Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Cricket: No boundaries to growth

Before the World T20, "Afghanistan" was better known in cricketing terms as a nickname given to Australian Mark Waugh.

Waugh received the moniker in reference to what is sometimes known as "the forgotten war" of 1979 when Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union. It reflected brother Steve's dominance over his younger twin until Mark began playing internationally in 1988.

Now Afghanistan has another cricketing meaning. It has become a synonym for courage and resourcefulness, gleaned from the national team's efforts in qualifying for and playing at the World T20.

They have experienced a meteoric rise to one of the sport's biggest stages despite coming from a war-torn land.

They had the cheek to challenge cricket powerhouse India last week in Colombo, losing by just 23 runs chasing a target of 160. They ran out of puff against England to lose by 116 runs, yet few more uplifting stories will emerge from this tournament.

Afghanistan were a team in division five on the International Cricket Council's playing tier ladder just four years ago. They only made the World T20 by finishing second to Ireland at the qualifying tournament in March. Solid one-day international performances against Australia and Pakistan this year have enhanced their credibility.

They're tracking towards test status thanks to the investment of around $900,000 a year by the ICC which, according to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, has helped offer national contracts to players and replace their four Kabul nets with a 15,000-capacity stadium. Another quality ground is in the city of Jalalabad.

Some might have expected a demolition when Afghanistan met India, a country which hosts the sport's most lucrative Twenty20 league. Afghanistan had other ideas. Venomous bowling and batting flair meant they competed until late.

Pace bowler Dawlat Zadran looked lethal at times taking the ball to and from batsmen, while opening batsman Mohammad Shahzad - a replica David Boon in build and approach - showed a cavalier instinct going for his shots. His dispatch of Zaheer Khan to the mid wicket boundary with a "helicopter" shot must surely have impressed the shot's creator, MS Dhoni, behind the stumps.

AFGHANISTAN'S PROGRESSION to cricket has been less natural than in other subcontinental countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. They never experienced the same influence of Britain as a colonial power like the other four countries, albeit in various national guises.

Afghanistan became part of what was known as "The Great Game" of British imperialism through the 19th century. Britain felt threatened by the Russian empire's expansion into central Asia, fearing "their" India could be a target. Afghanistan was seen as a possible base camp where Russian troops could prepare to launch. British troops spent time in Afghanistan but never for a sustained period that enabled cricket to take hold.

Instead, cricket flourished in Pakistani refugee camps after the 1979 Soviet invasion. That is how Taj Malik, the original Afghan team coach and motivator from 2001-08, got his start. His father was an anti-Soviet mujahideen which saw his family move to Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. Now 37, he took up the game aged 12. He tried to imitate Imran Khan using make-shift bats and a taped ball.

In fact, many members of the current team were introduced to cricket when they heard the celebratory gunshots in the refugee camps when Pakistan, led by Imran, won the World Cup in 1992.

After the Hamid Karzai government came to power in November 2001, Malik approached the Afghanistan Olympic Committee seeking to set up a cricket federation.

Speaking to Dubai newspaper The National in 2008, Malik said they didn't support it at first: "They said: 'This is a Pakistani game, it won't develop here. People should not waste their time.' But in 2002, the Pakistan Cricket Board gave us the chance to play in their domestic tournament. It was a good experience. It was the first time we had played at proper grounds, with a hard ball and umpires."

Former Pakistan international Kabir Khan has since taken over as coach while Malik has allegedly disappeared to pursue life as a Muslim mullah but his legacy remains thanks to British journalist Tim Albone.

Albone originally wrote an article on Afghanistan cricket when working in Kabul. That led to a book and 2010 documentary called Out of the Ashes when he followed the team for two years as they battled to better their international status.

Speaking of the experience, Albone said he was amazed by the welcome. As a complete stranger, the team let him into their changing room, onto the team bus and into their hotels. The result: Afghanistan is now established in world cricket.

BEFORE THE United States' 2001 invasion, playing cricket under the Taleban reign was daunting. The Australian newspaper noted the restrictions in a February article written by renowned cricket author Gideon Haigh.

He said the Taleban "prohibited any cheer at sporting events other than 'Allah Akbar' (God is great) [although] cricket's identification with moderation and reserve appealed to their straitening instincts, as did the players' full body covering. The Taleban supported the Afghanistan Cricket Federation's 2001 push for ICC affiliate membership."

Haigh said the Taleban even sent a message of goodwill to the national team ahead of their February ODI against Pakistan.

Despite the ongoing war, cricket has become an accepted part of Afghan culture. Haigh says during the Taleban era, cricket numbers could be counted in scores; it's estimated there are now 80,000 active players, including women.

Through their own resolve, Afghanistan could be proof it is possible to become a new test nation despite the damage of war. A bit like Mark Waugh, they're unlikely to be forgotten.

Andrew Alderson flew to the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka courtesy of Emirates Airline (www.emirates.com/nz).

- Herald on Sunday

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