A stirring story of fortitude

A stirring story of fortitude

courageous lot:  Afghanistan showed remarkable will power to battle against odds and reach the biggest arena of cricket.  AFP

Afghanistan didn’t quite set the world on fire in a major competition – World T20 -- they took part for the first time. They were beaten by both India and South Africa in the first phase that ended their Caribbean sojourn. But that’s only the half part of the story. Only after realising the other side too, you will understand -- perhaps even appreciate -- this fascinating Afghan journey that forms one of the most inspiring sporting stories.

Talking of Afghanistan, you can only think of gun shots and bomb blasts. So if a cricket team from that war-ravaged country makes it to an elite event, it ought to raise many eye-brows. Few would have envisaged that a chance move to introduce Afghan refugees to cricket 30 years ago in the liberation camps in Pakistan would one day actually result in a national team which then would go on to play at the highest level rubbing shoulders with the best in the world.

“A lot of credit of their success goes to the tough upbringing of these players,” said Afghanistan coach Kabir Khan, a former Pakistani international. Having seen his wards from close quarters, Kabir understands the struggles they have gone through to reach this level.

The war back home, Kabir felt, has made the boys tougher. “During the war days when they were in different refugee camps, they were fighting for food, clothes and for a living. That upbringing has made them mentally tough. They know that only when they win can they survive. Losing was never an option for them. It’s that kind of mindset what has made them successful on the big stage,” he explained.

The two games they played in amply reflected that attitude. Afghanistan neither appeared overawed by the occasion nor did they look nervous. If anything, they were only too keen to get in the middle. Just happy to be part of the event, Afghan skipper Nawroz Mangal said they were never under pressure. “We have already fought in pressure cooker conditions and we are used to it,” he quipped.

Indian skipper MS Dhoni was quite impressed by the Afghan show. “In my view, they felt very passionate about being here. They were representing their country for the first time on such a big stage. Right from the warm-up they wanted to get there in the middle and be aggressive. They were enjoying being out there, they were enjoying each other’s success and that’s what makes a good team,” he noted. Kabir agreed with Dhoni. “They are playing together for the last seven-eight years. They are very united and they love their country. They are hungry for cricket and want to prove that they are the best cricket team coming up right now.”

Cricket, according Mangal, is a unifying factor in Afghanistan that can herald peace in the war-torn country. “We qualified for the tournament because of the whole nation’s prayers. If the entire nation is praying for you then it means that it is bringing the whole country together. Cricket can play a major role in the peace process in Afghanistan.”

Middle-order batsman Raaes Ahmadzai understands the importance of cricket to his country at this juncture. Ahmadzai, who grew up in a refugee camp in Peshawar, is leading a drive to provide more opportunities to youngsters to play the game by holding camps in partnership with the UNICEF.    

It will, however, be years before they can play the game in their own country. But Nawroz was happy that his countrymen at least could see them in action on TV. And if the Afghan people have to see their heroes in action often, they need to be involved in more action. “They have to play a lot more games. We’ve got ODI status and we can play Twenty20 internationals against any country in the world so the teams need to invite us,” Kabir called out. Afghanistan have proved their mettle and it’s now up to the cricketing world to nurture their growth. It will be a while before Afghanistan get to play a top-notch country again, but they would have left the Caribbean with an experience of a life-time.

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