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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Cricket in a time of war
Despite coming under military attack, Afghanistan has sent a team of cricketers to a forthcoming tournament in Pakistan. The BBC's former correspondent in Afghanistan, William Reeve, first saw a game being played in the capital, Kabul, nearly four years ago.
In my years in Afghanistan, I occasionally saw groups of small boys playing cricket in the street with whatever they could use for bat and ball, as in so many other countries.
But I'd never seen a proper game being played there until one day nearly four years ago. On a wide open space near the middle of Kabul, there it was. I was astounded.
Cricket is a new passion for a growing number of Afghan enthusiasts. In a sense, it's born of the troubled times in the country. When Afghans fled abroad as refugees over the past 20 years, they came across the game in cricket-mad Pakistan.
Many young Afghans learnt to enjoy the game alongside their Pakistani brothers. And when some returned home, they carried on playing and introduced cricket to other Afghans.
I stopped and watched the make-shift game I had come across, enjoying every minute.
There in front on me were a whole group of Afghans totally absorbed in having fun, at a time when there was so little other entertainment in Afghanistan.
Cinemas, television, music and so many other things had by then been banned by the Taleban.
Would it be possible, they asked, for me to get them some proper kit. I said I would try, knowing it would be very difficult.
They then explained they were practising for the first serious match ever to be played in Kabul. I joked about my fellow-countrymen playing in Afghanistan all those years ago.
Ah, they said, we look forward to playing against England. And they asked if I could report next week's match on the BBC. I said I would be delighted.
Reporting the match
At least 60% of Afghans listen to the BBC, which broadcasts daily in both Pashto and Farsi. And when the day came for the match I had more fun writing about the cricket than just about anything else for a long time - it made a change from covering the fighting.
That evening they heard about their game over the airwaves, with the scores, man of the match and other important details. It all added to the fun.
A few weeks later I met two English businessmen, Stuart and Michael, who'd arrived in Afghanistan to start installing the country's telephone system.
But before long, my Afghan friends were trying their luck again in their quest for some decent equipment.
What I didn't know was that Stuart was a very keen cricketer and a member of the most famous cricket club in the world - the MCC, based in London.
He was listening very carefully to one of the players who spoke English.
Stuart returned to England the next day, and to my astonishment I received a message from him a few days later saying the MCC had promised to send full sets of cricket equipment for two senior teams, and two more sets for younger players.
And it wasn't long before Emirates Airlines kindly flew out - free - large boxes to Dubai full of cricket supplies.
The unusual consignment for Afghanistan then made its way to Kabul by Afghan Ariana Airways, in the days before international sanctions stopped the airline flying abroad.
In the distance we could hear the occasional thump of artillery fire from the front line about 30km (20 miles) north of the capital, as the exhibition match got underway.
The players themselves were just ordinary Afghans - a carpet salesman, a few students, many with no jobs at all. Cricket had become their life.
While they had few resources, they showed their gratitude in great style. They presented specially-made Afghan rugs to Stuart and the MCC official who had made the supplies possible.
In the middle of each rug was woven a cricket pitch, and around the edges their names - with a message of thanks.
My clever friends called it the BBC cup, no doubt hoping - although I needed no persuasion - that it would be reported on the BBC.
But I realised as the tournament drew near that I really ought to find a cup as well. In among the destruction in Kabul there are a few surprises, and one is a sports shop in the centre of town that still sells all sorts of things - boxing gloves, footballs, badminton nets.
There in the shop I found a magnificent large cup, left over from the days of the Soviet occupation. It was chrome rather than silver-plated, but it was just the job.
In London, a publication called Wisden - the annual book of record for the cricket world - had somehow heard about the tournament in Kabul.
The editor got hold of his nearest correspondent - in Sri Lanka - sending him by fax an application form for Afghanistan to join the International Cricket Council (ICC) as an affiliate member.
After about three months, one of the Afghan cricketers arrived at my front door, asking if I could help fill in the form.
Fortunately, Stuart was in town and he duly dealt with the important paperwork. So Afghanistan is now an affiliate member of the world cricket body.
And Afghans want to play against new competition, which is why they are so keen to take part in the forthcoming tournament in Pakistan.
Maybe in years to come - in more peaceful times - an Afghan team really will play against England.
And who knows? If the results of the three wars years ago between Britain and Afghanistan are anything to go by, Afghanistan will probably win.
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