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Awestruck by Afghan ability

By Deepti Patwardhan
March 27, 2006 17:16 IST
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On Thursday, the Police Gymkhana ground in Mumbai played host to a unique game of cricket that manifested the two disparate faces of the game.

Afghanistan CRicket teamThe first was that of the clean-shaven, professional lot, representing the oldest club in the game's history, which until recenrtly was the caretaker of cricket. Their players came from recognised universities or the oldest counties, which receive the best of facilities and coaching.

The second wanted to thwart all those rules in a single afternoon.

For a people who have been witness to voilence all their life, the cricket ground was just another warfield. The gun, which has long been their strking symbol for the world, gave way to the bat looking to make a dent.

There were no coaches on board, no stadiums back home to find shelter, and yet the unpolished gems emerging from the barren and hilly Afghan land found a way to pound the Marylebone Cricket Club XI. The burly Afghans created havoc with the bat, slamming 356 for seven in 39 overs and then came back to bowl out MCC XI for a mere 184 runs.

Not only was it a memorable result for the young team from Afghanistan, it also showed how far the game had travelled from its English roots.

Cricket in Afghanistan is still a new pheonomenon. It is played in the country since 1992 and the governing body -- Afghanistan Cricket Federation -- was founded in 1995 by Allah Dad Noori. But the game really took flight in the hilly country after the demise of the Taliban regime and the help by the British forces in the region.

"During the Taliban only four provinces used to play cricket," says Raees Khan Jaji, the manager of the team and Afghanistan's youngest elected member of parliament.

"But now, out of the total 32, 22 provinces play cricket. We have very string teams in the under-17 and under-19 group also."

Afghanistan finished runners-up amongst 16 teams in the U-15 Asian Cricket Council Trophy, and their under-17 team created a record by dismissing Brunei for 11 runs after piling a score of 357 in an ACC Trophy game in  Malaysia.

Jaji, who has been a part of the ACF since its inception, says that there is a lot of natural talent in Afghanistan which is only waiting to make a dent in world cricket.

"Most of us come from the villages of Afghanistan. The players are strong and have the ambition to go a long way. They have the financial and emotional support of the families so that they dedicate all the time to cricket. The government takes good care of the people there, so we don't have to work anywhere else and distract ourselves from the game."

Cricket also has a well-wisher in Shah Zada Masood, the president of the ACF, who is also an advisor on tribal affairs to the Hamid Karzai govenment.

"We don't have coaches but all of us watch a lot of television, says Karim Sadiq, the wicketkeeper of the team, who has also played grade II cricket in Hyderabad.

Sadiq, the most outspoken and well-travelled of the lot, says he would have played for India if Mahendra Singh Dhoni hadn't come in earlier.

"Our boys see Dhoni and (Virender) Sehwag hit fours and sixes and they think if they can, why can't we. If Dhoni and Sehwag can hit sixes surely the Afghans can!"

It is clearly the exciting cricketers of the world that catch their eye. All the youngsters want to model themselves on the Sehwags, Flintoffs and Shoaib Akhtars of the game. They want to bat fast and bowl faster. What's more, having learnt most of the skills from training camps in Pakistan, they are picking up the finer nuances too.

In the game against the MCC XI, their batsmen may have stolen the show but the strong pace attack made a bigger impact.

"Two, three of them were getting reverse swing consistently. Its difficult to play when the ball is reversing at more than 80 (mph)," says Sameer Patel of the MCC XI. Patel was bowled by the most promising of the brigade, Hamid Abib, who is believed to clock more than 150 kmph.

Afghanistan signed on as an affiliate member of the ICC in June 2001. They were promised a fund of US $ 70,000 by the ICC but have only received US $ 21,000 in the last four years.

Similarly, the team is also disappointed over broken promises by the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

"Mr. (Jagmohan) Dalmiya had told me that they would build a stadium in Afghanistan but he didn't do anything about it. He also said that he would bring the Indian team to Afghanistan for a friendly game. But none of these promises have been delivered.

"Whereas the Pakistan Cricket Board has helped us a lot. They arrange for 15-day, 20-day training camps for our cricketers," explains Jaji.

Peshawar has seen lots of Afghans migrate into Pakistan, while Khost, which also lies on the border has emerged the cricket capital of Afghanistan.

Already Afghanistan is one of the most promising countries in the Asian second-tier, having beaten teams like the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Nepal. The agression and suppressed ambition will only take it further.

If the game against MCC XI was an indication, Afghanistan's emergence could bring in an exciting brand of cricket. Their game is about the rush of blood, which leaves the audience enthralled.

Mike Gatting was out for zero and an unknown Mohammed Nabi slammed 116. On that muggy but enigmatic afternoon, cricket brought their diverse worlds together under a tacky shamiana. Nabi is not fluent in English and Gatting may not understand Pashtun or Urdu, but all it needed was a shake of hand to appreciate each other.

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Deepti Patwardhan

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