When Raees Ahmadzai first became aware of cricket he was eight years old and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. The year was 1992 and Pakistan were about to win the World Cup.
Little did the young Raees know that the strange game he was watching, but barely understood, would go on to change his life. Fast forward less than 20 years, and he is getting ready to play for his country at cricket’s T20 World Cup.
“We are feeling that we are very lucky people,” he tells me in the English he has learnt while playing cricket around the world.
“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.”
Like millions of other Afghans, Raees and his family sought refuge in neighbouring Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979. There, cricket was already an established passion.
“I was in school at the refugee camp in 1992 when Pakistan won the World Cup. Everyone was happy, the teacher was happy, people were celebrating and firing their guns in the air. I was thinking, what is this cricket?
“So me and my friends made a ball from some cloth and cut a bat from some old wood. For years we played with no shoes, no equipment, nothing. But even in 45 degree heat we carried on playing. It was tough.”
Seeing the world
Raees quickly excelled. He started playing league matches in Pakistan and has been a central figure in the emerging Afghanistan team. Cricket has since provided him with a reality most Afghans would not even dare to imagine.
“One of our first coaches gave us some advice. Respect the pads, respect the cap, respect all your cricket equipment … and you guys, by the reason of cricket, will see the whole world.
“During my time in the refugee camp I thought the whole world would be the same. That everyone would have the same kind of house, that there would be no electricity”
Raees Ahmadzai, Afghanistan team cricket player
“I will never forget those words. During my time in the refugee camp I thought the whole world would be the same. That everyone would have the same kind of house, that there would be no electricity, no computers, no internet. Our refugee life was so simple.”
With the financial backing of the international and Asian cricket councils, the words of that coach have been borne out.
The last three years have seen Afghanistan winning tournaments in Asia, Europe, Africa and even South America.
The climax of Afghanistan’s world tour arrived in Dubai earlier this year, when they beat the United Arab Emirates to qualify for the T20 World Cup.
“We were only chasing a score of 100 runs,” remembers Raees of that February day. “But that total seemed like a mountain because of the pressure.
“When we eventually won, my captain Nowroz Mangal ran over to me and said, ‘Raees, pinch me, pinch my arm, I must be dreaming’.
“I said to him, ‘no you are not dreaming’. We have qualified, we are going to the World Cup, we will play at the World Cup. We were so emotional.”
Their draw for the West Indies event could hardly be tougher. Afghanistan will play the 2007 World champions India and one of the favourites to win the tournament, South Africa. But it is a prospect that does not seem to overtly concern Raees.
“Our players are tough. We have played in all sorts of pressure situations and in all sorts of conditions. We will not make it easy for them, I am sure we will give them a tough time.
“We have no facilities, we still 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.”
To some observers, T20 is the indecent cousin of test cricket. A quick hit for the distracted modern fan and a financial fix for the game and its players.
But in the context of Afghanistan, the format has enabled a story of pure human and sporting achievement to unfold.
A reminder that strength of character is not necessarily the product of victory. Facing close to impossible odds and deciding not to give in has already defined the strength and character of this extraordinary individual and his team.
Proud to be an Afghan can be seen from Monday, April 26, at the following times GMT: Monday: 0230, 1230; Tuesday: 0530, 1930; Wednesday: 1430; Thursday: 0030, 1630.