Kabul: At an indoor academy here in Kabul, Afghanistan’s cricketers are training hard for their debut in the upcoming World Cup tournament in Australia and New Zealand next month.
Shuttle runs and lifting weights help keep out the bitter chill of the Afghan winter as the players tune up for the tournament on warmer antipodean shores.
The Afghans’ opening match against Bangladesh in Canberra on February 18 will mark the culmination of a fairy-tale journey for a team born in the ashes of decades of war.
Afghanistan qualified for the last two World Twenty20 tournaments in 2010 and 2012 but lost all their matches, however this will be their first time in the 50-over tournament.
“It really means so much to play in a mega event like the World Cup,” Mohammad Nabi Eisakhil, the team’s 30-year-old captain, wearing a thick jersey and winter hat inside the chilly training facility, told AFP.
Cricket came to Afghanistan through refugee camps in Pakistan, where countless Afghans fled the 1979 Soviet invasion of their homeland.
After learning it in exile, young Afghans brought cricket back with them when the Taliban fell in 2001 and the game has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Afghanistan face a tough fight to get out of their group, which includes Test powerhouses Australia, Sri Lanka, England and New Zealand. Only the top four in each group go through to the knockout stages.
But the side are buoyant after beating Bangladesh in the Asia Cup last year and know the big-name sides will be wary of a possible giant-killing.
“We have a chance, if we play to our potential, to qualify for the quarter-finals,” said Nabi, an off-spinning all-rounder with 43 one-day internationals under his belt.
“This is a game that can bring Afghanistan together and be a very good tool for peace and stability.”
‘We will rock the cup’
The Taliban are gone from power in Afghanistan but their resilient insurgency still exacts a bloody toll, particularly on civilians.
The country’s cricket board chairman Nasimullah Danish agreed with his captain that the game is a good way to inspire the country — and spread a more positive image abroad.
“We will rock the World Cup, all the boys are in confidence,” Danish said.
“We will show to the world that we are cricketers, and we are the people of peace, and we are the people of sports.”
A lack of facilities and security issues have been major challenges for the cricket team, but the Afghans’ wholehearted approach — not to mention their fairy-tale rise — won over many neutrals in their World Twenty20 appearances.
The team’s English head coach Andy Moles, a solid opening batsman for Warwickshire in his playing days, said part of his role was to channel and focus their fearsome competitiveness.
“The overriding factor for my team is their passion and their excitement for the game,” said Moles, who has previously coached Scotland and New Zealand.
“They play very instinctive cricket, and a big point for me is the challenge to get them to stay calm under pressure.”
Moles is realistic about the team’s chances, targeting a win over Bangladesh and saying qualifying for the quarter-finals would be like winning the whole tournament.
For players like Hamid Hassan, the chance to compete in his country’s royal blue shirt at famous stadiums such as Sydney Cricket Ground and the Gabba in Brisbane is an achievement in itself.
“If we (look) back 10 years we had nothing. We are thinking this is like a dream and we feel so proud,” said the 27-year-old bowler, who like many Afghan players picked up the game on the streets of Pakistan.
“We have waited 10 years for this moment,” Hamid added. “I dreamed of playing on the biggest stage and now the time has come to do our best in the tournament.” (AFP)