Afghanistan’s opening match is against Bangladesh on Feb 18 in Canberra. Poola A also have Australia, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka and Scotland\
Sohail says he and his family pray “for the success of the Afghan cricket team in the 2015 World Cup.”
The 17-year-old, along with his friends, takes the long trip to a Kabul park everyday “before sunrise” to play cricket for hours.
“I am the biggest fan of cricket and sometimes I miss lunch or dinner to watch the matches,” the high school student, who learnt cricket in exile in Pakistan, says. “We played with Pakistani boys in Peshawar and I am happy that we now have our own national team.”
The Afghan team is making its 50-over World Cup debut this month in the tournament hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
Cricket’s flagship four-yearly event started yesterday and Afghanistan’s opening match is against Bangladesh on February 18 in Canberra. They will also take on the might of Australia, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka and the lesser lights of Scotland in Pool A.
In their two warm-up matches, Afghanistan beat the United Arab Emirates but lost to holders India.
They have no chance of winning the competition but cricket is a new phenomenon in Afghanistan, a country better known for war and violence.
“This is a big achievement and there is pride for us to participate in the World Cup,” said Ajmal Habibi, who like Sohail learned the sport in Peshawar and wants to become a famous cricketer.
Afghanistan fast bowler Hamid Hassan is his favourite player, while his friend Sohail says all-rounder Samiullah Shinwari is an inspiration for him.
The Afghan Cricket Board believes the team qualified for their first World Cup because of the passion of the fans.
“We have the support of every Afghan, which encourages the players to shine on the field,” said Farid Hotak, spokesman for the cricket board. “Though it is a big achievement for the young team of Afghanistan to qualify for the World Cup, we expect more as we are confident in our players,” Hotak added.
Many Afghans learnt about cricket when they took refuge in neighbouring Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country.
Cricket was sporadically played under the Taliban, who banned many other sports during their five-year reign (1996-2001), with the fundamentalist group using the only Kabul stadium for execution and stoning.
But it began to really flourish when Afghans returned home from Pakistan after the Taliban were ousted in the US-led invasion in 2001 and the national team have not looked back since.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, recalling the team’s success in reaching the shorter form World Twenty20 in 2010, 2012 and 2014, told the players in a telephone call yesterday they must play “with a high morale and bring great honours to Afghanistan as you did in the past”.
Former President Hamid Karzai told the players two years ago: “You are the new national army, and we salute you guys.”
However, cricket is not universally popular in Afghanistan, with some critics saying it is played by only one ethnicity.
“This is not a national team, all the players, trainers, coaches and fans are Pashtuns,” said Osman, who belongs to the Tajik, the second most populous ethnic group.
“For me and many others, it is a stupid game. You cannot understand how it is played even if you watch dozens of games,” added Osman, who was born in Parwan province some 60 kilometres north of Kabul.
Nasir Shah, from Kabul, does not like cricket because “it is a colonial sport”.
“You can see this game in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and other countries who were directly or indirectly under British colonial rule,” said the 40-year-old carpenter.
The cricket board denies the game belongs to a particular ethnicity. “Cricket is a national sport and we have branches and trainers in 33 of 34 provinces,” Hotak said.
“The number of cricket fans increases day by day across the country,” he added.
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