Supervised by a coach, the Afghan team practices at its training center in Kabul for the Cricket World Cup
Rahmat Gul—AP
February 12, 2015 9:28 AM EST

It’s a clear saturday morning, and Afghanistan is playing Ireland at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on the city’s outskirts. The match is part of a formal series, but essentially it’s practice for the Cricket World Cup being held jointly in Australia and New Zealand from Feb. 14 to March 29. Still, more than 200 Afghans (as opposed to about 20 Irish fans) turn up to watch. “It doesn’t matter whether Afghanistan wins or loses—we come just to see them play,” says Ibrahim Abdul Qayyum, a trader who is carrying a tablecloth­-size black, red and green Afghanistan flag on a wooden pole.

Qayyum and his fellow supporters applaud each single run Afghanistan scores, but a shot that crosses the field’s boundary for four runs elicits loud cheers, and the occasional six—the cricket equivalent of a baseball home run—sparks a frenzy of whistling, dancing and drumming. Their spirited enthusiasm seems to buoy their side: after an eight­-hour struggle, underdog Afghanistan triumphs.

No one expects Afghanistan, young and inexperienced at cricket, to go far in the World Cup. Yet simply qualifying, for the first time, for the 14-team tournament is a victory. For a country long racked by conflict, cricket has hardly been a priority. But today it is more than a sport for Afghanistan. With U.S. and other foreign troops withdrawing, the Taliban stepping up attacks, and a new administration in Kabul still finding its way, risk is the watchword.

The one certainty is the popularity of the cricket side, which transcends politics, ideologies and tribal loyalties, and has given the nation something to be proud of. “We have the support of the government, the people and even the Taliban,” says team captain Mohammad Nabi, 30. Adds Gideon Haigh, renowned author of over a dozen books on the sport: “It’s a testimony to cricket’s power to inspire and to thrive in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Success­—in a country otherwise starved of it.”

Because of the incessant strife over the years, Afghanistan cricket didn’t even begin in Afghanistan, but in the refugee camps of neighboring Pakistan, to which more than 3 million Afghans fled during the decade-long Soviet war that lasted from the late 1970s to the late ’80s. Many of the current squad honed their skills through “tennis-ball cricket”—exactly what it sounds like—while living in Pakistan’s refugee central: the northwestern frontier city of Peshawar. In 1995 the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now the Afghanistan Cricket Board) was formed.

Bowler Hamid Hassan, 27, grew up in the camps. He ­recalls his father telling him to study hard and become a doctor or an engineer. “No parent wants their children to play on the streets and waste their time,” says Hassan. But cricket became his passion. After searching for the appropriate English equivalent to describe how he feels about it, he blurts out an Urdu word, pagalpan­—madness: “I didn’t know this pagalpan would make me a cricket star.”

During their rule, the Taliban didn’t ban cricket, as they had most forms of recreation, but they didn’t endorse it either. Only after they were defeated in 2001 did the sport make a serious comeback. Now the Taliban openly support cricket. “They are trying to project themselves as part and parcel of Afghan society,” says Hassan Abbas, a professor of international security at Kabul’s National Defense University and the author of The Taliban Revival. Abbas says the extremist group does not want to go down “on the wrong side of history” amid the country’s cricket craze. “The Taliban want to remain relevant in Afghanistan.”

After Nabi, Hassan and other players from the camps returned home, the only place they could play was Chaman-e-Hozori, a large park in the center of Kabul. “When we started, there used to be games of football going on all around us,” says team manager Basheer Stanekzai. “Our sessions kept getting interrupted, and the ground was very rough.”

Today, cricket in Afghanistan is flourishing. Funding comes from the government, the Dubai-based International Cricket Council (ICC)—the sport’s world governing body—and sponsors. 
 Afghanistan has cricket stadiums and academies in Kabul and Jalalabad, which is near the border with Pakistan, with several more planned. Stanekzai says that players can now be trained and developed without having to travel to Pakistan to use its facilities. The Kabul International Stadium, built with USAID help, has an indoor and outdoor cricket academy, a fully equipped gym and attached living quarters for players. A new stadium is being built in southeastern Kandahar, smack in Taliban country, thanks to a million­-dollar grant from New Delhi, while the German government is helping construct another in the town of Khost.

The investment has paid off. In 2008, Afghanistan announced its arrival on cricket’s world stage with a dream run through the ranks of the ICC. Starting from Division 5 of the World Cricket League, the ICC’s championship for associate and affiliate members, the Afghans won an emotional final in the bailiwick of Jersey off France’s Normandy coast, vanquishing the home team to progress to the fourth division in Tanzania. An unlikely victory there, followed by another win in the Division 3 tournament in Argentina, earned the side entry into the final qualifying round for the 2011 World Cup. It fell just short, finishing fifth as the top four teams went through. But the team’s performance boosted its confidence and self-belief. “Watching videos of the Jersey match brings tears to my eyes even now,” says Stanekzai.

The naming of head coach Andy Moles, an Englishman who had stints with the ­national sides of New Zealand, Scotland and Kenya, is part of the momentum to further professionalize the squad. Moles, 54, first came to Afghanistan last June as an adviser to the team. He took on the top job three months later not least because he found the players especially motivated. “A lot of them come from tough backgrounds, and they see cricket as a way to get out of the poorer areas and provide a better environment for their family to live in,” says Moles. “These guys are mentally very strong.”

The team’s bench is deep too. Seven of the 15 players in the World Cup squad are below the age of 24, and some 40 others are in training for the reserve side. The under-19s, moreover, recently beat cricket heavyweight Pakistan.

Still, the road ahead is hard. Given the Taliban’s resurgence, the security situation remains too dicey for the country to host international matches, which would give the team more exposure. Like Afghan society, the government is divided along ethnic lines, hurting its effectiveness. Academic Abbas worries that “the hard-liners will become more powerful and they will have more say.”

Team captain Nabi recognizes the nation­-building challenges Afghanistan faces. “It’s not an easy task, but we have to keep trying,” he says. “That’s exactly how our team is too. If we don’t work together, we’ll lose. To win matches, we need to unite.” For cricket—and country.

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Write to Rishi Iyengar at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com.

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