They have no field, no uniform, no helmet, no gloves, but these young Afghans play hard under the relentless sun of Peshawar, Pakistan.
The dusty refugee camps of western Pakistan are a world away from the prestigious London turf where the Afghan team took their first steps this week, but it’s where the country at war fell in love with cricket.
It all started when Afghans fleeing the fighting began crossing the border in their millions four decades ago to settle in Pakistan. In this former British colony already won by cricket fever, the refugees were infected and brought their passion back home.
Afghanistan’s admission to the world’s elite, the Test nations, illustrates the meteoric rise of the sport in the country. The rain which interrupted the match on Tuesday at Lords, a verdant Mecca of cricket, did not dampen hopes.
« I hope to be selected, » breathes a 17-year-old pitcher, Arshad Khan, from Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan, who trains in Peshawar.
Before him, a whole generation of Afghans who grew up in Pakistan became part of the local cricket culture, street games and television stars, supporting the Pakistani team before dreaming of their own. .
Many of the national team players « lived in refugee camps, in Kacha Garhi, Shahkas, Pabbi and Jalozai, and played there with tennis balls », explains Abdul Wahid, a 35-year-old player, who himself almost got selected. He is currently training young refugees in the camps.
It was in the clubs of Peshawar that they discovered real hardball cricket, he recalls. « Before, we applauded the Pakistani team, now we have ours ».
‘The Poultry Team’
The Gymkhana, the city’s main cricket academy, still displays photos of Afghan stars, like Muhammad Shahzad, from when he played for clubs in Peshawar.
« The Afghan players were the beauty of the sport, » said Asghar Khan, a Pakistani coach and former president of the local cricket federation.
He lists big names in Afghan cricket, from Mohammad Nabi to Asghar Stanakzai, the captain of the national team, stressing that they all learned in Peshawar and that many of them started in the camps.
A Pakistan Cricket Federation coach, Faridullah Shah, remembers the fierce determination of these players.
« They worked as labor during the day and then came to play cricket here. There was a team of Afghans, nicknamed the + poultry + because many were trying to survive by selling chickens, « he says.
They couldn’t always afford the equipment, but trained every day, Shah recalls. « They were extremely motivated – more than our players – and that’s what made them successful. »
« Afghans learn quickly, » said Pakistani coach from Islamiya Academy Qazi Shafiq.
« One of the Afghan national team players told me that he borrowed money to come and train here (at the academy) and then he couldn’t afford anything. ‘a pack of biscuits at 10 rupees (8 cents) a day to survive,’ he says.
But fewer and fewer Afghan cricketers are trained in Peshawar academies. Pakistan launched a controversial repatriation campaign last year, leading hundreds of thousands of refugees to return home.
Players are also affected by new restrictions imposed by both Islamabad and Kabul — it remains to be seen what the sporting consequences will be.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime took a dim view of cricket like all other distractions and, sixteen years after being ousted from power, Islamist insurgents are on the rise.
But the enthusiasm with which the Afghans hailed their status as a Test nation and followed the match in London gives hope for a better future for the discipline.
Cricket fever seems to be spreading to Taliban fighters.
« Now they not only follow cricket on the radio, but they also play when they have a break, » an insurgent commander told AFP.
16/07/2017 11:18:18 – Khurasan refugee camp (Pakistan) (AFP) – © 2017 AFP