The South Asia Channel

The batsman

The batsman

This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

Name: Dost Mohammad

Age: 24

Ethnicity: Pashtun

Province: Parwan

When not working out at Kabul’s cricket academy, Dost Mohammad is working in his father’s shop, selling clothes and trinkets, knockoffs from Asia of brands from Europe. And when he’s not at the family store, he’s playing more cricket — pick-up games with neighborhood boys, practicing his bowling or his special kind of batting. The cricket academy is almost lush by Kabul standards, with a well-manicured grass field surrounded by a grandstand. But the field across the street, where Mohammad does his extra practice, is harsh. There’s no grass, just hard-packed dust that pounds his joints and kicks up into his lungs, and there’s no respite from the sun, which is strongest at midday when Mohammad tends to be there. 

Kabul is a city that could be planned for the express purpose of punishing athletes. At 6,000 feet above sea level, the air is thin and heavily polluted, not just because there are so many vehicles and no enforced emission standards, but because there is so much dust that carries all kinds of pollutants. Grass and shade are scarce because during the communist regime, trees were cut down so the mujahideen couldn’t hide in them, and with few trees to provide relief from the sun and roots to hold moisture, the city’s plant life was defenseless against drought, which eventually, inevitably, struck.

Mohammad is thin and not immediately identifiable as an athlete, but when he begins to move at practice, he reveals a sinewy kind of strength; he is able to wind his body up and release it with tremendous force. To see him bowl from up close is to witness a kind of violence, his body unfurling, dust rising around him, and the ball leaving his arm like a rifle shot. To those like me, uninitiated to the game of cricket, he is a walking testament to the fact that this is not just a game for old, slow socialites.  And as Afghanistan begins to make a name for itself in international sports — winning a South Asian soccer tournament against India in September and qualifying earlier this month for the 2015 cricket world cup — Mohammad hopes he’ll make the national cricket team and become part of the movement.  

The following are the words of Dost Mohammad, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern 

I was around 7 to 9 years old when I started watching cricket on the TV. We were living in Pakistan, and I was eagerly watching India and Pakistan play each other. It was my dream to be a good cricketer. At that time, Afghanistan did not have a cricket team.

Cricket is the game of power, because the ball is very heavy — about a kilogram (2.2 pounds). It needs a lot of power to bowl it. Batting is my favorite, but it is very difficult. If you miss the ball, you get injured, because it is very heavy. You have to concentrate when the bowler bowls.

There are some batsmen legends, like Tendon Karen and Parok Pandi. They have the ability to push the ball and move their feet at the same time. They have the ability to face 130, 140 kilometers/hour. Only the really good players can do that.

In Afghanistan, we have trials once a year. There are four to five coaches and one from Pakistan. They are experts in the field of cricket. They examine the players. I didn’t know it was happening until my friend said, "Today is the last day of the cricket trial!" And they encouraged me: "You have to go, you have to go!" So I rushed over, I filled out the form — name, there you put your father’s name, there you put your picture — and went to the field. But I hadn’t brought my own equipment, my bat, helmet, I had to borrow from someone else.

The coach says that he wants to bowl you the short pitch. You have to play it. If you can’t do it, it means you failed. And then the coach tells you that the bowler will bowl you in the feet. The ball comes this way. He told me that I have to cut that way. Then he told me another way.  That day I faced 10 or 12 bowls.

More than 10,000 people came from 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and to most of them, the coach said "You are not able to join." When I found out I made it, it was amazing. 

Now that we’re practicing to make the national team, we have four sessions in a day. They go from 5 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening. My session is the second. There are about 120 players. We have fast ballers, slow ballers, spin ballers. All of them are working very hard to join, but maybe just five people will make it.

***

When we came from Pakistan, it was the first period of Hamid Karzai. There were few American troops, and all of Afghanistan was secure. When the amount of foreigners increased, the situation in Afghanistan got worse.

It is my own thought, but I think that the main reason the situation is getting worse is the foreigners. They are not doing well. To be very honest, I wish them to leave and to join their families in their own countries, because many of them lost their lives in Afghanistan.

But I don’t think that they will leave Afghanistan, because they spent a lot of money here. They came here for their own aim. Some of them might leave Afghanistan, but not all of them.

I am not happy with the presence of ISAF and others in Afghanistan because they have done many bad things in some parts of the country, like Kandahar and Helmand. Most of the people say that about five or six years ago, there was some security in that part of Afghanistan, but when these troops came, the security situation got worse day by day.

You know, during the night they just go to the villages, without any reason, and search the women. Afghan people are very — I mean they don’t let other women touch their women. Now foreign soldiers come to touch their women.

And also, there are a lot of reasons that the foreign troops have bad attitudes. If you take an example from Kabul — when they leave their base, they do not allow other people to go near their cars. It is a big problem, they’re causing traffic jams. If someone wants to go close to them, I have seen many people get shot. When I was in Bagram, there was a person who had some urgent work and wanted to arrive quickly, and when he got close to the tank, they shot him.

There are a lot of people that have no relation or connection with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but the foreign troops just collect them and put them into jail. And they spend 10 years in Bagram or somewhere.

And I’m not worried about the Taliban. We had a football match between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have you watched that? I saw on the news, there were three or four people who came from Kandahar, or maybe it was Herat. They wanted to come to Kabul to watch the football game, and the Taliban stopped the car. The Taliban was searching for people associated with the government. The guys in the car looked like military personnel, so the Taliban snatched them out of the car. On the side of the road, the Taliban covered the heads of their captives with masks and took them away to execute them. But first the Taliban said, "Why you are going to Kabul?" And the men said, "We want to go to Kabul in order to watch that game." Then the Taliban called their friends over and said, "Let’s all recite the holy Koran and pray for our national team to win." And then they let them come here!

They posted the picture of the travelers on BBC. So I’m not worried about the Taliban, because the Taliban love sport. They supported sport before.

Edited by Jeffrey E. Stern.

Jeffrey E. Stern — http://www.JeffreyEstern.com — is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has appeared in Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.