“Cricket is very serious in Afghanistan. When we lose the match, the Afghan people are so unhappy.” – Afghanistan U19 opening batsman Rahmanullah Gurbaz.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of Afghanistan’s victory over New Zealand in the Super League Quarter-Final of the ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup. Sure, it was a chance for them to reach the semi-final stage of the tournament for the first time. But it was also so much more than that, with the weight not just of history but of a nation’s expectation and happiness weighing heavy.
Afghanistan have been cheered on at this tournament as few touring under 19 sides can ever have been, even earning their own superfan along the way. But even on a day when Christchurch was made to feel like Kandahar, captain Naveen-ul-Haq felt his side were lifted by the excitement rather than crushed by the pressure.
“I think passion in our country boosts our confidence and backs up players,” he said after their win. “It gives us motivation to play and enjoy the game. The fans have a lot of passion for the game. They travel around quite a lot to support us – Sydney, Auckland… they are supportive and passionate. But no, I don’t think that adds any extra responsibility on us. It’s just that they are backing us and supporting us.”
That passion extends back home, where Afghanistan’s campaign has kept a country awake, and drawn interest from those in some of the highest offices in the land.
“Our friends sent a lot of messages congratulating us for the victory,” said batsman Bahir Shah, who made an unbeaten 67 against New Zealand “They're very happy, they prayed for us. Whenever it's day here, it's midnight in Afghanistan, but they don't sleep. After winning the game, the Afghanistan vice president (Mr. Asif Abdulla) gave us a message. Our team spoke to him and they're very happy. It was very nice of the vice president to message us.”
But even considering the full scale of the support doesn’t fully explain the context of the team’s success. The last week has been a desperately tough one for Afghanistan as a country, with an attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul leaving at least 22 dead, and an attack on the offices of Save the Children in Jalalabad killing at least six just yesterday. Shah sees cricket as something which is able to shine light in dark times.
“The important thing is that the situation of Afghanistan nowadays is not very good,” he said. “Yesterday there was a bomb blast near our province so we are very sad. We wore black armbands today. The situation is not very good over there, but whenever we played... even when a player does well in domestic cricket, people are very happy. Here, we are in a World Cup and Afghanistan is in the semi-final so it will be very big. It's an unforgettable moment.”
For any team an ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup semi-final would be something to be cherished, but for Afghanistan it is something else entirely. Given all that rests on their performances, that this team are able to go out and play not just unencumbered, but lifted by the expectation, is truly remarkable.