“Hamare bhi khwaab hain (we have dreams too),” says Mohammad Nabi, his voice mirroring the excitement of the chatter behind him in Johannesburg. “Ab tak hamara watan sirf jang ke liye mashoor tha, now we are giving our country a chance to be known as a place where children can play too. Cricket, for us, for our people, is much more than sport. It’s about hope.”
Nabi, an off-spinner and hard-hitting middle order bat, is part of the Afghanistan cricket team, a band of talented young men who have defied convention and the naysayers, unbelievable hardships and the rigours of refugee camps, to come towards the end of what could be an extraordinary journey. Or, perhaps the beginning.
On April 1, when Afghanistan meet Denmark on Day One of the ICC World Cup qualifiers in South Africa, they will do so realising they are one step away from what most would have thought an impossibility — playing the cricket World Cup. If they finish among the top four of the 12 teams in the fray, they will be here in India for the 2011 World Cup. If they make even the top six, you could be watching an India vs Afghanistan one-day game in the near future.
It’s a fairytale to beat all fairytales. Unlike India or Pakistan, Afghanistan has no cricketing pedigree, no facilities and in a country ripped apart by continuous war; till recently, it had no support. The success story of this team, which has won various levels of qualifying events in Jersey, Tanzania and Argentina to get to South Africa, has changed all that.
Nurooz Mangal, the 24-year-old skipper, the only survivor from the team established and then disbanded under the Taliban regime, acknowledges that fact. “What is different now from then is our self-belief, every step we’ve taken brings us greater glory, bigger dreams, and a chance to show our people that we have more to look forward to than war.”
Unlike Mangal, most of the players learnt their cricket in refugee camps in and around Peshawar. Fast bowler Hamid Hassan, who reportedly bowls at over 140kmph consistently, grew up there after his family moved from Nangrahar in 1991-92 to avoid the armed conflict.
Ditto for Nabi, who says his family moved there from Logar “at the start of the Russian war”. But unlike Hasan, he doesn’t see himself ever going home to Logar. “One day perhaps,” he says, “But it’s not safe there now.” Logar, incidentally, has been a stronghold for various jehadi groups including the Jamaat for years, even referred to by locals as the “Gates of jehad” during the fight against Soviet occupation. For now though, home for Nabi’s family is in Nangrahar district, where there are over 200 registered cricket clubs.
Team manager Sayed Shah Aminzai believes a good finish in South Africa will do incredible things for the morale of the people of his war-torn country.
“It’s a great responsibility, for they are a symbol of hope. We’ve had so many internal wars, other major feuds, not much success in any field, leave alone sport. These boys have made us believe again, have faith that there is a better, brighter world out there, one within our grasp.”