Cricket is the most popular sport in India, fuelling ambition among millions of youngsters to be a Sachin Tendulkar one day. It is a sport that cuts across class/caste and religious loyalties and propels the world’s cricket economy. But it is not a truly global sport yet, far from it. Only a limited number of nations, with a colonial past, play it and even among them a handful excel. For it to spread and grow, cricket needs more and more nations to not only embrace the game but also make a mark against strong teams.
It is in this context that the stupendous rise of war-ravaged Afghanistan as a cricketing nation is an event to celebrate. At a time when invincible cricketing nations like Windies have sunk to the bottom and the Sri Lankans seem to be in their footsteps, Afghanistan earned Test status last year. It came on the back of the team’s impressive record in games involving the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) associate members that also saw it being ranked 10th among ICC’s top teams.
This in itself was a stunning achievement for a nation where sport was banned by the Taliban for years. With little or no history of cricket, the sport became popular among Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the 1990s. For the children of families forced to flee their country and living in refugee camps in Pakistan, introduction to cricket ignited their imagination and helped them channel their energies in a positive direction.
One shining example is Rashid Khan, one of the 10 siblings of a family from Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan that fled to the safety of a refugee camp in Pakistan. He learnt his early craft there and on his return, pursued his newly acquired zest for the game.
Today, 20-year-old Rashid is among the best spinners in the world. His astonishing control, variations and boundless energy have already bestowed on him the status of the most dangerous leg-spinner in the world. His phenomenal performances in the shorter format — be it the Indian Premiere League or for his own country – have led to a spinning revolution of sorts, where the slow bowlers are the prized possessions of all cricketing nations.
Young men like Rashid, on their return home, spread cricket’s reach across the country. In a nation, where Buzkashi (an ancient sport played on horsebacks with men wrestling over a carcass) is the national game, cricket started taking root. Afghanistan formed its own board in 1995 and even the Taliban, perhaps as recognition of its acceptance in society, lifted the ban on cricket in 2000, paving the way for the nation to participate in international competitions.
More than 15 years later, Afghanistan is now widely regarded as a team that has the strength and desire to emerge powerful on the world stage.
Nothing symbolizes the nation’s talent and hunger to do well more than the spirited show they put up against India in the recently concluded Asia Cup in Dubai.
The last over tie in a match where India were made to sweat and panic was a memorable show of cricketing resilience. It just went on to prove that Afghanistan has come of age as a team and no cricketing nation, howsoever strong, can take them lightly.
The newest Test playing nation has earned its stripes.
Afghanistan’s entry into the Test arena, the 12th country to do so, had a greater political significance, which the Indian government and the cricket board did not want to miss.
India, the first nation to play against a post-apartheid South Africa, were keen on being the first to host and welcome the terror-scarred nation into the Test fold, a political overture as well as a friendly message from a stronger and powerful neighbour.
It is for this reason that some members of the Indian Board were unhappy about Virat Kohli missing the historic occasion. They would have liked not only a full-strength Indian team but also have their best player and skipper represent them. India were even contemplating denying Kohli permission to skip the match.
From a cricketing perspective, it did not matter whether Kohli played or not but the furore his absence caused showed that Afghanistan’s entry into the Test arena is pregnant with great significance in the larger geopolitical context of the sub-continent.
Their debut in the most testing and durable format of the game was disastrous, losing the match without even a semblance of a fight. It is a learning curve for them and the more they play, the better they will get. Cricket, for its own health, needs teams like Afghanistan as much as Afghanistan needs cricket.