Cricket was invented in England nearly two centuries ago, but, unlike football, rugby and golf, didnâ€™t reach many countries around the world. Afghanistan, a country ravished by war and poverty, have very few national teams, but now their 17-man squad is just seven matches away from reaching the world stage at the ICC Cricket World Cup in South Africa in three years time.
Yesterday the side beat Denmark by 5 wickets in their opening match of the 12-team tournament, the top four sides all progressing to the Finals in 2011. Although none of the sides in the tournament have the show-stopping talents of Australia or South Africa, many of the nations have been playing cricket for well over 50 years, almost 30 more than their Middle-Eastern opponents. Afghan cricketâ€™s history is not long to say the least - The Soviet invasion in 1979 caused many people from the Pashtun province to flee the country across their Eastern border to their cricket-mad neighbours, Pakistan. Here the refugees played cricket amongst the tents in the barren fields, sparking a long-lost enthusiasm for a game played and loved by millions around the world.
On returning to their home country after the Soviet rule collapsed, cricket had the potential to spread through the country. Unfortunately for the sport, it was banned by the Taliban until 2000, but the NATO invasion in 2001 forced many people to re-cross the border into Pakistan, stimulating the nationâ€™s forgotten appetite for cricket. Now, less than a decade later, the sport has taken off in unimaginable ways. Although most players are from the Pashtun region, reports from the under-19 trials are very positive that the future of Afghani cricket is strong.
A Gatting-lead MCC side endured a humiliating 171-run defeat at the hands of the young Afghanistan side in 2005, prompting an English tour for the side. Gatting was so impressed by two young cricketers â€“ Hamed Hassan and Mohammad Nabi, who scored an undefeated 116 â€“ that they have since been invited onto the Lordsâ€™ groundstaff. In the preceding three years, the team has played seventeen other matches, winning fifteen of them. This lucrative streak has captivated audiences back in towns and villages, and although grounds are rudimentary and run down, cricket has become extremely popular. To see a country so torn with conflict and corruption, a sporting augmentation such as this might just lift the people and inspire the younger generation. Although the side have seven more long and heated matches to play before they can progress, this is just the latest step on the journey for the new recruits. Starting off on weed-strewn, mud and sand pitches in their home country, they soon ended up travelling to Argentina to play other youthful international sides. Further progression saw a tour to the scenic and sandy beaches of Tanzania, before their final destination for qualification, South Africa.
Work has just been completed on their first national cricket stadium in Kabul, stands looming over the old Ghazi Stadium which used to be used for public executions. Perhaps this serves as an effective juxtaposition of the old regime vs the new, and an appearance against England in the World Cup Final in 2011 can broker peace throughout the country.