As a sport, cricket isn’t even on the radar in the United States. But for many nations, it’s more popular than soccer.
Teams from India, New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan have dominated the World Cup for several decades. Held every four years, a complicated rating system determines who is eligible for play. There is opportunity for some of the minnows in the cricket world, but it is usually a gradual process that moves a nation from Division 5 play — the lowest ranking — to the top tier of teams that get to compete in the World Cup.
But the route to the World Cup by Afghanistan is the stuff of legend. They didn’t even have a team 13 years ago. Then, one man, Taj Malik, who grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, made the rounds of embassies pleading for help in establishing the sport in Afghanistan. A British army cricket enthusiast ended up writing home to cricket teams in England asking for donated equipment — and bats, balls, gloves, and pads poured in.
From there, Malik organized a league of 14 teams and started to develop a national team for international matches. Beginning in 2008, the Afghan national team began a meteoric rise in the cricket world that stunned observers and delighted their growing fan base at home.
A few wins against other lowly teams in Division 5 that year meant a promotion to Division 4. What happened next belies belief:
The team returned to Kabul to a hero’s welcome, but the triumph meant that cricket was now being taken seriously in Afghanistan, and the starry-eyed Malik was brushed aside in favor of a new, pedigreed coach: former Pakistani test cricketer Kabir Khan. Yet Malik had laid the foundation: Six members of that winning team from seven years ago in Jersey are among Afghanistan’s current World Cup-playing 11. Malik would make brief returns to Afghan cricket as an assistant coach to Khan and as coach of Afghanistan’s second-tier team, but today he has left the game, devoting his efforts to the Tabligh religious movement within Islam.
In the Division 4 competition later in 2008 in Tanzania, Khan picked up where Malik left off, while adding a needed aspect of cold professionalism. Wins over fellow cricketing minnows Italy and Fiji drew little international attention but helped ensure a tournament victory and promotion to Division 3. A narrow, weather-aided triumph in Buenos Aires in January 2009 meant that Afghanistan had earned a chance to participate in qualification matches for the 2011 World Cup.
Those World Cup qualifiers proved a mixed bag. Although the team failed to qualify, a last-day win over Namibia on April 17, 2009, meant the team secured a coveted and critical consolation prize: four years of Associate status (the second-highest grouping in world cricket) and a place in the 2011-2013 World Cricket League Championship, the top competition for teams outside the 10 elite sides holding test status. The top two finishers would earn a place in the 2015 World Cup. The meteoric rise from Division 5 to Associate status had happened in less than one year.
After a surprisingly strong World Cup qualifying campaign, it came down to the 14th and final match: a “home” game in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, (for reasons hardly requiring explanation, Afghanistan cannot host matches within its own borders) against Kenya, a participant in the three previous World Cups and a surprise semifinalist in 2003. As happened five years earlier in Jersey, a devastating performance by the Afghan bowling attack pulverized the opposition, holding Kenya to a mere 93 runs (roughly one-third of a good total), which was then easily surpassed by the Afghan batsmen. With a second-place finish, Afghanistan had come from nowhere to cricket’s biggest stage. Malik’s dream had become reality.
In the 2011 World Cup, the Afghan side, as expected, did not fare well. Then, against the third-ranked team in the world — Sri Lanka — the inspired Afghans scratched and clawed their way to a narrow lead. But Sri Lanka’s final batsman came through in the clutch and Sri Lanka narrowly edged out the upstarts for the victory.
Their next game against Scotland was equally dramatic. Trailing by 19 runs, it fell to Shapoor Zadran, one of Malik’s original players back in 2002, to pull off the dramatic comeback and give Afghanistan its first World Cup victory ever.
His reaction was priceless:
Because of their associate status, Afghanistan qualified for this year’s World Cup, now underway jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand. They are playing in Pool A — the so called “Pool of death” because there are 3 of the previous 4 champion sides playing in that group. But the Afghans notched their second World Cup victory — once again, against Scotland.
Playing no home matches because of the dangerous conditions, Afghanistan has defied the odds to field a world class cricket team. There may be religious and political divisions in the country, but the uniting expedient of sports has brought the country together to cheer on their 11.
It may be the one ray of hope in a nation where war, poverty, and ignorance have hung on for so long that the people know no other way of living.