PESHAWAR, Pakistan (IPS) —Afghanistan is rediscovering the joy of cricket. It is seen as a tool of progress, a means of entertainment, and a way to wean youth away from violence in a country that has been ravaged by conflict for more than 30 years.
Afghanistan will join Asia’s four Test playing nations – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – in the 50-over Asia Cup next month.
But, as many players acknowledge, cricket would never have made a glorious return to Afghanistan without the help of neighboring Pakistan, where many Afghan cricketers grew up watching and loving the game.
“Violence-wracked Afghanistan desperately needs cricket as a means of entertainment,” Muhammad Nabi, the Afghan cricket team captain, tells IPS. “It is also a big opportunity to wean Afghan youths away from the Taliban.”
Nabi says most of his players developed their passion for cricket in Pakistan.
Millions of Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan since the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded their country in 1979. “Cricket is very popular in Pakistan and Afghans also watched the game and began playing it there,” Nabi says.
Today if there is one thing that never fails to delight Afghans, it is cricket. Since 2007, Afghanistan has played 21 Twenty20 international matches, where each side plays 20 overs.
“We have one day international (ODI) status and will be playing in the 2015 World Cup. It will give us much-needed international experience,” says Nabi, an all-rounder. The ODIs feature 50-over games.
The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) was established in 1995, but the Taliban government banned cricket, leaving the players high and dry.
“Afghan youths, however, continued playing the game in Pakistan, especially in Peshawar,” says Dr Noor Muhammad Murad, chief executive officer of the ACB.
It enabled Afghanistan to take part in the 2007 ACC Twenty20 Cup in Kuwait. And Murad has fond memories of the tournament. “It ended in a tie and the trophy was shared by Oman and Afghanistan,” he says.
“All Afghan cricketers have trained in Peshawar where most of them grew up. We are always thankful to the Pakistan government for helping develop cricket in Afghanistan,” Murad says.
Ahead of the Asia Cup 2014, to be played in Bangladesh from Feb. 25 to Mar. 8, Afghanistan is hoping to get some good practice in Pakistan.
“We have requested the Pakistan Cricket Board to allow us to play practice matches in Kaddafi Stadium, Lahore, to prepare for the tournament,” says Murad.
Pakistani fast bowler Kabir Khan, who started coaching the Afghan cricket team in 2008, has been working hard to promote the game in Afghanistan.
“We have established 11 cricket academies and three stadiums in Afghanistan where a regional level tournament takes place. Cricket has replaced football as the most popular sport in that country.”
“Today Afghans are cricket-crazy, as is evident from the rush of spectators at local matches,” Khan tells IPS.
Most Afghans are already looking forward to the World Cup in 2015.
Afghan batsman Karim Sadiq tells IPS, “We are banking on Pakistan’s support. We have already played on international grounds in Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi and will be going there again to prepare ourselves.”
Sadiq says he began playing cricket in Peshawar where he spent his youth. “Peshawar is my second home and I like to play there.”
Twenty-six-year-old Samiullah Shinwari, a spin bowler, says his country has abundant raw talent which can be honed “with good infrastructure”.
“Cricket is an excellent and crowd-pulling game. We can use it as a tool of peace in Afghanistan,” he says.
Former Pakistani wicketkeeper Rashid Lateef says he is working with Afghan players to help improve their technique.
“Currently we are coaching two Afghan players so they can start playing professional cricket,” Lateef, who runs a cricket academy in Karachi, tells IPS. “Once they start earning money from the game, others will also be attracted.”
Cricketer Aftab Alam, 22, says he is indebted to Pakistan for teaching him the sport. “In Peshawar, we used to have matches with local players and today we are playing international cricket.”
As a cricketer, he considers himself an ambassador for Afghanistan.
“We are sure that one day our country will host international cricket matches. There would be scores of sponsors to promote international cricket,” he says. “The credit for it will go to Pakistan.”
Alam says the streets and bazaars empty out when Afghanistan plays internationally as people make it a point to watch the matches. “Even for local matches, spectators come in droves, seeking moments of leisure and entertainment.”