Afghan cricket: From refugee camps to world arena

Amid ragging violence for years and dearth of resources, the passionate Afghans with their high spirit have made it to the premier arena of world class cricket.

In a landmark development, Afghanistan was finally declared a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), as the world body acknowledged rapid growth and potential for this sport in the war-ravaged country, sparking nationwide celebrations.

The resilient Afghans embraced the sport of cricket only a few years back when some of former refugees returned to their devastated country from Pakistan following the fall of the Taliban regime in early 2000.

They brought with them this sport invented by the British and worshiped in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka besides Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand among other countries.

"The refugees developed their love for cricket in Pakistan by watching local legends like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul-Haq (who later coached Afghanistan ). And, when they brought cricket to their own country they were victimized for bringing 'Pakistani sport', but the players never gave up," Mohammad Ibrahim Momand, leading sports journalist and well-known cricket commentator.

Following the ICC Full Council meeting at the Oval in England on Thursday, Afghanistan and Ireland were confirmed as full members of the International Cricket Council (ICC) after a unanimous vote.

Both will now be eligible to play Test cricket with the top teams of the game which means more matches, more exposure and ultimately more fun for millions of their supporters.

Momand has been following the national cricket team's rise to fame from scratch.

"It began during the Taliban rule so you can imagine what the players went through", he said while referring to the brutal oppression of the militant group during which street justice and public hangings were common besides many other forms of persecutions.

"The players received literally no funds until recently, all members of the pioneering team literally sacrificed their lives to pave the way for cricket," Momand told Anadolu Agency.

Chief selector for the Afghan squad Nawroz Mangal still remembers the days when he and other members of the pioneering national team only had the hunger to prove their mettle to the world, but had no other resources, grounds or even proper uniform.

"I remember those days when we literally started empty handed, but now it is so comforting. Thanks to Allah that Afghanistan becomes at par with all major cricket playing nations in the world", Mangal said as he was joined by hundreds of colleagues, friends and followers at the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) headquarters in Kabul for celebrations.

The cricket lovers in various parts of the country took to the streets in the night, and danced the traditional 'Attan' dance to a huge drum to express their joy.

Following surprisingly rapid rise of the Afghan side, cricket has become the talk of each and every town and village. Most private TV channels, radio stations and other media outlets broadcast live matches of the national team, and millions of fans follow them on the traditional and social media.

Besides giving tough time to major competitors, Afghanistan has even defeated West Indies, the world champions of cricket's T-20 format.

Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi -- two young and emerging cricketers from Afghanistan -- made their way to the most lucrative Indian Premier League this year, as yet another sign of the untapped potential.

The country's own cricket league 'Shpageza' is set to launch its fifth season later this year with more and more investment coming into it from local and foreign-based Afghan businessmen. The main stadium in Kabul is jam-packed during 'Shpageza' matches.

There is, however, a long way to go in terms of institutional development of the sports in the country that is facing deadly militant insurgency for more than 15 years now.

Mohammad Ibrahim Momand believes the Full Membership should be taken as a token to further improve rather than the ultimate goal to settle down.

"Quality cricket system needs to be strengthened across the country with more stadiums, functional academies and regular matches so that youngsters are groomed at the very grassroots levels", he said.

For die-hard cricket fans like 29-year-old Ali Katawazi, the national team's collective advancement and players' individual brilliance is just amazing.
"Our cricketers have been giving us good news when there were always negative news about bomb blasts and killings," he said.

Momand acknowledged the fact that the fan following for cricket is enormous.

"People in cities and villages follow their favorite players and the national team very closely, they pour love on them and have a great deal of respect for their national heroes".

David Richardson, the ICC Chief Executive has hailed the dedication to improving performance off and on the field of both Afghanistan and Ireland.

"Both have clearly demonstrated they meet the new criteria and as such have made the progression to full membership," he said while announcing the decision.

The ICC currently has 105 members and membership is a hierarchy system. There are three categories of membership: Full Members, Associate Members, and Affiliate Members.

In the highest category, there are 12 Full Members; the 2nd category has 37 Associate Members and lowest category has 56 Affiliate Members.
The Afghanistan Cricket Board was formed in 1995 and became an Affiliate Member of the ICC in 2001 and was awarded Associate Member status in 2013.
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