Proud to be an Afghan: Cricket in the Shadow of War

From refugee camps to global fame – the rise of Afghan cricket and how it helped unify and redefine a war-torn nation.

When Raees Ahmadzai first became aware of cricket he was eight years old and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan‘s northwest Frontier Province. It was 1992 and Pakistan were about to win the Cricket World Cup.

Like millions of other Afghans, Raees and his family had sought refuge in neighbouring Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979. There, cricket was already an established passion.

Cricket ... now it's the number one game in Afghanistan. That has taken them away from the streets, where the only thing they knew was to carry guns and to fight. So now instead of guns, they're carrying cricket bats.

by Iqbal Sikander, 1992 World Cup winner

“I was in school at the refugee camp when Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup … Everyone was happy, the teacher was happy, people were celebrating. We’d say, what’s this World Cup?” Raees recalled.

Little did Raees know that the game he was watching, but barely understood, would go on to change his life.

“‘Slowly slowly we started playing cricket … For maybe five or six years we played cricket without shoes, or without anything. Even in 45 or 50 degrees heat. That was tough.”

Raees quickly excelled. He started playing league matches in Pakistan and became a central figure in the emerging Afghan cricket team.

Games such as cricket and football were banned and condemned by the Taliban in the early years of their austere rule, which began in 1996, but they lifted the cricket ban in 2000.

In 2001, a US-led invasion toppled the Taliban. In the same year, Afghanistan‘s national cricket team was formed and their cricket board formally recognised as an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council.

At the time, they had no world ranking and no home pitch. But they had a generation of talented players.

“We have no facilities, we have no ground, no salaries, no nothing, but we have unity. There are no barriers between us, we are together as one. We are just playing for our country and we play from our heart to represent our people and our nation,” Raees told Al Jazeera’s Andy Richardson 10 years ago as he was getting ready to play in the T20 World Cup qualifier.

“We are doing something special for our country, something for peace. We want to change the minds of people and convince them that war is bad. I want the whole country to have the same unity our team does.”

Since then, Afghanistan’s cricket team has found a new home among the sports world’s elite.

In 2019, Rewind talked to Raees and Andy Richardson about Afghan cricket today and what has changed since Al Jazeera filmed the team ahead of the 2010 T20 World Cup.

Raees said that nowadays “everyone knows about cricket … Cricket is the number one sport in Afghanistan. All the youngsters want to play cricket … and they get a lot of support.”

Since his retirement from the national team in 2010 Raees has worked in different positions on the Afghan Cricket Board and is currently working with the Afghanistan Under-19 team as a head coach. He believes that sport, and cricket specifically, continues to have a positive effect on Afghans and how the war-torn nation is perceived abroad.

“Cricket gave a good name to Afghanistan. I remember when I was the captain we went to England; I can’t remember the exact name … it was a very small village. We had a cricket match there and people … had no idea about Afghanistan. They just knew Afghanistan because of the war … They told us that they never thought that Afghan people would play cricket … So cricket gave a good name to Afghanistan all over the world.”

Cricket is often viewed as a “product of British colonialism, a legacy of the empire” explains Richardson. “But Afghanistan cricket has emerged in a completely different way. These guys 15 years ago were learning cricket in Pakistan in refugee camps. There was no legacy from the English. They learned their cricket in a very tough way, street cricket; playing tape-ball cricket. It meant bowlers emerged of the like no-one had ever seen in the world. And as a consequence now, they are like gold dust … They are playing all over the world.”