The opening few minutes of the documentary Out Of The Ashes show the Afghanistan cricket team training in 2008, preparing for the ICC World Cricket League Division Five tournament in Jersey. Underneath the blue sweaters that the players wear, you can see a few whites peeking out here and there.
The whites are a misfit thought. Afghanistan would don only coloured kit that year, and in their blue came their biggest victories over the next few years. Since then, you can see the uniform (and its inhabitants) changing every year, growing less lumpy and better-fitting (perhaps with the exception of the irrepressible Mohammed Shahzad). The colours have changed too; from a simple blue-with-red to more of the contours that we see today. This is no longer a team that knows only how to hit sixes and bowl bouncers. Their cricket too has more shades to it now.
A decade ago, Afghanistan were playing cricket on an obscure European island that many confused with another continent. Now, as Afghanistan lined up for their team photo at the M Chinnaswamy stadium, you could see that uncommon colour again: white, peeking out under blue. Except this time, the whites belong, sitting without discomfort under their official blue blazer.
This time, at one of world cricket’s iconic venues, Afghanistan belong.
The New Zealand women’s cricket team, the White Ferns, have a flag in their dressing room. It has the signatures of almost all the women who have played for the country in their history, an everyday reminder of those that came before them and the legacy they represent. Afghanistan have no such flag, but these 11 men who will take the field on Thursday know they stand for more.
They stand for the potential of every Associate nation. They stand for a movement that began in the refugee camps in Pakistan, and then spread west, with strangely meteoric enthusiasm. From the first sparks arising in the 1990s among refugees, to their recognition as an ICC Associate in 2001. From ODI status in 2009, to Test status in 2017. If one marvels at the speed with which Afghanistan have achieved Test status, it is vital to remember that cricket in that country could easily have gone the Ireland way, for no fault of their own.
Cricket was among Ireland’s most popular sports in the late 1800s, until a 1901 ban on it and other ‘foreign games’ by the Gaelic Athletic Association set them back. The ban remained in place until as late as 1970, after which Ireland had to rebuild from practically nothing. Cricket in Afghanistan narrowly escaped such a situation, when at the turn of the century, it became almost the only sport to be approved by the Taliban, under whose grip the country then lay. According to the book Second XI, this was because of the sport’s bond with Pakistan, one of the few countries that recognised the Taliban government of the day.
“Sport is a message of peace” says Sherzada Massoud, one of Afghanistan cricket’s early patrons, in Out Of The Ashes. Ironically — and perhaps deliberately — visible in the background is a gun, borne by Massoud’s body guard. And yet cricket has largely sidestepped the violence that has blighted Afghanistan, as if it somehow found the map to the minefield. While black armbands may often be seen on their shirts, often for their relatives or friends, the players themselves are almost universally popular. During the ICC Under-19 World Cup earlier this year, Afghanistan coach Andy Moles was asked if the players’ growing fame put them at risk. “The people who have been causing the issues have stated that cricket is unifying the public and bringing the people together,” he said. There are no false illusions though. Moles travels in an armoured car when in the country.
The Under-19 program gives a good indication of the health of cricket in Afghanistan. They finished fourth in this Under-19 World Cup, making history with their first ever semi-final appearance (their third-place match was washed out, and so they lost out to Pakistan, despite having beaten them in the group stages). They came into the tournament as Asian Champions, and most tellingly, bristled at the suggestion that they were underdogs with nothing to lose. “We are full members, Asia Cup Champions, and proving ourselves at the World Cup. It’s not like we are beating anyone by chance,” declared Naveen-ul-Haq, the captain.
Naveed Sayyem, who was the manager of that team, claimed more than 150,000 players had registered with the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), which is comparable to an established Full Member like New Zealand, where cricket has been played for more than a hundred years. And there were many more, Sayyed said, who were playing unofficially. Accounts from players and officials suggest that cricket has now usurped football as the country’s most popular sport. And with their footprint in the Indian Premier League (IPL) getting bigger, that popularity is only growing. It is taking the ACB from a board that relied on funds from the United States to build their stadium to now freeing even their Under-19s from immediate financial insecurity.
“Perhaps one of the most important achievement of Rashid Khan is that, when he was picked by IPL teams, back home in Afghanistan, fathers who up till then forbade their children from taking up cricket, encouraged them to do so,” said Sayyem in February. “The monetary reward was too good to ignore.” And this is now reflecting in their team: from Mohammed Nabi, who learned the game in a refugee camp in Pakistan, to their latest sensation Mujeeb Ur Rahman, born in Khost, 230 km from Kabul, Afghanistan’s talent is going from borrowed to home-bred.
Perhaps the biggest indication of Afghanistan’s rise has been their changed status in the eyes of India. The former CEO of the ACB Dr Noor Mohammed Murad was reportedly granted “just 10 minutes” with then BCCI president N Srinivasan as recently as 2014. But Afghanistan’s surge into the 2015 World Cup, coupled with a change in regime at the BCCI, meant that the two boards started to view each other more equitably.
In December 2015, the BCCI signed an MOU with the ACB, allowing them to use the Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik ground in Greater NOIDA as their second home. Previously, the Afghanistan team was based in Sharjah; the move allowed the ACB to cut down on the high costs of the Middle East, as well as set base in an environment seeped in cricket. In 2014, the Indian government had provided a $1 million grant to build a stadium in Kandahar, the same place where hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC814 was forced to land in 1999. And the BCCI have now gone so far as to arrange for visiting teams to play against Afghanistan before they play India, possibly depriving their own A teams valuable match practice.
India, the country that partly engineered the 2014 redistribution of ICC income to the detriment of other nations, is now going all out for a country that till very recently was an Associate. Perhaps little tells us more about the true world ranking of the other 'Men In Blue'.