Shackles exist only so long as you think they do, writes Nirmal Shekar

Man’s infinite capacity to break free from soul-crushing, life-diminishing shackles has rarely found more compelling expression than in the field of sport.

If men everywhere strive for the freedom to reinvent their own true identities, then it is in the expression of that striving that they get to rid themselves of adamantly sticky labels.

Mohammad Nabi and his band of pioneers, busy authoring one of the most heart-warming chapters in the history of modern cricket in the Asia Cup in Bangladesh, would readily agree.

Just a few years ago, the idea of a competitive Afghan team playing with the sport’s handful of elite in Asia might have seemed preposterous.

But Nabi’s hardy bunch, whose brethren back home are more readily recognisable for their powers of ambush with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades, have rewritten the popular perception in fairytale fashion with cricket bats and balls.

Inspired young men

Afghanistan might still be among the most dangerous nations on the planet, but a few inspired young men from that country have astonishingly found the skills and the courage to present an overly commercialised and increasingly insular sport with its finest feel-good story of the new millennium.

A Google search for ‘Afghanistan Cricket’ throws up 6,39,00,000 results in 0.26 seconds. This may not compare favourably with a search for ‘Afghanistan War,’ which produces 36,20,00,000 results in 0.25 seconds.

But then, Afghans have been at war a lot longer than they have been learning to settle scores over 22 yards with a willow and a leather sphere.

The point is, a stereotype imposed on them by outsiders who might find it impossible to put themselves in the place of Nabi’s men, has been cast aside.

And with every swing of the bat, with every ball hurled by them in the Asia Cup, the Afghan cricketers seem keen to announce that they are not who we thought they were, as a people.

As Karim Sadiq, the team’s opening batsman, told the BBC’s Jafar Haand a few weeks ago, “[A]fghanistan is not just a country of war and drugs, it’s a country of love and sports.’’

With their mere presence in one of the game’s premier limited-overs events, the Afghans, who have also qualified for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand for the first time, have managed to erase the grossest of caricatures about their ancient land.

Bracing antidote

In the backdrop of the frightening randomness of life in their homeland, and the noisy ephemerality of short-form cricket in Asia, what Nabi and his men have accomplished can be seen as a bracing antidote.

“It’s a cliché but to them [the Afghans] cricket is really more than sport. Afghanistan has something to prove. They are playing for their very identity, to change the way the world perceives them. What better way to change people’s perception than through cricket,’’ writes Tim Albone, a British journalist, in his absorbing and moving book Out of the Ashes: The extraordinary rise and rise of the Afghanistan cricket team.

Albone spent two and half years in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007, writing for The Times (London) and The Sunday Times, and he spent hundreds of hours with the national cricket team, talking to everyone associated with it — not the least, Taj Malik Alam, widely known as the father of Afghan cricket.

“Cricket is a genteel sport of discipline, tactics and diplomacy: in other words it is a game that encapsulates all that Afghanistan doesn’t in the eyes of the wider world,” writes Albone.

Afghanistan joined the International Cricket Council only in 2001 and in the early days most of the national players were former refugees who had returned from camps in Pakistan — overcrowded make-shift shelters with no clean drinking water, poor sanitation and disease all around.

Fascinating journey

It is a long way from there to the five-star comfort of a hotel in Fatullah or Mirpur. But what a fascinating journey — and a deserving destination — it has been with stops en route in places where cricket is thought of as an insect rather than a sport!

It all started with hope, in a place where none existed. It progressed with imagination, when to simply imagine a future would have meant feeling like an idiot.

But sport, democratic as it is, generously makes room for those who dare to hope amidst hopelessness, dream amidst ruins. What is more, it rewards the ones who attempt the impossible.

Exactly four months before the Indian tricolour was first hoisted on the Red Fort in New Delhi, a brave, resilient African-American broke the colour barrier in American sport.

When Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, most American citizens — white and black — couldn’t believe that such a thing could actually happen in Major League baseball.

But the man who made African-Americans and the whole of progressive humanity proud, more than anyone else, won his first professional heavyweight boxing bout as an 8-1 outsider exactly fifty years ago.

 “Incredibly, the loud-mouthed, bragging, insulting youngster had been telling the truth all along. Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight title tonight when a bleeding Sonny Liston, his left shoulder injured, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round,” wrote Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times.

 Muhammad Ali was indeed telling the truth; so was Robinson; so are the Afghans today.

 That truth is simple: shackles exist only so long as you think they do.