“We are more than happy to host Afghanistan, who have shifted their base to Greater NOIDA from Sharjah, their earlier home ground. [Former] Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was very keen on offering the stadium to Afghanistan. He had directed us to make modifications in the stadium as suggested by the cricket experts to make it an international ground. We prepared the stadium and the pitch in a shot span of time because the Uttar Pradesh government wanted to grab this opportunity,” Hindustan Times quoted Rama Raman, chairman of the Greater NOIDA authority, after BCCI, Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) and Greater NOIDA Industrial Development Authority signed a Memorandum of Understanding in December 2015.

Afghanistan played host to Ireland in their new adopted ground, at Greater Noida, in March. Photo Courtesy: Aditya Sahay (CC Reporter)
Afghanistan played host to Ireland in their new adopted home ground, at Greater Noida, in March. Photo Courtesy: Aditya Sahay (CC Reporter)

In this way, the stage was set for Afghanistan to host their first full series on their new adopted turf against Ireland. The recently-concluded series comprised of 3 T20Is, 5 ODIs and a four-day match that was a part of ICC Intercontinental Cup, between both nations. The groundsmen and officials worked hard to ensure a smooth conduct of events, whereas I, sitting at the CricketCountry office in Mumbai, was trying to acquire accreditation and permission to cover the series. I had to undergo the necessary formalities and get the approval of my Editor Abhishek Mukherjee (trust me, it is not an easy task) before shifting to NOIDA for a month-long series.

There were butterflies in my stomach as I embarked on my first instance of ‘live reporting’ from the venue. My mind was filled with several thoughts. Of course, I had to file match reports and send live feeds from the venue, but that was something I could do from the newsroom. I wanted to interview the rising stars from both dugouts. I had my wish-list ready.

I also wanted to interact with Afghanistan and Ireland fans. The sole purpose was to get a peek into the mindset of people who fall into the Associate Nation category in the 22-yard game.

As things turned out, the ground was filled with Afghan fans punctuated by the occasional Irish supporter. The press-box, surrounded by the ever-chirpy and animated Afghan followers, taught me a lot about their nature and understanding. I realised that their zeal and admiration for the game, though childish at times, was respectable. For them, cricket was — is — more than just a game.

Afghanistan- A country that breathes a sigh of relief with every victory

Afghanistan, officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, is a landlocked nation between South and Central Asia. For trivia-lovers, it is 41st-largest in area and 42nd-largest in population in the world. And like many other nations, it has its’ share of dark history.

Afghanistan became a buffer state towards the end of the 19th century. In other words, it remained sandwiched between two superpowers, Britain and Russia. Ever since the Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, the state has gone through a series of civil wars that have — and continue to — devastate peace.

But when we see our cricketers we tend to forget our worries. They make us proud. We are striving hard for an image in the world and they are the biggest contributors in it. They are our only hope. The Shahzads and Nabis and Rashids are our peace ambassadors.

Amidst all this, cricket is the only cure for the people of Afghanistan. Following the footsteps of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Afghanistan got a taste of the game in the late 1990s. While the Taliban had banned all sport (including buzkashi, their national sport), cricket was allowed. They qualified for the 2010 World T20, and have not looked back ever since.

Given their meteoric, even unthinkable rise from the ashes of nothingness, Afghanistan cricket has found fans in every corner of the world. Cricket remains a sport, or at most a preferred form of entertainment in most parts of the world; for Afghanistan, cricket is often synonymous to life; it is their window to the outside world.

Cricket is Afghanistan's biggest healer amidst war and other calamities. Photo Courtesy: Aditya Sahay (CC Reporter)
Cricket is Afghanistan’s biggest healer amidst war and other calamities. Photo Courtesy: Aditya Sahay (CC Reporter)

The overused phrase ‘passionate about cricket’ actually holds for them. Cricket drives Afghanistan more than any other nation. Cricket keeps them going despite the distress of violence and uncertainties. Cricket is almost synonymous to them as breathing is to a person.

Indeed, Afghanistan needs cricket; but then, does cricket not need Afghanistan as well? Where would they find a nation of fans for whom the sport is akin to life?

The peace ambassadors

Make no mistake. The Afghans are as passionate about their heroes as Indians are about Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. Fandom in Afghanistan goes way beyond switching the television set on in the evening and pressing the mute button during commercials.

“In my nation, we hear news of some terror strikes (the recent Kabul hospital attacks, for example) very frequently. It is definitely not pleasing. But when we see our cricketers we tend to forget our worries. They make us proud. We are striving hard for an image in the world and they are the biggest contributors in it. They are our only hope. The Shahzads and Nabis and Rashids are our peace ambassadors. Our nation rises every time they win. They make us feel at ease”, said Najeeb Zadran, with a tinge of emotion in his voice.

"We are striving hard for an image in the world and they are the biggest contributors in it," said an Afghan fan. Photo courtesy: Abhishek Kumar (CC Reporter)
A group of Afghanistani supporters depicting an important message during the 3rd ODI between Afghanistan and Ireland at Greater Noida. Photo courtesy: Abhishek Kumar (CC Reporter)

I talked to other fans. They were unequivocal in their ideology: A fan explained: “Sport is a way of life. It teaches us to rise from the ashes, to compete in all situations, to work hard, to prepare for all scenarios, to respect our opponents and to treat success and failure equally. It is a great leveller. One day a team rises; the other day it is taken down by a superior rival. Above all, a team sport brings its countrymen together. Cricket is all we have. It is a team game. Everyone contributes. Our nation is often going through turbulent times. Amidst all that, cricket offers unity and togetherness to connect us.”

His cousin Al Amin, a diehard fan of Mohammad Nabi, added: “Do you see the crowds here? Every stand is full of Afghan followers. Despite what is going on back in our nation, cricket never stops. It keeps us glued. Cricket is a game of 11 players representing their nation. When these players win, our country wins. When they lose, we lose.”

Maturity of Afghanistan fans

Can fans have fans?

Anyone can be a fan. Being a responsible fan, on the other hand, is not easy. Indeed, fans play a role in sport more than they are aware of. It is essential that fans, however passionate, know to accept defeat.

Noor Ali, an Afghan fan, had his views: “Fans have a huge responsibility. If players represent the nation, fans represent the players. Fans have to behave in a certain manner.” He mentioned Moeen Ali’s ‘lucky’ reprieve in the 2016 World T20 match: “Moeen was lucky to have survived for long as he was out much before. We lost the game due to his innings. But this is a game. Such things happen. Our side has sometimes been on the wrong side of a poor decision, but we have benefitted at times as well. Umpires have a tough job after all. They are humans. No one is perfect. They make mistakes on the field but we should not react aggressively.”

You do not have to be a supporter of an ‘established team’ to have a clear mindset. Maturity, I suppose, has little to do with the stature of the team you support. Cricket has brought me close to fans across the globe, but I can safely say that I have never met anyone like Afghan fans.

The Indian factor

India have played a significant role in Afghan cricket. More than anything, they have given them one of their two home venues. But what do the Afghan fans think about India?

Mansoor Iqbal, a fan, told me: “We love India. Their fans have always been welcoming. I was here when Afghanistan played in 2011. We mostly follow Afghanistan cricketers but love Indian players as well. MS Dhoni is our favourite. Even [Mohammad] Shahzad is a big fan of Dhoni. He even practices Dhoni’s trademark helicopter shot in the nets, as do the kids. We all have our own version of Dhonis and Kohlis, and are as passionate as the Indian fans.”

Iqbal added: “Inshallah, India ne humme khelne ke liye ground diya hai. Hum duniya ko ache cricket khelke dikhayengey.” [By God’s grace, India have given us a ground. Our players will play good cricket and show it to the world].

The Afghan IPL

IPL 10 is upon us with its now-familiar jingle “Yeh dus saal aapke naam” [we dedicate these ten years to you]. The six-week-long tournament has succeeded in maintaining strong foothold by increasing their fan base across the globe. Needless to say, it has impacted Afghanistan as well.

Inshallah, India ne humme khelne ke liye ground diya hai. Hum duniya ko ache cricket khelke dikhayengey.

During the second ODI, an Afghan fan spoke on the IPL rage back home: “You go anywhere and there will be heated arguments among people defending their respective franchises. My favourite team used to be was KKR [Kolkata Knight Riders] but I now support SRH [Sunrisers Hyderabad]. We are elated that Nabi and Rashid [Khan] will get to play for SRH”, she said with a grin.

Afghanistan have their own premier league as well, one that goes by the name of Shpagiza. Afghan Cricket Board started this tournament with six franchises, which even includes a few international cricketers. The purpose of the tournament is to spread the game and promote peace through sports.

Facilities, domestic setup and security:

With so much being done to promote the game in their own backyard, one will be eager to know how well Afghanistan have done in increasing facilities back home. Sure, their supporters turn up in large numbers to back their team, but they are also hopeful of hosting matches in their own den in near future.

Noor satiated my curiosity: “There are grounds in Kabul and Jalalabad. There are some decent grounds with 95 per cent work complete. Security is the only concern otherwise we would have hosted these matches (versus Ireland) in our own land”.

Talking about security, the 3rd ODI witnessed a group of supporters sharing a strong message for all viewers.

Their tone captures the urge for peace in Afghanistan. The country wants acceptance and is tired of remaining a proxy battlefield.

Atif Gulzi, owner of a mobile phone shop in Kabul, told me: “Domestic setup sudhar raha hai. Bachon ko bahut interest hai. Kuch log jo iss game ke baare mein jaante bhi nahi woh bhi ab saara updates lete hain. Inshallah, kisi din Afghanistan India ya Pakistan ko host karre na, toh saara mulk kaam chodh ke aajayega stadium pe.” [The domestic setup is improving. The kids are interested. Even the ones who do not have a clear knowledge about cricket eagerly wait for updates. If Afghanistan, by God’s grace, hosts India or Pakistan some day, the entire nation will roll the shutters down and be at the venue.]

Moments of glory

Gulzi mentioned some of their most cherished and celebrated victories: “Against Bangladesh in Asia Cup 2014; against West Indies in the 2016 World T20; and against Scotland in the 2015 World Cup. Scotland have played for some time, but we defeated them in our first World Cup campaign. This side has done a lot for the country. They have even spent their own money to play games, they deserve a better future.” He concluded by thumping his chest.

Despite what is going on back in our nation, cricket never stops. It keeps us glued. Cricket is a game of 11 players representing their nation. When these players win, our country wins. When they lose, we lose.

Of course, the sport requires new followers. They add more to the game. They spread more energy and excitement that not only take the game forward but also instill confidence in the minds of the players. Afghanistan have a different story. They have faced enough atrocities. They have finally found peace in cricket. Cricket gives them a slimmer of hope for scripting a better future, of gaining worldwide recognition and of not remaining confined by world powers.

The above song by Latif Nangarhari sums up Afghanistan’s selfless love for cricket. It translates to “I’ll win the match, I’ll win the World Cup, I’m son of Ahmed Shah (hero of Afghanistan), I’m Afghan, I’m Afghan…I’m Afghan, I’m Afghan”.

Indeed, cricket needs Afghanistan as much as Afghanistan need cricket.