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Tea Leaves

Afghanistan's 'can-do' journey from civil war to green oval

Country's rise in world cricket ranks lifts national pride

Afghanistan's Gulbadin Naib in action in the team's Cricket World Cup match against England in Manchester, the U.K., on June 18   © Action Images/Reuters

A remarkable story of national pride is reaching its apotheosis on the cricket fields of England as Afghanistan's national team takes its place among the 10 countries competing in the 12th edition of the one-day Cricket World Cup, one of the world's most-watched international sporting events.

Like other contenders in the quadrennial tournament, which runs from May 30 to July 14, they have brought with them a bag of tricks, particularly in the beguiling art of spin bowling, and fans watching at home are reveling in the moment.

In the world of one-day cricket -- in which matches are played over a span of about eight hours -- Afghans have found a sport in which they can compete with the global elite. The team will also compete in the T20 World Cup in Australia in 2020 (a form of the game that usually takes less than four hours), and will play its first test match (lasting up to five days) in Australia later in the same year.

South Asia's millions of cricket fans -- India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (my own team) are in the tournament -- should also cheer Afghanistan in the spirit of regional solidarity. And Afghans need plenty of support: A surge in violence across the country in May, when 2,300 people were reported to have been killed or injured in extremist attacks, provided a grim reminder about the conditions facing the team at home.

For players like Gulbadin Naib, the Afghan team captain, the opening match against Australia on June 1 was the culmination of a sporting rise that parallels the trajectory of soccer in many other Asian countries. "It is not just sports for us, it is the love for the country that we have -- and passion for cricket, which has brought us where we are now as a team," Naib told Al Jazeera on the eve of the World Cup.

In the process, Afghanistan penned a new chapter in the history of the game when the captains of the 10 World Cup teams posed for an official photograph with Queen Elizabeth II before the first match. The Afghan captain represented one of only two countries in the tournament (the other is England) that were not colonized by the U.K., which gave the game to the world and made it an enduring legacy in its former colonies. All of the 10 other full members of the International Cricket Council, the sport's governing body, have historical links with the U.K., although cricket is also "firmly established" in 92 other countries, according to the ICC.

History might have been different if the U.K. had triumphed during a series of Anglo-Afghan wars in the 19th century. It was during one military foray that British troops swapped weapons for cricket bats to play a match in Kabul. But that first recorded account of the game in Afghanistan did not lay down roots for the sport, as in so many other corners of the British Empire.

Ironically, Afghans had to wait for a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 for cricket to replace kite flying as the nearest thing to a national sport. The Americans, for whom cricket is a small minority sport, realized it had more potential to unify the country's ethnic groups than baseball, the U.S. national sport. So Washington helped to renovate the decaying National Cricket Stadium, allowing it to open its green oval for serious cricket in 2011.

In another twist, many of the national team's stars discovered the game as refugees in neighboring Pakistan, as did millions of Afghan fans. By one count, more than 3 million people fled across the border following an invasion by the former Soviet Union in 1979 and subsequent civil wars. Rashid Khan, ranked one of the world's best leg spinners, first got a taste of the game as a refugee in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

On the field, the Afghans had not emerged as much of a threat till they played India, one of the pre-tournament favorites. They almost staged an upset in a thrilling match that was decided in the last over, with India scraping through. By June 24 the team was ranked at the bottom, having failed to notch a single victory, and it is highly unlikely to match the success of its three South Asian neighbors, all of which have won past tournaments.  

But that is to be expected: Sri Lanka played in five one-day World Cups, finishing close to the bottom in all, before winning in 1996. Pakistan, a populous country with a long cricketing tradition, played four tournaments before winning in 1992 under the captaincy of Imran Khan, now prime minister. Afghanistan will take heart from that record, but even a single match victory would be a heart-warming event -- for international cricket and the whole of South Asia, but most of all for every Afghan.

Marwaan Macan-Markar is an Asia regional correspondent for the Nikkei Asian Review.

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