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Fearless In Kabul

Cricket’s most romantic story of the century shows no sign of hitting the skids. Paul Radley speaks to one of the original frontiersmen leading Afghanistan’s thrilling assault on the establishment.

Afghanistan’s cricketers never did get the hang of onedownmanship, of understating their credentials before ambushing unsuspecting opponents. The unlikely, irresistible rise of the Afghan cricket team over the past 10 years has been sustained by a regular soundtrack of bombast, all driven by the mantra that anything the opposition can do, they will just do better.

First off it was against the likes of Jersey and Tanzania. Then it was Ireland, Scotland and Holland on the last entry point before the big time. Now it is teams like India and South Africa on the world stage. Graeme Smith summed up the Afghan fearlessness before his South African side faced them in the ICC World Twenty20 in West Indies in 2010, the first of their two appearances on the headline stage so far. “I read their opener said he was not scared of facing Dale Steyn and I wouldn’t be either if I grew up in a war zone,” the Proteas captain said.

For all their talk, somehow the Afghans are managing to walk the walk. And they are not stopping there. Although the first crop of Afghanistan’s international cricketers are realistically nearing retirement, they are still thinking big.

Karim Sadiq, one of the pioneering refugees who has been there since the start, and the man who said facing Steyn would be no problem, reckons he has already spied the future of Afghan cricket, at a training camp run by his brother. Hasti Gul, the former national team bowler who is now the chief selector, runs his own academy in Jalalabad, and regularly calls in his erstwhile colleagues to help out.

Karim says, out of the 300 boys who attend on a daily basis, one 16-year-old pace bowler who bowls at 145kph stands out. “I want this bowler after two or three years to make a world record, to bowl at Shoaib Akhtar pace,” Karim says. Nothing too ambitious, then. He will just be the fastest bowler the world will have ever seen, nothing special.

But why not? For what possible reason would this particular set of cricketers doubt themselves? They have spent more than a decade being told it can’t be done. They have responded by showing that it can.

“These guys seem to be supermen,” Tim Anderson, the ICC’s global development manager, said when Afghanistan played Pakistan in a one-day international in Sharjah last year. On that day, Afghanistan’s wicketkeeper Mohammad Shahzad reverse-swept Saeed Ajmal for six. Ajmal had just taken 24 wickets in three Tests against England. Mohammad Nabi, who is now the Afghanistan captain, put Shahid Afridi into the top tier of the grandstand.

It is precisely a decade since the people who tried to get an Afghan national cricket team started first staged organised trials in Kabul. Most of the players had been born in refugee camps across the border in Pakistan, and were just coming back to the land of their parents for the first time. Those parents had not known about cricket before their time in Pakistan. It wasn’t an Afghan sport, not like buzkashi, the national sport involving moving a goat’s carcass around a field, and they were still wary of its value. Far better for their children to focus on school studies rather than that strange bat and ball game.

What they didn’t realise was the way cricket grips people. It was against this backdrop that a broad-shouldered young tearaway called Hamid Hassan skipped his final school exams – against his parents’ knowledge – to attend those trials for the first Afghan team. Not long after, Hassan had the lead role in a TV commercial for a phone company, made by a Bollywood movie director in Dubai, on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in Afghanistan. And now he is regarded as one of the leading pace bowlers beyond the Test sphere.

“Before, Afghanistan’s people did not like cricket – now it is in their blood,” Karim says. “Before, fathers would not let their sons give up time to go to cricket. They were strict with us. My dad, Nabi’s dad, they all told us we couldn’t go to cricket. Now everybody encourages their sons to go to cricket. The families support them.” Cricket has always been regarded as a force for good in Afghanistan. Even under Taliban rule it was one of the few sports permitted, due to the fact it promotes good manners.

True to form, Karim remains one of the feistiest cricketers around. He was banned for a match at a 2008 World Cup qualifier in South Africa for tripping up a non-striker who was attempting to make a run when he was bowling). The rambunctious opening batsman took a while to get his head around being a role model, but now he is your archetypal poacher turned gamekeeper. “In terms of mentality, Afghan people are hot-headed,” he says. “I try to coach the players to keep a cool mind, to stay relaxed.”

Karim is now plotting his exit from the scene. He is officially 29 – but that is just an approximation. He says players lose energy in their 30s and his is running short. From his humble beginning he has become, after a fashion, a cricketer of fortune, employed as an overseas professional for a company side in Dubai. He has one ambition left: namely to topple one of the game’s top brass at a major global tournament.

“In Afghanistan there was a 30-year war,” he says. “Every family was affected by the Russian war. There was no happiness. Only cricket gave happiness to people. Cricket brought people together and ‘Alhamdulillah’, step by step our country is now improving. The politicians are good, the army is good, and the police. Afghanistan is becoming a good country. The young generation have been going to school, everybody has been working hard in their jobs.

“We have all played cricket for our people. We have made people happy. The only thing left is to beat a full member. People are not just happy if we beat Ireland or Scotland. You need to beat India, Pakistan, Australia or England in a tournament and all of our players are thinking of what they need to do to do that.”

At the ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh next year, where six Associate nations will compete for the first time, they could well get their chance.

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