From Malmo, with love for the Afghan cricket team
Daud Sial and his wife have been travelling across India supporting Shahzad & Co just to be witness to a moment in history, to spread the love
23 March 2016 12:57
“One time, when I was very little, I climbed a tree and ate these green, sour apples. My stomach swelled and became hard like a drum. It hurt a lot. My mother said that if I'd just waited for the apples to ripen, I wouldn't have become sick. So now, whenever I really want something, I try to remember what she said about the apples.”
It is fascinating how these words from Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner make so much sense in the context of cricket in Afghanistan, the author's country of birth and the setting for his best-selling novel.
Legend has it that cricket was brought to the region by British troops back in the 19th century, but there isn't any credible source to confirm that. What we know for sure is that the seeds of cricket in that part of the world were sown in the dustbowl of the Kacha Gari refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar, where the pioneers of the game in the country, including Nawroz Mangal, their first international captain, first held a cricket bat less than 20 years ago.
Even a year after MS Dhoni's Indian team lifted the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 trophy in 2007, Afghanistan were playing in the fifth division of the ICC World Cricket league against the likes of Germany, Botswana, Norway and Japan.
But the patrons of the sport kept their faith pinned to a determinate promise made by the players – come what may, they would not give up on the sport that had by then become their ultimate source of expression after a long period of fierce political turmoil in the country.
Cut to March 2016, and the team, led by Asghar Stanikzai, who has been a part of the excruciating yet delightful journey right from the beginning, is competing with the world's best teams in the sixth edition of the global T20 tournament.
“Cricket is very big in Afghanistan – bigger than the rest of the world can ever imagine,” says Daud Sial, one of the millions of ardent cricket fans from Afghanistan. “The cricketers are the ambassadors of peace and unity in Afghanistan. We find entertainment in cricket, and feel a lot of patriotism and passion for the cricket team. There has been a lot of fighting going on in Afghanistan for over 40 years now, and the first great thing that has emerged from the country in this time is our cricket. It helps our people to forget about the bad times, and all that they have lost, and come out and get together in support of the side. Cricket is a form of expression and freedom, and it means a lot to us, the people of Afghanistan.”
Sial hails from Jalalabad, the capital of the Nangarhar province in Eastern Afghanistan, but has been living in Malmo, Sweden for the past ten years. He is crazy about cricket, and when he heard the news of his country qualifying for the ICC WT20 in India, he decided to make the 4000-mile journey with his wife to be a witness to the moment in history.
“We came down to India from the beginning of Afghanistan's qualifying campaign in Nagpur to watch all the matches till this Sunday (March 20),” says Sial. “But then, I have a job with the government of Sweden in the immigration board, so I could only manage that long a vacation. We get about 20-odd days off in a year, so we use that just to travel. Last year, for instance, we went to Dubai for a break, but this time we decided to dedicate our holidays to supporting Afghan cricket. This was my first time in India, and I loved it there. We went to Mumbai, did some shopping, then went to Nagpur, then Kolkata and finally, back to Mumbai, where we saw Afghanistan play South Africa in that great match.”
That ‘great match’ Sial speaks of ended in a 37-run defeat for his team, but the courage their players – Mohammad Shahzad in particular – showed in a gargantuan chase of 210 kept the entire cricket community glued to their television sets right till the end.
“We were really hopeful of winning that match,” rues Sial. “If you noticed, till the fifth over of our chase, we were ahead of what South Africa had scored during their innings. There was a feeling among all of us that we will win. You could see that the South African players were feeling the pressure too. But once Shahzad fell, the wickets kept going down, and our hopes faded. But make no mistake, they still made us very proud with the way they played against such a big side in world cricket.
“When we get so close and still lose, personally, I accept it that way. I loved the way they played against South Africa. I really enjoyed being at that match. In the end, yes, South Africa won the game, but Afghanistan won a lot of hearts with the courage they showed. They played against some players who are so experienced, that they were probably already playing the sport when we Afghans did not even know what cricket was."
Like Sial, hundreds of other Afghan cricket fans from around the world are currently in India to back their national team in what is their third ICC WT20.
“When we reached the grounds, we realised there were Afghan fans from all over the world with us,” says Sial. “We had people who had come from Australia, Holland, many other parts of Europe and even America. And mind you, this was at every venue we went to. I shouted so loud with all of them that I couldn't talk properly the next day. My wife was with me, but she knew very little about the sport before this trip. But now she knows everything, now she supports the team. When she was with me at the stadium, she shouted more than I did at times. And you know those paper placards with ‘4’ and ‘6’ written on them, right? She kept asking for them from people around us when our boys hit the big shots.
“It has been an amazing feeling to support the Afghanistan team. Even when the qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup was going on two years ago, many of us thought to ourselves that it's cricket, it's a sport – some win, some lose. Even if Afghanistan don't make it, they will give a good fight to the others. But then, wow, we won and qualified for the tournament. Between then and now, see how much the team has improved. We beat Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe recently, and this time, in the World T20, we beat Scotland, Hong Kong and Zimbabwe in Nagpur.
“It is this kind of an experience that makes people like us, those who are living abroad and away from home, travel as far as places like India to support the team. Last year, too, you must have noticed that hundreds of Afghans travelled to Australia and New Zealand to watch the 50-over World Cup.”
Despite being a big fan of the sport, this was the first time Sial got an opportunity to watch Afghanistan play live, and with luck playing its part, he ended up staying in the same hotel as the players in Mumbai.
“As soon as I got to know about that (where the team was staying), I booked my room right next to theirs. I met most of them, and also clicked photos with them. It was just brilliant,” gushes Sial. “They were very happy to meet us too. They gave me a lot of love when I told them we are here only for them, to support them.
“We had some very nice interactions with the players over breakfast. Shahzad is a very nice person. Everyone who has met him, and has spoken to him, will tell you the same thing. He is always very positive, and he makes you laugh all the time.”
Afghanistan have two Super 10 Group 1 matches remaining – against England on Wednesday in New Delhi, and against West Indies on Sunday in Nagpur.
“I think we can win against England if the guys plan properly and make sure they bat and bowl well,” suggests Sial, with a hopeful smile spread across his face. “Against West Indies, our match is again in Nagpur, where we have done well in the qualifiers. If they take the wicket of Chris Gayle early, there is a good chance for us to win, I'm sure.”
Afghanistan's rapid rise has surprised many, including fellow associate nations that have been playing the sport for much longer but are yet to make progress at par with Afghanistan.
“There are some teams who have been playing cricket for much longer than us, but the Afghan players have improved their game very quickly, in just a few years,” says Sial. “There is a very interesting reason for that. They have the support of the whole nation, so they know if they don't do well, the people will be very upset. That feeling pushes them to do well.”
The Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Afghanistan Cricket Board recently signed an agreement with the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority, who have provided the Afghanistan national cricket team with a home ground in India on the outskirts of New Delhi. “Because of the security situation back home, the Afghan team can't play enough cricket there, but thanks to the cricket board in India, they now have a ground, which has helped them a lot. As a cricket fan, and as an Afghan, we cannot thank them enough for this. One day, this will help us achieve great heights.”
The security situation Sial speaks of has, of course, negated all possibilities of international cricket being played in Afghanistan, but fans have hope that they will one day host an overseas team in the cricket grounds of Kabul, or Kandahar or Khost or Wardak or Nangarhar.
“If international cricket comes to Afghanistan, it will be so nice, that I can't even imagine it properly in my head,” says Sial. “The Afghans will go mad in happiness, and they will give everything they have to see such a day. It will be like a dream come true for us, but we know we might have to wait for some time before that actually becomes a reality.”
There is this one part in the Afghan national anthem that goes '... daa hiwad ba til zaligi laka limar pa eshna aasman’, which translates to ‘This Land will shine for ever, like the sun in the blue sky’.
Afghanistan have already shown what can be achieved when passion meets persistence. The fans, too, have been patient with their cricketers so far, waiting for those apples to ripen. Now for the results. Who knows, two matches still remain in their WT20 campaign, and a perfect sign-off to leave a mark on the world stage with their biggest hunt since that landmark upset against Bangladesh in the 2014 Asia Cup could be just around the corner.