Report

Afghanistan’s Little Cricket Team That Could

How the bowlers and batsmen from Kabul became the world's favorite underdogs.

Afghanistan batsman Shapoor Zadran (R) celebrates with teammate Hamid Hassan (L) after hitting the winning runs to defeat Scotland in their 2015 Cricket World Cup Group A match in Dunedin on February 26, 2015.    AFP PHOTO / William WEST        (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghanistan batsman Shapoor Zadran (R) celebrates with teammate Hamid Hassan (L) after hitting the winning runs to defeat Scotland in their 2015 Cricket World Cup Group A match in Dunedin on February 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

When Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakkara walked out to bat in an International Cricket Council 2015 World Cup match at University Oval in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Feb. 22, he was entering a familiar situation: The world’s No. 1 test batsman, whose elegant left-handed hitting and gaudy statistics put one in mind of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, was playing a match pitting a plucky upstart from a war-torn Asian country against one of world cricket’s powerhouses. A 37-year-old veteran of four World Cups, Sangakkara and his teammates have long enjoyed broad international support — the swashbuckling, underdog spirit of the Sri Lankans has endeared them to cricket aficionados around the world, earning them wide recognition as Everyone’s Second-Favorite Team.

But this day was different. The plucky, war-torn upstart was Afghanistan, and it was more than holding its own against now-mighty Sri Lanka, runner-up in each of the last two World Cups and current World T20 champion. The fans in Dunedin were solidly behind the opposition, and it appeared the cricket world might have a new second-favorite team.

* * *

Just 13 years ago, Afghanistan had no team at all, but the efforts of one displaced and dogged Afghan set the course toward the current tournament, which ends March 29. Born in Afghanistan in 1975, Taj Malik fled by donkey to Pakistan when he was 10, growing up with his mother and 11 siblings in the sprawling Kacha Garhi refugee camp on the western edge of Peshawar. Like the fathers of many of the children in the camp, Malik’s father was a mujahid, or fighter, making trips into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation.

While the conditions at Kacha Garhi were bleak, one resource could be found in abundance: free time. In 1987, the Cricket World Cup was co-hosted by India and Pakistan, and 12-year-old Taj was hooked. Cricket provided a window into the broader world, and he immersed himself.

As detailed in Tim Albone’s 2010 documentary film and 2011 book, Out of the Ashes, Malik played all the cricket he could, though this often involved merely a stick, plastic bags wrapped up to make a ball, a stack of stones for a wicket, and a playing surface of rutted ground. Before long, Malik had set up a team in the refugee camp, ambitiously naming it the Afghan Cricket Club. Selecting the best players from among the refugees, the team would challenge other teams across Peshawar to games of tennis-ball cricket, betting money they didn’t have and rarely losing. Eventually, the team won enough money to lay a concrete pitch in a graveyard near Malik’s makeshift home. As the team played on, Malik had one constant, then-impossible dream: to take his country, a country that didn’t even have a national team, to the Cricket World Cup.

On Nov. 13, 2001, after sweeping down from Afghanistan’s northeast, American-aided Northern Alliance troops captured the capital, Kabul. Viewing this as his one big chance, Malik — then 26 — made a similar journey less than a month later, carrying with him only a change of clothes and a cricket bat and ball. Tens of thousands of Afghans were fleeing Afghanistan for the refugee camps of western Pakistan. Malik was doing just the opposite and heading toward the danger.

The trip marked the first steps toward realizing his quixotic goal, according to Out of the Ashes. But by now the not-so-athletic Malik knew he would never himself be a world-class player, so the dream had changed slightly: Instead of bringing Afghanistan glory as a player, he would be its team’s head coach.

The trip itself was dangerous, passing through areas still under the control of Taliban and al Qaeda-affiliated fighters. Malik reached Kabul safely and, relying heavily on fortuitous family connections, managed to arrange a meeting with the new Afghan Olympic Committee chairman, ultimately receiving his blessing to form a national cricket team. A few small problems remained: Afghanistan had no players, no uniforms, no equipment, and no facilities.

By early 2002, Malik and his co-administrator, Allah Dad, had caught the eye of BBC Afghanistan correspondent William Reeve. A six-team tournament was arranged in Kabul, deemed the “BBC Cup” by the media-savvy Dad, who figured if he named the tournament after the network, the BBC would have to cover it. (It worked.) Reeve himself donated the trophy for the winners.

Later that year, Malik and Dad also approached the newly reopened British Embassy for assistance. They were lucky to find cricket enthusiast in Andrew Banks, a military police major in charge of the troops guarding the embassy and ambassador. Banks contacted all 18 English county teams and asked for help for the fledgling Afghans. About half responded, sending an avalanche of bats, balls, uniforms, pads, and helmets. That year, one of Banks’s embassy colleagues organized Afghanistan’s first-ever international match, a game against members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Now they had a scheduled game, but Malik and Dad still didn’t have a team — so they hastily organized a tryout camp. The Taliban banned many things during their rule, but the fundamentalists never totally banned sports. Indeed, the modest dress and understated nature of cricket passed muster with the radical Islamists (albeit with a few added conditions, among them stops for prayer and a ban on cheering except for shouts of “Allahu akbar”). Dad knew the players from the Taliban days, while Malik rounded up the best of those returning from the refugee camps in Pakistan. Among the 25 young men who showed up to tryouts was a Taliban-era local player, Nawroz Mangal, who would soon be named captain. He remains one of Afghanistan’s top batsmen.

For a majority of the Afghan players that day, their first game representing their country was also their first game with a proper leather cricket ball, rather than a tennis ball wrapped in duct tape. Coach Malik was worried about how the players would respond, but his fears were misplaced. In a game expected to last more than five hours, the ISAF team was bowled out quickly for a minuscule 56, and the brand-new Afghan national team then chased down that total in about 20 minutes.

At the start of 2003, Malik and Dad decided they needed to cast a broader net for talent, so they scheduled a national tournament for Kabul. Although they chose team names based on provinces throughout Afghanistan, in reality most of the players were fresh returnees from the camps around Peshawar. At the tournament, Malik found the core of the team that would eventually make its way to the 2015 World Cup, including stalwarts Asghar Stanikzai, Samiullah Shenwari, Shapoor Zadran, team captain Mohammad Nabi, and an overweight teenage fast bowler named Hamid Hassan who, before the tournament, had never bowled a proper cricket ball.

* * *

By 2008, with Malik still serving as coach, Afghanistan had made progress but was still in lowly International Cricket Council World Cricket League Division 5, then the bottom division, taking on countries such as Norway and Vanuatu. In a low-profile May 31, 2008, match in Saint Saviour, a parish of 14,000 on the island of Jersey, Afghanistan restricted the hosts to a measly 80 runs before limping to a narrow victory and the Division 5 championship, thanks in large part to a timely 28 runs from the man of the match, none other than Malik’s brother, Hasti Gul.

This qualified the team for promotion to Division 4. The team returned to Kabul to a hero’s welcome, but the triumph meant that cricket was now being taken seriously in Afghanistan, and the starry-eyed Malik was brushed aside in favor of a new, pedigreed coach: former Pakistani test cricketer Kabir Khan. Yet Malik had laid the foundation: Six members of that winning team from seven years ago in Jersey are among Afghanistan’s current World Cup-playing 11. Malik would make brief returns to Afghan cricket as an assistant coach to Khan and as coach of Afghanistan’s second-tier team, but today he has left the game, devoting his efforts to the Tabligh religious movement within Islam.

In the Division 4 competition later in 2008 in Tanzania, Khan picked up where Malik left off, while adding a needed aspect of cold professionalism. Wins over fellow cricketing minnows Italy and Fiji drew little international attention but helped ensure a tournament victory and promotion to Division 3. A narrow, weather-aided triumph in Buenos Aires in January 2009 meant that Afghanistan had earned a chance to participate in qualification matches for the 2011 World Cup.

Those World Cup qualifiers proved a mixed bag. Although the team failed to qualify, a last-day win over Namibia on April 17, 2009, meant the team secured a coveted and critical consolation prize: four years of Associate status (the second-highest grouping in world cricket) and a place in the 2011-2013 World Cricket League Championship, the top competition for teams outside the 10 elite sides holding test status. The top two finishers would earn a place in the 2015 World Cup. The meteoric rise from Division 5 to Associate status had happened in less than one year.

After a surprisingly strong World Cup qualifying campaign, it came down to the 14th and final match: a “home” game in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, (for reasons hardly requiring explanation, Afghanistan cannot host matches within its own borders) against Kenya, a participant in the three previous World Cups and a surprise semifinalist in 2003. As happened five years earlier in Jersey, a devastating performance by the Afghan bowling attack pulverized the opposition, holding Kenya to a mere 93 runs (roughly one-third of a good total), which was then easily surpassed by the Afghan batsmen. With a second-place finish, Afghanistan had come from nowhere to cricket’s biggest stage. Malik’s dream had become reality.

As the Kenyans discovered, it is Afghanistan’s group of three fast bowlers — Hassan, Shapoor Zadran, and Dawlat Zadran (no relation) — that is the team’s strength. Veteran Zimbabwe coach Dav Whatmore, who has also coached Pakistan and Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup champions, agrees. “I like what I see,” Whatmore told me. “They have pace and accuracy.”

Hassan attracts the most attention. Dubbed “Rambo” on social media for his headband and the national flags painted on both cheeks, he has just become the seventh-fastest bowler in cricket history to take 50 one-day international wickets. “This guy is really very good,” said Dilhara Fernando, himself an accomplished fast bowler who represented Sri Lanka in the last three World Cups. “He is accurate, and his deliveries are very skiddy. There is a real art to that.”

* * *

Back in Dunedin this February, the Sri Lankans were batting. But the vaunted batsman Sangakkara’s time at the wickets was uncharacteristically short and dramatic. Almost immediately, his batting partner, Tillakaratne Dilshan, was dismissed for a score of 0. Moments later, in ran Hassan. His virtually unplayable 88 mph delivery swung inward and careened into Sangakkara’s off and middle stumps, prompting a jubilant (albeit poorly executed) cartwheel from Hassan. Sangakkara was out for a mere 7 runs (by contrast, the cricket legend scored more than 100 in his next three matches and leads the tournament in runs scored). Sri Lanka had now lost three batsmen for a total of only 18 runs and was in serious trouble.

After Sangakkara’s dismissal by Hassan, Sri Lanka’s other superstar, Mahela Jayawardene, was presented with the daunting task of digging his side out of a deep hole. He proved up to the job, his patient 100 allowing his team to creep within striking distance before teammate Thisara Perera hit the winning runs to secure a narrow victory. Sri Lanka, the world’s fourth-ranked team, had escaped an astonishing upset, but Afghanistan had announced its arrival on the world stage. Despite lacking a World Cup win in its history, the team found itself favored in its next match.

The Afghans returned four days later to University Oval to take on fellow Associate side Scotland. As the game unfolded, the script was familiar: Afghanistan’s bowling was excellent, holding Scotland to a subpar 210, but the batting was shaky. It began to look desperate when, after scoring a heroic 96, Samiullah Shenwari (another of Malik’s holdovers) was dismissed with the score stuck at 192, leaving the team down to its final wicket and needing 19 more runs to secure a famous victory. With all the team’s specialist batsmen out, the job fell to Hassan and Shapoor Zadran (yet another of Malik’s former players). With four deliveries to go, Zadran flicked a ball off his hip and over the leg-side boundary.

Afghanistan had won. The crowd exploded, and Zadran tore off his helmet and ran wildly with arms outstretched airplane-style, eventually collapsing onto his knees, then face, in ecstasy.

* * *

World Cup qualification and a victory over an Associate peer are impressive achievements, but it will be left to the coming years to see whether Afghan cricket can complete the full transformation from nobodies to formidable opposition for top teams like India and South Africa.

“The Afghan team is wonderfully talented,” Sri Lankan legend Sangakkara told me this week. “It’s a great bowling attack, and it’s impressive that all three front-line fast bowlers consistently go over 140 [kilometers per hour]. But the most impressive aspect is they play with abandon and joy and truly believe they can beat top teams. And you saw it, they nearly got us.”

“They are obviously a lot better than the lower-division teams they have been playing, and recent results have shown that,” said Zimbabwe’s Whatmore. “Most of these guys have experience playing in Pakistan, and that has obviously benefited them. They are getting to be competitive with the lesser test teams.”

March 4 presented a daunting date with cricket’s ultimate measuring stick: world No. 1, tournament favorite, and co-host Australia in the notoriously bouncy, unfamiliar conditions of the WACA Ground in Perth. As it turned out, the match served as a stark reminder of just how far Afghanistan has to go. The Afghans won the toss, decided to make Australia bat first, and Australian opening batsman David Warner promptly shredded the previously impressive threesome of Hassan and the Zadrans for 176 by himself. Australia coasted to a total of 417, the highest-ever team score in a World Cup, and the game was effectively over before Afghanistan picked up a bat.

Afghanistan’s final match is its most intriguing: March 13 against England, whose world ranking recently has slipped from No. 1 in December 2012 to No. 6. England has had a disastrous tournament, suffering one-sided losses to Australia, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka before being eliminated from contention by Bangladesh on Monday, March 9. Neither team will make the quarterfinals. But for Afghanistan there could be no better way to emphasize its newfound competitiveness than by beating the country that invented cricket and brought the sport to its South Asian colonies. While most pundits give Afghanistan only a slim chance, the “neutral” fans in Sydney that day will surely be firmly behind their new second-favorite team as it takes on Australia’s wounded cricketing archenemy.

Photo credit: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Andrew Heger remains an avid cricket fanatic despite no longer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is an attorney in Los Angeles.

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