Thursday, 24 September 2009

Afghan cricket - the real big story of the year

While most of the cricketing world has had its attention fixed firmly on the Ashes and the IPL over the last twelve months, an equally remarkable story has been developing in war-torn Afghanistan. The rapid rise of that country’s nascent cricket team culminated in August in a draw with a strong Zimbabwe XI in the ICC Intercontinental Cup.

It was only 1996 when Wisden reported the culmination of the cricket season in Afghanistan as a '50-over softball tournament ... using a tennis ball covered in plastic adhesive tape to reduce the bounce.' Even in 2001, when ICC Affiliate membership was granted, Afghanistan lagged behind such cricketing heavyweights as Italy, Israel and Gibraltar.

Things began to change in 2003, when Wisden described Afghan cricket as going through a ‘boom’, with 2,500 players and leagues spread across 16 of the country’s 21 provinces. Although assisted by the predominately British International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), nearly all the players were Afghan, led by refugees returning from Pakistan.

2004 was another year of progress, although international competition was still limited to the Asian Cricket Council Trophy in Kuala Lumpur, where victories were gained against Bahrain and Malaysia. The team was hampered by huge practical difficulties – according to the following year’s Wisden, ‘the national team’s players cannot afford their own bat, pads or even boots. There is plenty of talent but hardly any infrastructure, cricketing or otherwise’.

Despite this, Wisden called 2006 ‘the most significant year to date for the country’s cricketers’. Victory in Mumbai over an MCC team led by Mike Gatting was the highlight. MCC President Robin Marlar said after the match that a couple of the Afghan players ‘were already good enough to play Test cricket.’

Two of the side, Mohammad Nabi and Hamid Hassan, made such an impression that they were invited to join MCC’s Young Cricketers later that year. While in England, Nabi became the first Afghan to play in a first-class game when he represented MCC against Sri Lanka A at Arundel. Marlar was later moved to describe him as ‘the best player I’ve seen since the young Dexter.’

Progress continued in 2008 with success in the ICC’s World Cricket League, and then, this year, came that match against Zimbabwe, Afghanistan’s first first-class match. Nabi was again one of the stars against a strong Zimbabwe side, scoring 102 in the first innings and taking five wickets. Afghanistan have also been granted ODI status this year, and celebrated with a victory over the Netherlands earlier this month.

Wisden calls it ‘a classic tale of triumph over adversity’. The ICC website says that Afghanistan have ‘reached unprecedented heights for an Affiliate nation’. It is difficult to disagree with either statement.

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