Shapoor Zadran after Afghanistan beat Scotland in the cricket World Cup 2015 - copyright AFP, Pix courtesy ESPNcricinfo

“Everywhere we go-o

People want to know-o

Who we are, where we come from

So we tell them, we are the Afghans

Mighty, mighty Afghans”

Theme chant of Afghan cricket fans, World Cup 2015

Earlier this June, Afghanistan drew a match in an Intercontinental Cup fixture in Scotland; the tournament winner earns a play-off to be the 12th Test playing country – the cricket equivalent of playing a tennis Grand Slam tournament. Reaching this stage is itself remarkable story of a war-ruined country having a 350-year old game offering hope amid dark decades of death and devastation.

“Taliban like cricket, I am cricketer,” declared Shapoor Zadran in his brand of English, “Taliban no attack cricketer.”  Forget about attacking cricketers, cricket is the only sport the Taliban have allowed in Afghanistan.

Earlier this summer, the Taliban joined in cheering the Afghan team in the World Cup that Australia and New Zealand co-hosted in February-March, 2015. Zadran and Co. won hearts, expectedly, and less expectedly made history with their first ever win in a World Cup match, beating the more fancied Scotland in Dunedin.

Zadran hit the winning runs in a close one-wicket win, and soon after provided one of the enduring iconic images of the World Cup: he raced to the band of the travelling Afghan supporters, fell on his knees, hands upraised, his eyes shouting to the skies, a warrior saluting the triumph of his life. For this, he will be welcomed in the Elysian Fields.

Shapoor Zadran after Afghanistan beat Scotland in the cricket World Cup 2015 – copyright AFP, Pix courtesy ESPNcricinfo

Such is the story of cricket in Afghanistan, the stuff of sagas and Hollywood blockbusters, of clean sport inspiringly transforming battered lives.  Shapoor Zadran would be the more heroic Afghan version of Jackie Robison and Brooklyn Dodgers in ‘42’, a ‘Cindrella Man’ or ‘Invictus’.  His doughty team mates Samiullah Shenwari, Hamid Hassan, Mohammad Nabi, Dawlat Zadran, Javed Ahmad and Nawroz Mangal are among other “mighty, mighty Afghans” that no opponent takes lightly.

Afghan cricketers like Shapoor Zadran come from a background no country or cricketer would want. Keeping nerves during high pressure of a World Cup cricket match? Try dodging rockets, grenades and drone attacks in a Sunday afternoon fighting for life at home in Logar.

Well over six feet tall, the giant Shapoor Zadran was born in 1987 in Logar, meaning ‘Great Mountain’ in Pashto language. An eastern Afghanistan province, Logar was brutalized in the Afghan war against Soviets. “Everywhere in the Logar province the most common sight except for ruins are graves”, wrote Swedish journalist Borge Almqvist in 1982.  The Soviet occupying army was accused of genocide in Logar, using inflammable liquids to burn people alive, poisoning water and burning their crops. After the Soviets left, the Taliban took over. And now cricket has taken over.

About twenty years after Afghan refugees began playing cricket in Pakistan, Zadran and his team mates have become heroes, real life role models for a long-suffering country searching for peace. They are mobbed in the streets of Kabul, sign autographs, endorse products, have sponsors, they travel the world as proud sporting ambassadors of a nation of warriors. And through cricket, they earn a livelihood sufficient enough to never again worry about their families having a square meal and safe place to stay.

“The Great Game” was the famous name historians gave to Russia and Britain bitterly fighting each other to gain control over strategically situated Afghanistan. Now “the Great Game” in Afghanistan is called cricket.

In cricket, thousands of young Afghans have found battles can be well waged with willow (tree from which cricket bats are made), not war. “The game of cricket in Afghanistan today provides excitement and happiness for millions of Afghans across the country,” says the Afghanistan cricket board website. “Today domestic cricket involves millions of people who are enjoying and participating in the game as players and as supporters”. Out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, 32 provinces compete in provincial and regional cricket tournaments.

The Taliban, readily villain in any pantomime, plays the hero in this great game. The Taliban had actually negotiated Afghanistan’s official entry into the International Cricket Council (ICC), the global governing body. Afghanistan, granted official one-day international (ODI) status in 2014, is one of 12 ODI teams in the world. The Taliban-backed ICC member is ranked 12th in the latest ODI rankings, but only three rating points behind Zimbabwe (44 points), a country that has played nine world cups and international cricket for over four decades. Mr. Ripley would have said, “I don’t believe this.”

Afghan refugees in Pakistan formed the Afghanistan Cricket Federation in 1995. “When they returned home, the refugees continued to play cricket,” says the official history of Afghan cricket. “Like all sports, cricket was originally banned by the Taliban, but became the exception in 2000 becoming the only sport in Afghanistan to be approved by the Taliban regime”.  The Afghanistan Cricket Federation, returning to Afghanistan, became an affiliate member of ICC in 2001. “Remarkably, it was the Taliban regime which negotiated this membership,” acknowledge Afghan cricket administrators. “Later, in 2003, Afghanistan became a member of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC).”

Cricketing infrastructure was built with friendly donors. The Kabul Cricket Stadium, home of Afghan cricket, was constructed with funds by USAID, and opened in 2011.

The Kabul stadium symbolized the long journey Afghanistan and its cricketers made in a decade. The first ‘changing room’ Afghanistan cricket team had was a damaged helicopter. “We used to sit inside that grounded helicopter because it used to rain all the time,” said media manager Bashir Stanikzai, in probably the most remarkable interview given during the World Cup. “Now, we have a stadium there.”

Raja Murthy is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He occasionally blogs in Morning Light.

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