The Irresistible Rise of Afghanistan’s Cricket Team

Afghan cricket player, Rashid Khan (R), captain Asghar Stanikzai (C) and teammates during an event to celebrate the Afghan national team qualification to the 2019 cricket World Cup in Kabul in March.

DEHRADUN, India — On Thursday, Afghanistan’s national cricket team will play India in a Test match, a form of the game — taking place over five seven-hour days — reserved for a select group of nations. In cricket’s near 150-year history of international fixtures, only 11 countries have competed at that level; Afghanistan becomes the 12th.

The achievement marks another high point in a remarkable ascent: Emerging from refugee camps in Pakistan and only officially formed in 1995, Afghanistan’s cricket team has surmounted obstacles unknown to most athletes — terrorism, displacement, war — and with flair and panache that have won admirers the world over.

Of all the success stories created by Afghanistan’s extraordinary rise, none is more striking than that of Rashid Khan, a 19-year-old leg spinner who may be the most famous Afghan alive. Sides across the globe compete aggressively for his services; this year he became the youngest man ever to be ranked best bowler in the world. To watch him is a celebration: TVs are set up in open spaces so that Afghans can watch him as a community, in open rebellion against the terrorists who scatter communities in fear. In a country where not long ago the mere act of playing cricket was taboo, Mr. Khan is the face of hope.

But hope is fragile. On May 19, while Mr. Khan was playing in the Indian Premier League, back in his home city of Jalalabad, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a midnight cricket game was underway. Begun so late to allow players to fast during Ramadan, the match dragged Afghans back to brutal reality. Terrorists set off three bombs in quick succession, killing at least eight and injuring close to 50 people. One of Mr. Khan’s Afghanistan teammates, Karim Sadiq, carried the wounded to makeshift ambulances.

Though the attack was shocking, cricket and conflict have long been connected in Afghanistan: It was the war with the Soviet Union that forced Afghans into the Pakistani refugee camps where they were introduced to the game. This provenance created the impression for some that cricket was a foreign import. But the successes of recent years — and the carousel of homegrown heroes like Mr. Khan — have forged widespread affection for the national team.

When I visited Afghanistan in late 2014, Mohammad Nabi, then the national team’s captain, showed me a clip on his phone: People hung from billboards lining the Kabul International Stadium to watch a domestic match, the ground overflowing. I met the father of a young cricketer, Fareed Ahmad, in the outskirts of Jalalabad; he carried a gun and a cellphone, the latter to show people how well his son had bowled in an Under-19 match.

It is a testament to how quickly these cricketers have developed that even their fathers don’t know much about the sport. During the prime of their lives, all they could do was keep their families alive. Most fled to relative safety, before setting off to work in Dubai. Not all of them succeeded, but when the survivors returned they found the war had turned their beautiful home into a wasteland. Olive fields were now just a desert. Buildings were debris. Some of today’s international cricketers’ first changing rooms were felled aircrafts, their playing fields muddy and their first shoes flip-flops.

Yet they marched on. In 1995, practically no one in Afghanistan knew what cricket was; by 2015, the national team was at the World Cup. In 20 years the country’s cricketers had achieved what other teams take 50 years to do — and in the process they became the darlings of world cricket. A fast bowler wore war paint, another let his long hair bounce as he ran in to bowl, their batsmen hit with abandon, they argued animatedly with one another on the field, and when they celebrated, the world celebrated with them. They were pure drama.

The 2015 World Cup was supposed to be a watershed moment. For once Afghanistan was not only about drugs and terror. And yet, in 2017, Shapoor Zadran, the tall left-arm fast bowler who hit the winning runs in their first-ever World Cup victory, was attacked by terrorists, and not for the first time. Four years previously, Mr. Nabi’s father had been kidnapped.

Perhaps that’s why Afghanistan cricketers recognize a larger purpose to their existence. Every time they go on to the field, they remind themselves of the difficult lives back home and vow to give their fellow Afghans reason to celebrate.

Most of them avoid talking about their struggles in the refugee camps; not all of them are happy talking about the terrorism. Instead they want to talk about cricket, especially the historic Test match. For the past week, as they have prepared in faraway Dehradun, a congested Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas, they were fasting: no food or drink between quarter past three in the morning to quarter past seven in the evening. Keeping the demands of the format in mind, they stopped observing the fast two days before the Test.

It’s not the easiest way to approach a grueling sporting encounter, but then nothing has been easy for Afghanistan’s cricketers. In their own quiet and joyful way, they are refusing to back down.

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