Between Wickets Columns

Older members of the family need to support the newcomers

Afghanistan cricket team   | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

In the 17th century, the Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell ordered the destruction of all cricket bats and balls in Dublin. He believed cricket was a waste of time in the era of the Puritans. Cromwell did play a version of the sport as an undergraduate, but perhaps not too well.

Over three centuries later, the puritans of another country, the Taliban in Afghanistan swung the other way and encouraged cricket there. Now both countries have Test status. Occasionally, even the International Cricket Council gets it right.

When a new entity is allowed into an exclusive club those already there pronounce cricket’s version of “there goes the neighbourhood”.

We’ll hear talk of lowering standards, of the sanctity of the scoreboard which now gives the same importance to a century against the newcomers as it would to one against the top teams, perhaps even talk of taking away the promotion if teams do not make significant progress quickly (it took the current world No. 1 India 20 years and 25 matches to record their first win).

Grim reality and romance

Afghanistan’s rise is both the most astounding and the most romantic story in cricket. When the Soviets invaded the country in 1979, many escaped to the refugee camps in Pakistan where they first came in contact with cricket. In a country that has been ravaged by war since, where remaining alive is often a daily struggle, cricket flowered in this century because of men like Taj Malik Alam.

The unlikely juxtaposition of cricket and war is evocatively described by Tim Albone whose documentary and book, both titled Out of the Ashes brought the story to the outside world. He begins thus: “Thousands of Taliban fighters are fleeing the unlikely alliance of US bombers, Special Forces, and ragtag Afghan militia… the fighters slip away on dirt trails and mountain passes, pausing perhaps, to gaze at Taj Malik Alam, who is travelling in the other direction towards the chaos.”

Taj’s mission: to assemble an Afghan cricket team and take it to the World Cup. Taj had been a refugee in Pakistan for 16 years, and now this dream.

“For a young Afghan refugee, with no television, very little education, and isolated from the world at large, cricket is a window,” writes Albone. Taj’s going against the grain symbolises Afghan cricket. As does the passion that once saw players wearing the same clothes in every match because there was no money.

Remarkable Nabi

Heroes emerged quickly. All rounder Mohammed Nabi is among the Top 10 ODI bowlers in the world, young leg spinner Rashid Khan’s seven for 18 against the West Indies earlier this month earned Afghanistan a win against the former world champions. Both played in the IPL. Fast bowler Hamid Hassan was 19 when he impressed the MCC in a match in 2006.

Nabi, 32, has been the face of Afghanistan cricket. He captivated Mike Gatting when playing against the MCC and was then invited to play for the MCC against Sri Lanka A. It was his first class debut — and he hit the first ball he faced for six. In both innings!

Nabi is also a reminder of the other side of the cricket. In 2008, a colleague, Rahmat Ali, 28, was killed by American forces who suspected him of being a bomb facilitator. In 2013, Nabi’s father was kidnapped while he was preparing for a World Cup qualifier. He played anyway, and when told that his father was safe, showed his pleasure by hitting 81 in 45 balls and then claiming five for 12 with his off-breaks.

Afghanistan who have already played in both the short-format World Cups, have a first class system in place.

So do Ireland, where cricket has been played since the 1730s. The game went through a dip 1901-1970 when the nationalistic Gaelic Athletic Association banned it for its connections with England. Yet, in 1969 Ireland dismissed the West Indies (Basil Butcher, Clive Lloyd, Clyde Walcott among the batsmen) for 25 and won the match by nine wickets.

Ireland became Associate Member in 1993. Ireland’s invitation to foreign players (Hansie Cronje, for one) and the development of home-grown talent was part of an organised move towards gaining Test recognition. They also had to deal with their best players (Ed Joyce, Boyd Rankin, Eoin Morgan) leaving for better prospects in England.

Cricket is more deeply rooted in Ireland than in Afghanistan, yet it is fascinating how the two have arrived at the pinnacle through different routes.

For all their heroics in the limited overs game, they will be aware that Test cricket calls for a different set of skills, both technical and psychological. This is the end of the beginning, the real test is now. Established Test nations need to look out for the newcomers in many ways.

Irish players have played first class cricket in England. India need to give Afghanistan players a similar platform, inviting youngsters to play first class cricket here. Noida is already Afghanistan’s ‘home’ ground.

Test cricket is a tough sport, and newcomers need all the help they can get. After all, the only Test cricketer to be born in Afghanistan — Salim Durrani — played for India.

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 9:07:42 AM |

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