Afghan Border Patrol soldier in Sarkani district, Kunar Province, Dec. 12, 2009. US Army photo posted on Flickr.
Just ten years ago cricket was illegal in Afghanistan. Today, it's considered something of a saviour in the war torn country after the national team went from 90th place to the world's top twenty.
It's a dream for any cricket team to reach the ICC World Twenty20 competition (the International Cricket Council's world cup), but for the Afghanistan cricket team, the opportunity to play India was all the sweeter. Afghan cricket didn't officially exist until 2000 when the Taliban finally lifted the ban, on the grounds that players got regular breaks for prayer time.
Two years ago they were playing the likes of mediocre teams like Japan and Vanuatu, now they have sky-rocketed through the ranks to take on some of the titans of cricket. Although they did not beat India, their very presence in the tournament is a success story.
The majority of the team learnt their skills in the refugee camps on the Pakistani border in the 1990s, and there are still no professional grounds in the country. This story of the underdog struggling against the odds is the stuff of films, and sure enough the previews of a documentary on the team's newfound acclaim were aired at the Edinburgh Film Festival a few weeks ago. "Out of the Ashes" traces the twists and turns of this extraordinary story over two years.
But this spate of publicity is not just about international achievements; their journey has led to a reinvigoration of the sport within Afghanistan. The first provincial tournament in May and June this year attracted 20,000 people from around the country and was broadcast live on TV, another form of entertainment banned under the Taliban.
"People used to think of it as a Pashtun-only sport, but now the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazara are all getting involved"
Tawab Zafarzai, a life-long cricket fan, is manager of Afghanistan's under-16s team, currently on tour in Malaysia.
Cricket means more to the Afghan people than any other sport. It has a long history in our country, but this is especially true in the last two years. Men, women and in particular young people are all now fans! It is not an exaggeration to say it is a path to national unity. Everyone is so proud of the national team!
This pride has also filtered down to a local level. When we had the provincial tournament in Kabul, 24 teams were involved. Previously, many people thought it a sport of the Pashtuns only, but this time, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazara all got involved. It was great to see so many people gather in Kabul for cricket.
However, we don't really have the facilities to host tournaments. There are two projects to build proper facilities, one in Kabul to be funded by CARE and one in Jalalabad funded by local businesses. It is good the government and NGOs are recognising what a powerful tool this could be for strengthening our society. Although we do need greater security too.
I learnt to play cricket in Peshawar [Pakistan] as a boy, just like 95% of the national team, playing 'street cricket'. But it would be great to see a growth in the sport within Afghanistan. Who knows, perhaps one day we will even beat our rivals in the region: India and Pakistan!"
Playing 'street cricket', the majority of the national team learnt this way in the refugee camps of Pakistan.
Photo by Jayne Cravens on Flickr.
Children playing cricket in the forest. Photo posted on Flickr by dj.horton.
Street cricket in Peshawar, Pakistan, where many Afghans learn to play cricket. Video by "uqashqat" on YouTube.