“I might suggest that if we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team”, said Hillary Clinton in 2010 standing alongside the Afghanistan president, Hamid Karzai as US’ Secretary of State. While not many Americans could relate to these words, cricket fans can hardly disagree.
It has been exactly 11 years today since Afghanistan played their first one-day game with international status and defeated Scotland by a healthy margin of 89 runs. The ODI status came their way only after a 21-run victory against Namibia in the 2009 ICC World Cup Qualifiers - a tournament which would determine who plays the 2011 World Cup in the subcontinent. They missed out on a World Cup spot to Kenya by the barest of margin (on the virtue of net run-rate) but the outcome of the Namibia game ensured their ascendancy to the ODI status.
However, the most astounding aspect about the events of this magical week for Afghanistan cricket was the fact that they did not have a team a decade ago. The Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now Afghanistan Cricket Board) was formed only in 1995 and it was recognized by ICC in 2001 as an Affiliate member. Their exponential rise from absence of a cricket governing body to gaining the ODI status is even more compelling knowing the lack of infrastructure in the country.
Probably no other country has suffered more on social, political and economical grounds in the development of any sport, let alone cricket. The earliest pictures of competitive cricket from Afghanistan show sparse grass in the outfield, improper pitch, unconventional or no bails on top of the stumps and sometimes cattle grazing in the outfield, further testifying Afghanistan’s tussle with its history. And no one endured it more than Taj Malik.
One of the many refugees who seeked shelter across the border in Pakistan during the harsh war-driven times in his native land, Malik was drawn towards cricket at the age of 13 during England’s tour of Pakistan in 1987. He started playing tennis ball cricket with his brothers and set up the Afghan Cricket Club in the refugee camp. It was a pioneering move in structuring the foundation of cricket in the country. Subsequently, ACF was formed in 1995.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Cricket Club featured in the Peshawar leagues gaining valuable experience and also went on to defeat some strong sides letting Pakistan know of the talent their neighbours possess.
Cricket is the only sport of which the Taliban grew tolerance on condition that the players involved should support a beard and offer their prayers on time. While football stayed abolished, Taliban lifted the ban on cricket in 2000. The move opened the gates for the localities to find happiness during the period of hardships. The longing to attain relevance in their own land saw a path to turn into reality.
When Afghanistan was awarded the Affiliate status in 2001, Malik became their first coach. Financially stricken but driven by their love for the game and help from their neighbouring countries, the Afghans turned their refugee camps into training camps to hone their cricket skills touring Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. Eventually, they began defeating the smaller clubs in Pakistan and then other smaller nations in the Asian Cricket Council Council Trophy. In 2006, they crushed a Mike Gatting-led MCC side by 171 runs in Mumbai.
Consequently, their squad was invited to tour England. In addition, Mohammad Nabi, who was man-of-the-match in Afghanistan’s first ODI win in 2009, and Hamid Hassan were granted scholarships to train at Lord’s.
Forming an alliance with the skipper Nawroz Mangal, Malik took Afghanistan to the World Cricket League Division Five in 2008. In a dream run under Mangal, the team crossed the hurdles of Division Five, Division Four and Division Three in less than a year to place themselves in 2009 World Cup Qualifiers in which they played their first ODI. Their victories not only gained them media attention and augmented their funding from ICC, but also inspired a generation of youngsters in Afghanistan to pick up the bat or a ball instead of being driven towards war.
Like most of their young cricketers, Mangal was also spotted by Malik in a refugee camp. Mangal’s father wanted to keep his son away from cricket, deeming the sport as an unfulfilled measure to make a living. Malik travelled to meet his family, stayed overnight pleading with his father and convinced them by the morning to give Afghanistan one of their upcoming heroes.
Fittingly, it was Mangal who gave the finishing touch to Afghanistan’s first ODI victory by taking the final wicket. Sadly, Malik lost his coaching job amidst this golden run as the Afghanistan board desired for a more professional coaching set-up. Malik had no First-Class experience. Entered Kabir Khan, a former international cricketer who represented Pakistan in the 90s. Easily the toughest coaching assignment one can ask for considering the inferior facilities and political circumstances, he took the job to make his father happy. While Khan was born and brought up in Pakistan, his father had emigrated from across the border in 1962.
Khan picked up from where Malik had left, taking charge of the side from the Division Four competition and accomplishing Malik’s dream in subsequent competitions.
Post their ODI success, Afghanistan fulfilled their dream of participating in a World Cup. They won the World T20 Qualifiers in 2010 in Dubai making their way into the World T20 in West Indies.
The country remained affected by war, their cricket team qualified for the 2015 World Cup. On their arrival to the country, gunshots were fired, but this time, in celebration as they returned with their first victory in a World Cup, defeating Scotland. Two years later, they were announced as ICC’s Full member gaining the Test status along with Ireland - in less than two decades since becoming an Affiliate member.
ICC decision to restrict the 2019 World Cup to 10 teams did not come in Afghanistan’s way of playing another World Cup. They marked themselves as one of the top 10 ODI nations of world cricket by winning the World Cup Qualifiers in 2017 to seal their spot . Their star cricketers - Nabi and Rashid Khan - have become household names in T20 leagues around the world including IPL and BBL.
Still, cricketers, despite gaining heroic status, are not exempt from omnipresent danger in the country. Nabi’s father was kidnapped in 2013 and pacer, Shapoor Zadran was attacked by a gunman in 2017. In 2019, an unfortunate bombing incident took place during a cricket match killing eight people.
After achieving so much in such little time, the only ambition which seems like a long-lasting dream is playing in front of their home crowd. Sky has been the limit for Afghanistan cricketers. They have their unwavering determination and love for the game but unfortunately, peace in the country is out of their hands.