Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Thursday, 5 February 2009

High hopes for Afghan cricket team

The Afghan cricket team has managed to get into the final qualifying round for the Cricket World Cup finals in 2011. Former BBC Afghanistan correspondent, William Reeve, was beside the pitch to cheer the team on at their latest victory in Buenos Aires.

Members of the Afghan cricket team (Photo: Leslie Knott)
The Afghan cricket team has been dominating the qualifying rounds

The sport of cricket is new to Afghanistan. Just over 10 years ago, while reporting for the BBC during Taleban rule, I was astounded one day to come across a game of cricket.

There in front of me in Kabul, on a wide open space, was a group of Afghans totally absorbed in having fun, at a time when there was so little other entertainment in the country.

Cinemas, television, music and so many other things had been banned by the Taleban but not, evidently, cricket.

Before long I was chatting away to the players, all dressed in traditional Afghan shalwar kameez, baggy cotton trousers under loose long shirts.

Welcome respite

They pointed out they had very little equipment. They used an old tennis ball wrapped in plastic tape. The stumps and bats were home-made and the pitch was dusty and rough.

They explained that they were practising for the first serious match ever to be played in Kabul.

One of the strengths of the Afghans is their superb fielding, leaping and running for every ball with great agility

Jokingly, one said he looked forward to playing against England one day and asked if I could report the next week's key match on the BBC. I said I would be delighted.

Then, as now, the BBC World Service has a large audience for its daily broadcasts to Afghanistan in the local languages of Pashto and Persian.

And when the day came for the match I had more fun writing about cricket than anything for a long while. It made a change from reporting on the endless fighting.

When the Afghans held their first tournament in Kabul not long afterwards, they played for what they called the BBC Cup.

Cricket mad

Fast forward to Buenos Aires on the other side of the world in South America. I would never have dreamed 10 years ago in Kabul that there I would be in the Argentine capital watching a most impressive national Afghan cricket team dominating the tournament, an important one too.

Members of the Afghan cricket team (Photo: Leslie Knott)
News of the team's victory sparked euphoria in Afghanistan

When Afghanistan played in its first two international tournaments last year, in Jersey and Tanzania, nobody expected them to win. But win they did.

For this latest tournament in Buenos Aires, the team was given special coaching in Lahore in Pakistan, as cricket is hard to play in the Afghan winter.

It was in cricket-mad Pakistan, after all, where members of the Afghan team first played the game. They were all refugees from fighting in Afghanistan, living in camps in Peshawar in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

When I arrived to watch Afghanistan's first match in Buenos Aires, with the summer sun beating down on an otherwise very English looking scene, Uganda were already batting.

Before too long, a colleague in the BBC Pashto Service in London, Emal, called me on my mobile phone to ask for the latest score.

"Could he phone me every 15 minutes or so," he asked.

"Fine, but why so often?" I replied.

Emal explained that masses of Afghans were bombarding the BBC Pashto Service with e-mails for the latest score. They are so keen on cricket in Afghanistan, he said, and they love their team.

Emal duly kept the Pashto Service website up to date for his large audience with all the twists and turns of what became a very exciting but exasperating match.

Desire to win

Uganda accumulated a large score, and the Afghan team - in smart red and blue colours - began its innings very badly, until Raees Ahmadzai, a former captain, came out to bat and almost turned the whole game around along with another resolute team mate, Samiullah.

Raees Ahmadzai (Photo: Leslie Knott)
Former captain Raees Ahmadzai was one of the stars of the game

Despite their efforts, Uganda finally won by just a few runs. But the downhearted Afghans gritted their teeth and proceeded during the week to beat all the other teams in the tournament, and so came out on top.

One of the strengths of the Afghans is their superb fielding, leaping and running for every ball with great agility. Almost all sport trimmed black beards. They are very fit indeed. As good Muslims, they do not drink alcohol or smoke, but above all they have a great desire to succeed.

After winning the tournament in Buenos Aires, team captain Naurooz Mangal, smiling and proud, said today is a very big day in the history of Afghan cricket.

Former captain Raees said that when he and his fellow team members started playing cricket, they hoped that one day they would play against the top nations. Now, he says, we are just one step away from all that.

In the final qualifying round in South Africa in April, four teams out of 12 will go through to play in the Cricket World Cup finals in South Asia in 2011 against the top 10 international teams, such as Pakistan, Australia and the West Indies.

Maybe Afghanistan, which only started playing cricket a decade ago, really will be playing against England before too long.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 February, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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