The anguish is understandable. The gut-wrenching loss aside, Afghanistan is the story and the hero of the 2023 World Cup. Captain Hashmatullah Shahidi’s men scalped England, setting the defending champion on a slide like never before. They swept aside 1996 winner Sri Lanka. And they spanked Pakistan for the first time in ODIs. The triumph sparked street dancing in the quake-wounded nation. With Pakistan forcing out lakhs of Afghan refugees recently, the celebrations were political too. “Beating Pakistan was our World Cup,” says Sayed.
Politics and cricket have always gone hand in hand in the strife-torn country. The game was first played there by British soldiers during the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1839. But the country took to the sport more recently. Many learnt it in frontier refugee camps of Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. And again, during the first round of Taliban rule (1996-2001) that prompted more fleeing. When the refugees returned, they brought the game with them. “The Taliban let us play cricket if we followed Sharia law. You were okay if you had a beard and prayed on time,” recalls former captain Nawroz Mangal in the documentary, “Out of the Ashes”, a fascinating account of the team’s WC qualifiers in 2008.
Afghanistan’s swift rise in cricket is incredible and heartwarming. The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) was set up in 1995. But the game leapt into the popular imagination in the last decade or so. In ODIs, it is currently ranked 9 – one above the two-time champions West Indies. Their reputation grew after a series of unlikely T20 wins, such as beating eventual champions the West Indies in the 2016 World Cup and overcoming Pakistan in the Hangzhou Asian Games this year. But the wins at the ongoing ODI WC, including those against Sri Lanka and the Netherlands, underline that Afghanistan has truly arrived in white-ball cricket. This is Afghanistan 2.0.
The mushrooming of T20 leagues globally, where Afghanistan’s best ply their craft, has aided this elevation. In a country where, not long ago, bomb blasts and rocket attacks were part of everyday life, cricket isn’t just a balm for miseries or a booster of national pride; it is also a rare provider of positive role models and a genuine avenue of upward social mobility. Take the case of Noor Ahmad. Only 18, his left arm wrist spin has earned plaudits and millions in T20 Leagues in India, Australia, the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and elsewhere.
The domestic infrastructure is improving. The ACB website shows cricket grounds coming up in seven places, including Khost and Kandahar. The domestic league shows the game’s increasing expansion. As per the 2022 ACB annual report, for instance, the Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Provincial Grade II Tournament was played between 29 provincial teams. The event was conducted across three venues involving 485 players. Shafiq Sayedi from Herat, who’s earned a PhD in international law, says that while earlier the game was mostly played by Pashtoons, now Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks too have taken to it.
Salar Sayed, a Rashid Khan fan based in Delhi, shows his hero’s photo on Instagram
INDIA A MENTOR
Pakistan’s cricket board played a vital part in helping early Afghan cricket. In recent years, India has played a major role. Cricketers such as Rashid Khan, Mohd Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rehman, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Noor Ahmad, Naveen ul Haq – have all honed their skills in IPL. When Sunrisers Hyderabad bought Rashid for Rs 4 crore in 2017, it immediately became the favourite IPL team of Afghans. India has 13,078 registered refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, as per UNHCR 2023 statistics. Greater Noida, Dehradun and Lucknow have served as Afghanistan’s home grounds.
STAR FROM NANGARHAR
Now Rashid is a superstar in world cricket. He was key to Gujarat Titans’ IPL triumph last year. Back home, the cricketer from Nangarhar province is everybody’s idol. Rashid has 8.6 million followers on Instagram. One of them is 28-yearold Samir Saifi, a waiter in Afghan Darbar, a restaurant in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi. “He is our biggest star,” says Saifi, who’s from Kunduz in north Afghanistan. When Australia withdrew from a series protesting Taliban’s anti-women policies, Rashid threatened to pull out of BBL, Australia’s version of IPL. “Cricket the only hope for the country. Keep politics out of it,” he posted. On X, where Rashid has 1.9 million followers, he crowd sourced over £41,000 in donations for the recent Herat earthquake victims. “Our team is on the ground assisting victims,” he said.
In Tuesday’s game against Australia, Rashid was at his swashbuckling best, blitzing 35 off 18 balls and taking 2/44 off 10 overs. As the evening unfolded, Afghanistan was in dreamland. A majority at Wankhede and the rest of India rooted for captain Shahidi and his inspired men. Until Maxwell produced the greatest white-ball innings of all time.
Now Afghanistan’s future hinges on run-rate and miracles. Saifi wants to know the possibilities for a place in the semis. But like others, he is happy that the team gave its 100%. “We will win the World Cup someday,” he hopes.
Hope matters. As Andy tells his friend Red in The Shawshank Redemption, (1994), “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”