Playing for ‘Our Own,’ Afghan Cricket Stars Return Home as Heroes

KABUL, Afghanistan — Some of the children walked for two hours. Others paid about 30 cents for the bus ride. Some left home in their faded blue uniforms, backpacks and all, but skipped school rather than risk missing anything.

Now they are here, at the Kabul International Cricket Ground, among a crowd of roughly 300 who are watching the final of a local league, with a $15,000 prize up for grabs. It is 75 degrees in the intense sun of early afternoon.

Most of the older people in the crowd sit in the stands, in the shade of pop-up marquees. But not these children. They are pressed against the blue railing, their eyes intent above its spearlike tips, and just below the razor wire that is supposed to prevent anyone from entering the field.

They are not just cricket fans — they are fanatics, commentator-mimics, encyclopedias of often-imagined trivia about their favorite players. And just curious, demanding children. For hours, they remain intent on every play, almost immediately returning to the railing each time they are chased up the stands by a Taser-carrying guard.

 Many of the players in front of them are stars: celebrities propelled by the game from villages and dusty refugee camps to the highest national, and even international, stage. So when the fans demand, they oblige. This is the love they play for.
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Young cricket fans cheered from behind the railing at Kabul International Cricket Ground.CreditAndrew Quilty for The New York Times

“Hey Shafaq, sign this, will you?” shouts one boy, sticking his cap through the railing at Shafiqullah Shafaq, a member of the country’s national team who is fielding at the boundary now for one local side. Mr. Shafaq steps over the boundary rope and signs cap after cap on his raised knee.

As the play resumes, he drops the pen and runs after the ball.

“Shafaq, any chance for a photo?” Calls another young fan.

“After this ball,” Mr. Shafaq says. Phone after phone is handed to him as he extends his arm, smiles, takes selfies with the children behind the railing, and then hands the phones back.

“Playing in our own nation, for our own people, it gives me happiness,” Mr. Shafaq said after the game, which his team lost by a small margin.

Cricket has had a remarkable rise in Afghanistan, after its first team was born, more than a decade ago, by players returning home from the dusty parks of a refugee camp in Pakistan. Now Afghanistan’s team consistently ranks in the world’s top 10.

“A very long journey, in a very short time,” said Shukrullah Atif Mashal, chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board. “I think it’s a great example, for all institutions in Afghanistan.”

Shafiqullah Shafaq prepared to take the field for the Pamir Riders. CreditAndrew Quilty for The New York Times

In the documentary “Out of the Ashes,” which beautifully captures the Afghan cricket team’s rise, one player recites a couplet that describes the team’s philosophy — and the escape that this unlikely game continues to bring to a weary and traumatized nation:

Pull up your sleeves and dance

The happiness of the poor comes only now and then.

After every victory, every step up in the rankings, the team is, in fact, welcomed home with song and dance. Fans and officials wait at the stadium with flowers and music. The players are driven around Kabul in the backs of trucks, trophy in hand, smiles beaming.

The players’ faces are all over billboards and commercials. Television channels carry their games live; radio stations compete for the commentary. In the small province of Khost, four local television channels and eight of the 10 local radio channels broadcast games live, sometimes even local provincial games.

There is tremendous money in the game. The International Cricket Council, the sport’s organizing body, gives Afghanistan about $1.4 million a year, around 33 percent of the game’s overall budget, Mr. Mashal said. The rest comes from private sponsors, their willing numbers increasing with the game’s popularity.

Like almost everything else in Afghanistan, the game is not untouched by accusations of ethnic bias and cozying to certain political groups. But Mr. Mashal, the chairman, says he is committed to equal development of the game across the country.

These days, a top national team player could make as much as $10,000 a month, with everything from salary to match fees included, according to Mr. Mashal. That is a large sum in a country where a police officer’s monthly salary is about $200. Then there are private leagues for bonus income. A player like Mr. Shafaq, for example, is paid about $1,000 for a week’s play in a private tournament like this one. Other leagues offer as much as $500 a match.

Some top Afghan players also play for the game’s largest international leagues, in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean. The talk these days is about two players who were given contracts in the lucrative Indian Premier League, the highest private stage for the game. The Afghan teenage star Rashid Khan got a whopping $600,000 contract, and a veteran, Mohammed Nabi, received $46,000 — all for about six weeks’ play.

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Cricketers waited to practice at a cricket academy in Bagrami, on the outskirts of Kabul.CreditAndrew Quilty for The New York Times

In the evenings, televised Indian Premier League games are a big show in town.

At his small fast-food and sweets shop in the Macroyan neighborhood of Kabul, Sediqullah Khan is glued to his 32-inch Samsung television. He usually closes shop by 9 p.m., but on a recent Wednesday night he was waiting for the game to finish.

“I didn’t know what the Indian Premier League was before this, but now I watch because Nabi and Rashid are playing — I have not missed a single game,” Mr. Khan said. “I have a TV at home also, but it’s not this big and I can’t watch in this good quality.”

At the cricket ground, with snow-covered mountain peaks hovering in the distance, the curious children behind the railing are busy with all sorts of subjects, including last night’s Indian Premier League game in which Mr. Khan, the young Afghan star, was playing.

“Who won last night?” Bismillah, 13, asks. He fell asleep after the game was interrupted by rain.

Before he has even heard the answer, he sees Mohammed Ibrahim, one of the players on the field in front of him, gulping from a water bottle during a fielding break.

Bismillah asks his friend next to him the player’s name, and then shouts after him: “Hey, Ibrahim, can you give me some of that water?”

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Young boys played cricket in Bagrami. CreditAndrew Quilty for The New York Times

Mr. Ibrahim, tall and athletic, steps over the rope to hand him the bottle through the railing.

“Toss it back here after you drink — this is the only bottle I have,” Mr. Ibrahim says.

The bottle makes the rounds. The children drink from it one after another. It doesn’t make it back to Mr. Ibrahim on the field.

His sun-beaten lips moist now, Bismillah puffs his chest and begins a commentary on the game in front of him as if he were on the radio: “What a glorious shot! The ball is running toward the boundary!”

“They should just give me a list of the player names and a loudspeaker,” Bismillah says, satisfied with his own performance. “But they won’t.”

Next to him, Rahatullah, 11, is busy with different ways of calculating what the $600,000 Mr. Khan is being paid in India means.

“Every ball that he pitches is one lakh rupees,” roughly $1,500, Rahatullah calculates.

During the innings break, the renowned national team player Mohammed Shahzad walks out of the V.I.P. room in jeans and sandals. He has recently been suspended from the game for a short while by the international council for using a prohibited substance.

The children have decided he is going to jail.

“It’s not just a regular jail,” Bismillah says. “It’s a nice room, and it has a television, too.”

Categories: Afghanistan,Sport & Health

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