The sound of kids playing was formerly largely the scuff of a football against pavement on a central Kabul street. It is now punctuated by the crack of a cricket bat.
Young Afghans have cricket fever, from pickup games in dusty parks or narrow alleyways to high-intensity training at well-equipped academies, a trend fueled by the Afghan national team’s unexpected performance in the 2017 ODI World Cup.
“I’m crazy for cricket,” said Shamsullah Mangal, 19, who practices at a privately sponsored academy after being inspired by national team member Rashid Khan.
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, the sport has emerged as a rare source of national unity, with the Afghanistan Cricket Board working hard to expand facilities and provide a pathway to potential sporting greatness for young players.
“Cricket in Afghanistan has a shorter history compared to other countries, but Afghanistan has great natural talents,” Mangal was quoted as saying by AFP.
“If players are supported, and facilities are provided, we will see a great Afghan team in future.”
Cricket was first popularized in Afghanistan roughly two decades ago, when refugees fleeing violence brought it back with them from established cricket-playing countries.
The sport’s popularity is now soaring.
“Afghanistan cricket is no longer just a sport; it has evolved into an industry,” former cricket board CEO Lutfullah Stanikzai stated.
Decades of war and limited economic resources, on the other hand, face significant finance and infrastructure obstacles, with the Taliban government’s isolation on the global arena posing further challenges.
‘We are only represented by cricket.’
Even at the well-funded Mohammad Mirza Katawazai Cricket Centre, when Kabul’s severe winter arrives, trainees must travel to Pakistan because the club’s indoor training facilities are still under development.
With so much stacked against the Afghan national team, victories over multiple great teams in their most successful World Cup in November were all the more satisfying: none more so than the one against Pakistan.
“Winning the (World Cup) trophy would not have made me as happy as when Afghanistan beat Pakistan,” Hezbullah Fateh, a spectator at a recent regional match, remarked.
Pakistan was one of the first countries where Afghans fell for the game, although the two countries’ relations have always been strained.
Thousands of Afghans have fled Pakistan to avoid deportation since October, when Islamabad ordered all unauthorized migrants to leave.
Afghanistan’s captain dedicated their World Cup victory to those who had returned home.
“These days, only cricket represents us on the international stage and presents a good image of us,” Zeeshan Shaheir, another matchgoer, remarked.
‘Dreams and aspirations’
Senior Taliban government officials have embraced the national team’s success, hosting banquets for the players after competitions and even congratulating them on social media.
The squad still uses the flag of the old republican government as an insignia, despite the fact that it has been replaced everywhere else in public by the armed group’s black-and-white standard, with the implicit sanction of the Taliban leadership.
However, that backing is limited to the men’s team. Since the Taliban assumed power, women have been prohibited from most parts of public life, including sports.
The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) is supported by the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council, as well as sponsorships and government financing.
According to AFP, the ACB operates 25 academies across the country and is establishing more, with private enterprises running many more.
According to Sadaat, the board has also been awarded property to create a “huge” cricket complex in Kabul, with work set to begin next year.
Mangal, who works at a business to support his training and aims to one day wear the national shirt, will be able to play in the kind of arena he dreams of playing in.
The benefits can be life-altering.
Afghanistan’s finest player and one of the best in the world, spinner Rashid Khan, earned $1.8 million this year while playing for the Gujarat Titans in the Indian Premier League.
That was in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earned playing in leagues around the world, where he was frequently accompanied by national teammates.
“This is my dream and ambition to play one day for the national team and achieve great things for Afghanistan,” Mangal went on to say.