalent. It is not that women in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Islamic world are subservient and/or submissive to their husbands and male relatives, it's the apathy with which they are represented in the Western world. Who can frankly name a single Muslim heroine in the Western world? Whereas the acheivements of women such as Malalay, Zarghoona, Ayesha-e-Durani, Razia Sultan and Fatima have enhanced our historical annals. I typically find much to my chagrin that every Afghan/muslim man is tarred with the same brush as the so called Taliban.
    You also suggest that because she was making a film about them, it made them more welcoming of her. Another ill-informed generalisation, I'm afraid. Though Afghans never look(ed) too kindly upon invaders/occupiers(read The Great Game or Rudyard Kipling to find out more in this regard),
    they will give the shirt off their back for a guest, 'The guest we say is a friend of the almighty.
    I hope I have managed to allay some of your misconceptions about the Afghans my friend.

  • Comment number 19.

    I've been loosely following this ever since they qualified, it was a great story then and now that people seem to finally picking up on it on the eve of the tournament i just hope they at least cause a scare in a game, to win one would be unbelievable but i'm sure even to just give a good account of themselves would be considered a success.

    Enjoyable blog

  • Comment number 20.

    This Cinderella story reminds me a bit of Iraq's winning the Asian Cup of Nations a few years ago. Of course that was one of the greatest feats not just in football but in world sports history. I don't think Afghanistan will win but it's great to see them come this far anyway.

  • Comment number 21.

    Oliver,

    A great blog!

    Thanks for bringing this story to the fore. I attended some of the matches in Dubai, and cannot describe the pleasure in watching the Afghan team do so well. Not only that, but their fans were just astounding. Some much passion and adoration for their team, and they know and love the game of cricket. They were amazing fans to watch, I hope there are going to be a few in the West Indies.

    For all the pain and hurt this nation has endured, maybe this team will bring some hope. It is amazing the power that sport has to galvanize a nation.

    Good luck in the Windies.

  • Comment number 22.

    It is great to see the Afghan cricket team doing so well: I played against them in early 2002 on a minefield of a track (not literally) in Kabul and enjoyed their love of cricket and sportsmanship. I wish them all the very best.

  • Comment number 23.

    Wow !!! this is an excellent example of how sports can help a Nation get unified to acheive a common Goal. Personally, I have never been a fan of Cricket. I have always veiwed it as an imperialistic game played by most former British Colonies. But I have changed my mind about the SPORT of Cricket since I read this article. I now believe that Cricket is no different than any other sport that GREAT Atheletes play. Cricket has the SAME power of bringing people of a Nation together towards achieving a common Goal of pursuing and (hopefully) acheiving Excellence. I will follow the Afghan Cricket TEAM. Although I have much to learn about Cricket, as a NEW FAN of Cricket I NOW have a TEAM to support. This article and the story of the Afghan Cricket team has made me open my mind about the sport of Cricket. It also helped me lower my personal bias towards a Sport that Many people enjoy and love. Thank you, for a GREAT Lesson in Sports... :)

  • Comment number 24.

    fantastic article oliver..this sure is a fairytale in cricket..lets hope the T20 WC brings some respite to afghanistan

  • Comment number 25.

    Great Stuff - I think the Scottish Cricket Team should take a look at these guys and ask some serious questions of themselves and the lack of progress they seem to be making. I play Sunday Cricket for Innellan Cricket Club and the occasional bit of league cricket with Vale of Leven. They have a couple of Afghan players, one of whom "Mo" apparently used to play for the National side. He is barely 5ft 6in, has an arm like a laser guided cannon and hits the ball into the next postcode - both of them are great lads. I am as Scottish as they come but will be supporting Afghanistan in the WC and expect they will do very well!

  • Comment number 26.

    Brilliant! Great blog and good luck to them!

    I'll be supporting them right after the Kiwis.

  • Comment number 27.

    We have been lucky enough to play the Afghanistan national side at home in 2006 and in Kabul last year. Although we were soundly beaten, we enjoyed every second of it and the games meant far more to both sides than just the result. The stories and the experiences the players shared with us will make watching them in this T20 World Cup very emotional and uplifting.
    We were told that by playing in Kabul, Ditchling CC became the first foreign sporting side to tour Afghanistan, which we are very proud of, so we will be supporting the Afghan team from out little corner of Sussex!!
    Can't seem to get any replica shirts though...anybody got any ideas?

  • Comment number 28.

    Oliver, thanks a lot for this article. I'd been reading about the Afghan team for some time but never quite followed them.

    I hope this team, that plays a truly great game, brings a lot of joy and peace to their countrymen and lets the world know more about their wonderful country ravaged by 'the great game'.

    I'm an Indian...but I know my heart will be rooting for the Afghans when they face the Indian team. Its a case of divided loyalties...one that am going to enjoy.

    Best wishes to them :)

  • Comment number 29.

    James @ 27

    That's a great little story of its own (within the bigger story, as told above by OB). It should be in the film by Messrs Knott, Albone & Martens. Is it? You must have photos. - Any footage?

  • Comment number 30.

    FJH@29
    No, don't think we're in any films. A couple of articles were written at the time on the BBC website and there is a short video at the bottom - the "horn off" after the match was very amusing.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/sussex/8029295.stm

    also

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/01/english-cricket-kabul-afghanistan

    there are photos online somewhere - I'll try and find.

  • Comment number 31.

    James@30

    Many thanks, James. - I see the Afghans defeated Ireland in a warm-up match yesterday (or day/night before) - More time-zone probs for us the fanatic in the next couple of weeks! :)

  • Comment number 32.

    Oliver, old sport, congratulations. Best piece I've read by you on the BBC.

    It's remarkable how sports can occupy such opposites at the same time. Last night we had the romance of Fulham reaching a European cup final whilst the Premier League and Football League argue about money. We see the end of the IPL heralded by investigations into possible corruption just prior to the Afghans taking their biggest cricketing step yet. The soul of sport is represented by Fulham and Afghanistan. Overcoming the odds, striving for achievements that some might think are beyond you, both of those represent the inspirational nature of sport. Their stories are far more inspirational than the tawdry commercialism that blights sport, making it a money-making venture with no soul, no heart, and very little to actually truly inspire.

  • Comment number 33.

    'The soul of sport is represented by Fulham and Afghanistan. Overcoming the odds, striving for achievements that some might think are beyond you, both of those represent the inspirational nature of sport. Their stories are far more inspirational than the tawdry commercialism that blights sport, making it a money-making venture with no soul, no heart, and very little to actually truly inspire.'

    I think people are getting to carried away by the Fulham acheivements. They play in the best/ second best (debatable) league in Europe which, despite recent problems, is swelled by players on over inflated salaries and that includes those in the Fulham side.

    Fulham's victory over Juventus is commendable, but over the German sides it should not be unexpected You can argue that Fulham have more money at their disposal than both Wolfburg and Hamburg and victory is not some fairytale but a pratical result of having a better team with better paid players.

  • Comment number 34.


    Thanks for the nice blog. It's a joy to read such a lovely story. The Afghan cricket team is sure to make rapid progress on the big stage in the years to come. They have the motivation, zeal and will power to go ahead.

    Noor Ali and Asghar Stanikzai showed their batting skills against an experienced Indian bowling line up. Shapoor Zadran and Samiullah Shenwari made a good impression with the ball against the Indian frontline batters. Good luck to the Afghan Cricket team in their next encounter.


    Dr. Cajetan Coelho

  • Comment number 35.

    unounos:

    The money is utterly irrelevant. Fulham aren't a flush with cash outfit. A large number of the side are players considered past their peak or failures with big clubs, of Bobby Zamora and Damian Duff are fine examples. More money doesn't mean instant success. Does the name 'Real Madrid' mean anything to you? You can go further and say that Fulham's success has come with negligible involvement from their expensive signing, Andrew Johnson. Hamburg had Petric (5 million Euros plus a player swap) up front, Berg on the bench (10 million Euros), and Van Nistelrooy on the pitch, hardly someone who will play for peanuts. Portraying SV Hamburg as paupers is untrue.

    The Fulham success comes after a near miracle to avoid relegation. Roy Hodgson wasn't a unanimously popular choice with the fans and he turned it around. He's kept that momentum going and has marshalled that team into a European final.

 

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