Rising from the ruins of war to challenge the world’s cricketing establishment, Afghanistan’s rag-tag team hope to inspire the conflict-ravaged nation with a strong showing at the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka.
Afghanistan take on the might of India in their first group match in Colombo today, having qualified for their second successive Twenty20 World Cup.
The team’s success against the odds, with many of the players born during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation and knowing little of peace in their home nation, has drawn legions of Afghan youths to take up the game in recent years, captain Nawroz Mangal said.
Mangal said about 70,000 youngsters started playing cricket after his team’s breakthrough qualification for the 2010 Twenty 20 World Cup in the West Indies.
“Right now, it is more than 500,000,” Mangal said, referring to the country’s cricket-playing population. “After participating in this World Cup, if we do better, I expect 30 to 40 percent of the population to start playing cricket.”
Mangal led the team to a 51-run victory against a Sri Lanka A team on Saturday, with vice captain Mohammad Nabi scoring a 22-ball half-century with five sixes and wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad compiling a similarly quick-fire 48.
Born in a refugee camp in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar, allrounder Nabi started playing cricket aged 10.
“I played a lot of school cricket there, as well as street cricket, and everywhere with a tennis ball in Peshawar,” 27-year-old Nabi said.
He made his first-class debut with the Marylebone Cricket Club in 2007, having caught former England captain Mike Gatting’s eye by scoring a century against the team during a tour of India.
“There is a lot of improvement in Afghanistan cricket,” said Nabi, who played a leading role in securing the national team’s berth at the 2010 Twenty20 World Cup.
“Everyone likes cricket. There are a lot of fans now. In sha’Allah [God willing], we will try hard in this tournament to do something for our nation, and we want to win one match and go to the super eight.”
Despite lacking basic infrastructure and having to play international matches in neighboring Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, the team are feeling the burden of expectation from hopeful home fans, Shahzad said.
“The people want us to win everything in the World Cup, because people can’t understand cricket,” said Shahzad, who plays for Nangarhar Cricket Club in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where one of the country’s two main cricket grounds is located.
Afghanistan were eliminated from the 2010 tournament in the first round after losing both of their group matches to India and South Africa.
They face another uphill battle to break into the “Super Eight” second round in Sri Lanka, with defending champions England the third member of Group A. Afghanistan face England on Friday.
Shahzad said his team had worked out the weaknesses of both of their opponents.
“England struggle a little bit against spinners. India have a very good batting lineup, but they don’t have a good bowling [attack],” he said. “India every time go for part-time bowlers.”
With violence at its worst levels since US-backed forces ousted the Islamist Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan skipper Mangal said he hoped his team could help bring stability to the war-torn country.