Thu, Apr 02, 2009 - Page 18 News List

FEATURE : Afghan underdogs looking to make the big time

AP , BENONI, SOUTH AFRICA

Afghanistan batsman Rais Ahmadzai was born, raised and learned to play the game of cricket in a refugee camp in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar.

“We didn’t know our country [then],” Ahmadzai said in an interview. “We felt that Peshawar was our country.”

Now, the 25-year-old who first saw Afghanistan seven years ago is proud to play for his homeland’s national team. And if most Afghans might find soccer more lively and wrestling more traditional, they’re happy to embrace their winning cricket team.

After a series of surprise victories in qualifying tournaments in Jersey, Tanzania and Argentina, Ahmadzai and his teammates are on the verge of the cricket big time. After just eight years of international competition, Afghanistan is among 12 teams playing in South Africa for a place in the 2011 World Cup.

The qualifying tournament in South Africa started yesterday and runs until April 19.

“This two-and-a-half weeks is very important,” Afghanistan bowler Hasti Gul said.

“We are standing at the door of international cricket,” he added, miming a vigorous knock.

When Ahmadzai went to Afghanistan in 2002, he remembers feeling a mixture of freedom at finally leaving the cramped camp in Peshawar and horror at the evidence of war all around — bombed out buildings, maimed men. Afghanistan remains volatile, despite the presence of thousands of foreign troops.

Traveling the world playing cricket, Ahmadzai said he has met people who know nothing about his homeland beyond the headlines about bombings, drugs or the Taliban.

The Afghan players represent another Afghanistan, one that wants to and can be part of the international community. Ahmadzai and his teammates have loped across grassy fields in Europe, Africa and Latin America, playing the elegant game that originated in England and has been embraced around the world.

“We will give a good name, through cricket, to our country,” Ahmadzai said.

After they captured the World Cricket League Division Four trophy in Tanzania last October, their government rewarded the players with a pilgrimage to Mecca. When the team won the World Cricket League Division Three tournament in Argentina in February, they were greeted on their return to the airport in Kabul by a dancing crowd that threw confetti and draped the players in pink and silver garlands — after negotiating concrete security barriers.

“In Afghanistan, people are praying for us,” Gul said. “Afghanistan has had 30 years of fighting. They want a happy moment, celebration.”

Emal Pasarly, deputy chief of the BBC’s Afghan programs, has been covering the team since their early wins. At first, he said, reports were hard to write because, while Afghans who had also been refugees in Pakistan knew something about cricket, most others “don’t know much about the rules. They know winning and losing.”

As the team kept winning and thousands of fan e-mails reached the BBC, Pasarly began to find coaching tips in the messages, evidence Afghans were learning the nuances of the game.

But Afghanistan is an impoverished country and few fans can travel to cheer the team abroad — not that many teams at this level draw crowds.

At a warm-up game against Oman on a community oval in eastern Johannesburg before World Cup qualifying, a handful of Omani spectators cheered their team. One took time out from encouraging murmurs of “well played, boys,” to chat on his mobile phone about a trip to a luxury game park.

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