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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Afghan cricket gaining ground
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Kabul

Cricket is becoming increasingly popular in Afghanistan

In the shadow of Kabul's Gazi stadium, where the Taleban used to execute people, young Afghan cricketers play on an unkempt dusty patch.

Here they are practising on concrete pitches for a shot at participating in the next World Cup tournament in South Asia in four years time.

Six years after the fall of the Taleban and after the International Cricket Council (ICC) admitted Afghanistan as an affiliate member, the war-torn country's plucky cricketers continue to play against many odds.

An international bank and a local mobile telephone company have put some money into the game. There is a $50,000 contribution from the Asian Cricket Council every year.

But national players have to make do with a monthly "salary" of 800 Afghanis ($16) from the government. And they get a paltry $25 per day when they are on international tours.

Rising popularity

No wonder many boys begin playing only to discover that it is difficult to make a living from the game.

"We have lost a lot of boys because of lack of money. Still there is no let-up in enthusiasm," says Taj Malik, the coach of the national team.

Cricket is now being played in 28 of the country's 34 provinces, up from four provinces during Taleban rule. There are some 12,000 registered cricketers playing at various levels.

Taj Malik
Our fast bowlers are faster than Indian pacers
Taj Malik, coach
At this rate, cricket, say experts, is on its way to overtaking football and buzkashi - a sport in which competitors on horseback drag a dead calf over a scoreline - as the most popular sport in the country.

The national team have participated and fared well in a clutch of international tournaments.

They were runners-up in the Middle East Cup and beat six English second division sides during their first tour to England last year; and the under-15 team emerged runners-up in the Asia Cup in Dubai in 2005.

In June, 20-year-old fast bowler Hamid Hassan became the first Afghan cricketer to turn out for the MCC at Lord's.

'Don't underestimate us'

Former captain Raees Ahmadzai reels off achievements breathlessly and says the time is not far when they can take on the game's big teams.

"We have great fast bowlers. They are faster than Indian pace bowlers and on a par with the Pakistanis," he says.

"Hamid Hasan has clocked bowling speeds of 145kmph. Shahpur Zadran, another pacer, has clocked 140kmph."

Don't underestimate Afghan batting as well, warns Ahmadzai.

"We are scoring 230 to 240 runs in 20 overs. Mohammed Nabi hit 14 sixes in an innings against the MCC. I and Nabi scored 164 runs in the last seven overs against MCC," he says.

Raees Ahmadzai
Former captain Ahmadzai says his boys can take on the big teams
"In one match we bowled out Brunei for nine runs after scoring 375. We won by 364 runs. If we last out 50 overs we can easily score over 300 runs on any pitch."

Such chutzpah can only serve Afghan cricket well considering its lack of financial support.

Things are looking up slowly though - the country's first proper cricket academy is nearing completion in Kabul, and should be ready with grass pitches and bowling machines by the end of the year.

Afghan cricket's long, strange journey began in the refugee camps of Peshawar where millions of Afghans had fled in the wake of the Soviet invasion and the civil war.

Curious twist

Young refugee boys began watching cricket on television in cricket-mad Pakistan, and began playing the game with soft balls in the sprawling camps of Kachagarhi and Shamhatoo.

After graduating to playing proper games, the refugees formed their own clubs, and participated in the thriving club cricket scene in Peshawar.

One of them, simply called the Afghan Club, which included present coach Malik, went on to win a local championship.

Even today, at least three players in the national team continue to live in the Peshawar camps and take the four-hour, 178m-long road journey to Kabul to turn out in national colours.

"In a strange way, the war helped in the birth of Afghan cricket," says Malik.

Afghan boys playing cricket
Cricket is now being played in most of the provinces
In another curious twist, some leaders of the sports-unfriendly Taleban ended up loving the game. So much so that Mullah Rabbani, one of its leaders, actually lobbied for the game's recognition by the Asian council.

The only caveat, according to Allah Dad Noori, who captained the team during the Taleban regime, was that games should halt during prayer time.

When the Kandahar and Nangarhar provincial teams forgot the condition during a closely fought match in Kabul in 1997, the Taleban's vice and virtue squad turned up, stopped the match, thrashed the players and arrested a dozen of them.

"The other players just ran for their lives down Kabul streets. It was quite a sight," remembers Noori.

"All that is the thing of the past. Now we look ahead to more glories."


SEE ALSO
Kabul to Lord's
05 Jul 06 |  Cricket
Afghans make England tour debut
11 Jun 06 |  Cricket
Afghanistan embraces cricket
03 May 99 |  South Asia

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