To the regular Joe unfamiliar with the multi-faceted political situation in Afghanistan, a lot of what happens with their cricket team can seem outlandish.
Consider this: the top government officials of the country are frequently in contact with a bunch of boys who form their Under 19 side at the 2018 ICC U19 Cricket World Cup.
The President, Mr Ashraf Ghani, was on a conference call with the team after their opening victory over Pakistan, and after their stunning quarter-final victory over New Zealand, it was the vice-president who had the boys on loudspeaker.
Those occupying the highest elected offices of most of the other participants in this tournament may not even be aware they have a team of boys contesting a World Cup. But in Afghanistan, they follow every move, despite being behind New Zealand by eight-and-a-half hours, with matches commencing at 2:00am.
There is good reason for that devotion.
"The situation in Afghanistan is such that, without sport, without cricket, there is no happiness for the country," says Naveed Sayyem, the team manager. "There is always some bomb blast or something or the other happening. People are therefore that much more loving of cricket, dependent on cricket – it puts smiles on their faces.”
When things are as they are in Afghanistan, cricket transcends from being merely a sport to being a source of happiness and hope for a whole nation. Therein lies the essence of this story.
Two years ago, when Afghanistan finished ninth in the 2016 edition, not many were surprised. They were an Associate side, and as impressive as their rise in cricket was and as good as their senior team could be, at U19 level their finish was considered indicative of the state of their place in cricket as a whole – all raw talent, still trying to polish their skills.
Things couldn’t be more different now. Afghanistan are a full member, all prepared to play their first ever Test against India in Bengaluru from 14 June. Their domestic structure seems to be thriving, with the Shpageeza League a rousing success and the recent announcement of the Afghanistan Premier League, slated to begin in October 2018. But it is their U19 side that truly reflects just how meteoric their rise has been, from winning the U19 Asia Cup to reaching the semi-final (and possibly more) at the World Cup.
They have set the tournament alight with the way they have gone about their game, playing passionate cricket through which their rawness sometimes rather charmingly comes through. They love attacking whenever they can and you can be sure some of their batsmen are just a few probing deliveries away from attempting a biggie.
They are careful not to cross the line between competitiveness and nastiness, and are happy to acknowledge quality – there was a wonderful moment in their match against Sri Lanka in Group D when they all applauded a particularly pleasing six from Ashen Bandara. That a sizeable chunk of adoring fans follow them around adds another layer to the reasons why they have fast become the neutral’s favourite to win the tournament.
It took time for Afghanistan to reach this level of functioning, both on and off the field.
Sayyem was the team’s manager in the 2016 tournament and when asked to pinpoint one factor in the interim that has contributed to their rise, he said: "Both teams were very good. Just that we weren’t a full member side then, and we hadn’t played enough with full member teams. This time, the players prepared well for about eight months. There was the tour to Singapore, the Shpageeza League at home, in which there were some big players participating – playing in that improved the confidence of the players. There was the Bangladesh series, and after that we won the Asia Cup. We also arrived in Napier three weeks before the tournament started, and played really strong sides here. So the boys were well-prepared."
There were changes off the field as well. Sayyem ensured there was strict adherence to guidelines.
"Afghanistan youngsters... they’re very mischievous. If you don’t tighten them and discipline them, they’ll easily get distracted," he says. And discipline them he did, by imposing a system of fines. In addition to this, Sayyem would take any rule-breakers aside and ensure the disciplinary reasons are explained to them. "I am a bit strict," he continued, "but only when the rules aren’t followed. Otherwise, I’m very friendly."
Sayyem also placed emphasis on appearances – no longer could players wear what they pleased while with the team. They would have to wear training kits to-and-from practice sessions, and even while on tour, they’d generally have to spruce up a bit.
"You’re representing Afghanistan," says Sayyem. "Even when they go outside the team hotel, they shouldn’t wear something that is cheap - they should wear clothes that are of a standard. Wear brands, because back home in Afghanistan, these players will soon become brands. The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) gives them an allowance for all this."
Professionalism was introduced at some levels and strengthened in others, both on and off the field. And in Andy Moles, who formerly coached their senior team, the Afghanistan colts found a mentor who fit their requirements better than they could have imagined.
"What changed (since 2016) was the arrival of Andy Moles," says Sayyem.
"The players have remained the same mostly. Afghanistan’s players like to hit sixes, they want to hit sixes every ball. They don’t like taking singles. Moles has come in and taught them the importance of building an innings, taking singles, playing patiently. He taught them to respect good balls, and the importance of putting a price on their wicket. He told them he didn’t have a problem dropping players who didn’t value their wickets – a few senior players have been dropped because of this, and the message got through to the whole team."
Moles’ efforts haven’t just been limited to the field. Many of Afghanistan’s players come from varied backgrounds and are culturally far removed from places like New Zealand. Some players can be daunted when having to travel, particularly to the the west, not just because they are in an unknown part of the world, but because they don’t know what local culture considers to be appropriate behaviour.
"Part of coaching is life skills as well," says Moles. "A lot of these things - manners when we're travelling abroad, getting them to understand the culture we're in and the behaviour patterns – it's just a general 'thank you', being gracious. Not opening the door for the ladies, but making sure you respect ladies, and that sort of stuff which they're doing now. It's different culturally from a lot of areas they're coming from. A part of my cricket coaching philosophy is not just making them bat and bowl well, I want them to be better human beings."
A part of my cricket coaching philosophy is not just making them bat and bowl well, I want them to be better human beings.
The ACB also attempted to ensure players were made financially secure, making cricket an attractive option for aspiring players in a land where political instability has caused widespread poverty. The budget has gradually improved - now aided by being full ICC members – and with the team making good on the investment by the ACB, the board is happy to invest further.
There is also a system of incentives that serve to motivate the players further.
"When we beat Pakistan in the opening match of the tournament, our chairman announced a bonus for all the players," adds Sayyem.
"He did that again after the quarter-final win against New Zealand. This conveys to the players that the cricket board is behind them, that they have a good support system."
The players need that support, and it’s evident that they value it.
"Some of the guys have seen the harsh realities of life,” says Moles. “Last night they heard about another 100 people being killed, there is a sombre feeling but they are strong enough to lift themselves. They have almost become immune to it, which is probably not a nice thing to say. But it is happening as often as it is, they have to be strong minded."
As mentally strong as they are, some of them have previously found it hard to escape their realities. They were previously known to save up their daily allowances and fees so that they could return home and provide for their families. It’s a measure of how deep the roots of poverty are that U19 boys were driven to this.
Thankfully, according to Sayyem, things are better now.
“My role is to facilitate and provide benefits to the players, make sure they are the ultimate beneficiaries of the development," he says. "There should be no one in the team trying to save their daily allowances to provide for their family. A lot of them come from poor backgrounds and this is the first or second time a lot of them are travelling out of their country.
"That culture has lessened now. There are no worries at the back of their minds, so the players can concentrate on their cricket. There was a time when the match fees used to go to only those in the 12-man squad, not the rest of the team. But we spoke to the management and got it extended to all 15 players, so that they don’t have those worries either. Basically, we’ve ensured the players have no problems monetarily."
Money is important, and it is here that Rashid Khan comes in. The leg-spinner’s remarkable journey from the streets of Nangahar to the national team to multi-million dollar contracts with various T20 franchises has caught the imagination of the nation. Parents who previously forbade their children from playing cricket are now suddenly a lot more accommodating. The knock-on effect on the players was that more of them believed they could emulate Rashid.
ICC Associate Cricketer of the Year— ICC (@ICC) January 18, 2018
🏆🇦🇫 Rashid Khan
What a year for 19-year-old @rashidkhan_19 who took 60 wickets for @ACBofficials in 2017 - a record for an Associate player in a calendar year - and 43 in ODIs (also a record!)
More ➡️ https://t.co/jhLlT71tpI#ICCAwards pic.twitter.com/aLGN5lIMsh
And sure enough, Mujeeb Zadran, the mystery spinner who flummoxed New Zealand in the quarter-finals, was picked up for approximately $629,000 by Kings XI Punjab during the 2018 IPL Auctions. Zahir Khan, his teammate, also found suitors, Rajasthan Royals picking him up for approximately US$95,000.
"Everyone (in Afghanistan) is focused on cricket," says Sayyem. "Parents see their sons on TV and feel happy. There is good money involved as well. Cricket is a way for a lot of people to not just follow their passion, but to do well in life. Rashid Khan has played an important role in that. The popularity of the game just keeps growing, everyone wants to be involved."
And it increasingly seems like everyone is. According to Sayyem, cricket is now by far the most popular sport in the country, over-taking the old-favourite football. "There are currently around 150,000 cricketers registered with ACB," he says. "These are counting only the players registered in clubs legally associated with the ACB. There are a lot more who haven’t registered."
The passion for cricket is slowly turning into an obsession.
"The environment in Afghanistan right now, there is a craze for cricket. From the President to the guy who sells fruit on the streets, everyone follows cricket madly. Still no one at home can believe that we beat New Zealand in a quarter-final, that we have reached so far in the World Cup. Even those who are not that passionate about cricket, those who love only football, they are also excited about this win. It’s a very good sign."
Afghanistan can’t seem to get a break. They wore black armbands in the quarter-final against New Zealand as a mark of respect to those who passed in the attacks in Kabul and Jalalabad.
"They were disappointed. Then they were angry," recollects Sayyem. On the eve of their semi-final against Australia, there was another attack in Kabul.
They will carry on though. They know they have the power to lift the spirits of those back home. Perhaps it is too much to responsibility to place on teenagers, but it spurs them on.
“It (blasts) seems to be the norm,” adds Moles.
"They (players) are brought up in very tough environments. A lot of these guys have had a hard life, but they're very passionate. They see cricket as a way to improve their family, get money for them - it's a great driving force. Also, the family follows them so much, the country in general is so behind this team that they know when they do well, they can bring joy to the Afghans."
It seems that power to spread joy and pride, more than anything else, is the essence behind this team.