Cricket’s latest frontier

Afghanistan remains a country in crisis — yet amid the chaos one sport has captivated the nation. Here tells the story of its extraordinary emergence as a force in world cricket.

Despite only just being granted test status, never having played a home international and facing more challenges than any other country in sport, Afghanistan have risen stratospherically in the cricket world. In just 12 years they have climbed from the fifth tier of international cricket (mixing it with the likes of Jersey and Guernsey) to become a significant player. They achieved international status in 2009, qualified for the World T20 in 2010 and took part in their first World Cup in 2015. On the back of this, they were granted Test status in 2017.

Cricket was first played in Afghanistan as far back as 1839, when British troops contested a match in Kabul. However, the colonial legacy didn’t bite, and it took more than 150 years for the game to re-emerge. For many years, the only cricket pitch in the country was at the British embassy, and even that became a car park in the 1980s.

Not long ago, Afghanistan was a cultural powerhouse. However, through its strategic proximity it became a country torn by invasion, war, insurgency and uncertainty from the dawn of the 1970s. This period begun with the collapse of Afghanistan’s monarchy, which created a power vacuum, resulting in a Soviet invasion and the country becoming the landscape for the cold war to manifest.

This led to the rise of the Taliban and an exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the US. The country’s fraught journey is brilliantly illustrated in Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 masterpiece The Kite Runner.In the wake of 9/11, the Taliban’s emergence and the country becoming a hotbed for al-Qaeda (and then Isis) led to British and US intervention. British troops finally withdrew in 2014 (although 500 still remain), while US forces are very much still present on the ground.

Against this backdrop, the rise of cricket in Afghanistan is all the more extraordinary, especially when you consider that the game used to be illegal. In fact, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) was founded abroad, in Pakistan in 2005, due to the Taliban’s prohibition of all recreational sport. The origin of its popularity comes largely from being introduced in refugee camps in Pakistan, as the country lurched from one conflict to the next. Rwanda is undergoing a very similar experience, as displaced populations (from the horrendous genocide against the Tutsi tribe) have fallen in love with the game from refuge in Kenya.

It all began to change for Afghanistan in 2000, when the Taliban relaxed their rules on recreation and allowed cricket to be played. Quite incredible, really, when you consider that reading literature was still prohibited at the time. In 2001, the ACF (Afghanistan Cricket Federation) became an affiliate of the ICC and the national team was invited to play in Pakistan’s domestic competition.

Cricket quickly became the fastest-growing sport in the country, with the development of 320 clubs. Now 32 provinces have a cricket team who play within five playing regions, each region with 4-10 provincial teams; 11 of the provinces have their own cricket stadium. The development has been supported extensively by third parties, not least by the MCC and numerous UK private donors (introduced via Afghanistan connections), who have supported grassroots cricket for more than 100,000 children in 22 provinces. More than 100 pitches have been built since 2008.

October saw the conclusion of the sixth edition of Afghanistan’s domestic T20 competition, the Shpageeza Cricket League, held in Kabul. The recent edition was the first since 2017, when the tournament had to overcome a bombing halfway through, killing three people at a checkpoint outside a stadium. They completed the tournament, but it was then suspended in 2018.

However, it returned to huge acclaim and success this year with all the centrally contracted players involved, alongside the best domestic players and a few overseas stars (such as Brendan Taylor of Zimbabwe), spread across six teams contesting the title. Mis-E Ainak Knights were crowned champions. They were fittingly led by the legend Mohammad Nabi, who, in his 15-year international career, has played at every stage of the Afghanistan journey. To pull off the event in a city that has insurgent and terrorist challenges at every turn is a triumph in itself. Its successful delivery has brought the vision of staging a first international at home one step closer.

Back in England, October also saw the inaugural draft of the Hundred, the ECB’s answer to the Big Bash and IPL, which takes place next year. At the front and centre of those snapped up were a host of Afghan players, with the number one pick being Afghanistan captain Rashid Khan. As the first player to be drafted he is likely to be the tournament’s most valuable asset, alongside Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Qais Ahmad and Nabi, who were all selected.

“Afghanistan cricket has really blossomed in recent years after many years of hard work behind the scenes at the ACB,” says Tom Harwood of Insignia Sports, who represents Afghanistan cricketers including Rashid Khan, Hazratullah Zazai and Javed Ahmadi. “The skill level of these players is right up there with the best in the world and they are getting recognition for those skills by way of worldwide playing opportunities that weren’t previously attainable.

To be able to assist a few of the Afghanistan players with such opportunities and watching them mix it with the best makes us very proud.”Cricket writer Tim Wigmore, the co-author of Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution, tells me: “Afghanistan have been leading beneficiaries of the democratisation of cricket.

Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi were the first players to go from the associate circuit to the IPL when they were drafted in 2017. Their success has encouraged other franchises around the world to look to other talent from emerging nations, including a number of other Afghan players, and players from Nepal and the USA too.”

It’s not just the short form of cricket that has developed in the country. Afghanistan beat Pakistan in the build-up to the World Cup, and they were within a whisker of toppling India in the tournament itself. Then, in only their third Test match, they completely dismantled Bangladesh in their own back yard in Chattogram. It was a remarkable victory against a Bangladesh team that had lost just one Test series at home in the past four years.

Having witnessed and called the game at first hand, two things struck me. Firstly, the Afghan players were completely unfazed by playing against one of the most experienced sides on the circuit, in only their third Test, having only limited first-class experience. Secondly, all the players – especially Rashid Khan – were treated like gods by the Bangladeshi public, despite being the away side.

It’s incredible that in the harshest, most impossible conditions, Afghanistan have achieved such great international success and public adoration. They have some of the most valued talent on the circuit and continue to thrive. For the romantic, it is the ultimate underdog story.

Johnny Barran is a cricket presenter and commentator.

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