We as cricket fans, observers and analysts alike live in interesting times. We're going through a phase, where the dominant narrative is about unending money, glamour and quick fame, where debates are framed around an innate conflict between club and country and even, in some instances, international cricket not living up to world-class standards. All of a sudden, playing for the country has become a dilemma. In short, and I might be wrong here, we're desperately searching for a prism of perspective. That is exactly where Afghanistan slots itself in seamlessly.
Out of the Ashes, a documentary film and book written by British filmmaker Timothy Albone about the Afghan cricket team, gets more powerful with every written word and ensuing chapter, which encapsulate not just the extraordinary story of the team, but also the power of sport, specifically cricket, in a war-torn country and divided society battling for a national identity.
Before moving to the substantive of the Afghan paradigm, a quick review of the book itself. Quite simply put, Albone's work demonstrates the whole essence of writing - simple language with a powerful theme, a combine that makes for the most compelling cricketing stories of our times. The book is a product of a careful, itemized and meticulous archiving of the sport in a country, where to date there is no single cricket pitch. The beauty of the writing lies in the manner in which the descriptions with the strong use of imagery allow the reader to be a part of this extraordinary journey, wanting more of it, upon turning every page and critically, as reviewers might suggest, sustains itself till the last page - a credit to the author himself.
Equally fundamental to the narrative of Afghan cricket is the context in which it is born, something Albone has quite outstandingly and sensitively handled throughout the book. Out of the Ashes, with a powerful theme and the author's effective narration is a much recommended work of modern-day cricket archiving and expression.
Let me simply say, there's a Taj Malik in each one of us cricket fans, or I'd hope so - emotional, delusional, exasperating, passionate with a flint of hope, subsequent joy that many of us watch sport for, irrespective of outcomes and fortunes our teams might suffer. It is with these very qualities that Afghanistan cricket was born in a refugee camp at Kacha Gari, on the outskirts of Peshawar in Pakistan.
The refugee camps came into existence during the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan, along with the Mujahideen resistance, which meant a lot of Afghans were displaced from their homes in various provinces, and ended up as refugees in areas adjoining the AfPak border. And this is where perspective comes in, I guess. Open drainage systems with constant warning signs of possible epidemics, no clean potable water, no electricity supplies for days, if not months.
For Taj Malik, this is where that dream was born - a dream which wasn't just about a new cricketing nation, but one which through its cricketing abilities and achievements, gave its people enough reasons to feel proud of who they were as Afghans and importantly, reasons to smile through the devastation their country was going through, thanks to international forces that invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
Taj Malik's dream combined with that steely determination of seeing young Afghan kids sublime themselves in cricket and succeed is what led him to travel across the border to Kabul by road, and in many ways, the roads are representative of how Afghan cricket would shape up ten years hence. A bumpy ride, obstacles along the way, but where failure in reaching the destination wasn't an option. Malik's dream (or as some might suggest delusion), for the record, was the 2011 World Cup and every forward step his wards took was considered critical to fulfilling that dream.
And thus begins Afghanistan's cricketing journey, in many ways a truly Afghan story - where plots and sub-plots include blood, loyalty (and therefore distrust), politics, emotions, tragedy (a former Afghan international cricketer was killed at Khost when US forces suspected him to be a Taliban) with a bunch of immensely naturally gifted, motivated, charismatic and proud individuals playing the protagonists.
From Jersey, where they participated in the lowest division (Division 5) of World Cricket in 2008 to within touching distance of qualifying for World Cup 2011 in 2009, Afghan cricket has indeed gone through several notches of transformation within a short span of three years, remarkable as many would say, and it is now up to us to ensure that this cricketing success story is here to stay. Their skill-sets have now shaped so well that even to imagine that some of these players never held a hard cricket ball (they played only tape-ball cricket) seven years go seems quite impossible to believe.
They naturally had self-belief, but a maverick personality, more genetic than imbibed, had to be channelled, given the demands of international cricket. Aggression, which to an Afghan came naturally, had to be harnessed and pride, again hereditary, restrained. They were emotional individuals considering where they came from, how proud they were to represent their country and at times, unfortunately, it had a spill-over effect onto their cricket.
This is where one of the foremost characters in this enthralling story, Kabir Khan comes in. Now coaching the UAE, the former Pakistan Test cricketer was perhaps the right kind of guide the Afghans needed. Khan hailed from Peshawar, which meant ethnically, culturally and linguistically, there weren't going to be many problems he'd face and that cricket could now take over.
"I was coaching in Stirlingshire, Scotland, when I was approached by the Asian Cricket Council in 2008 and I thought it was an interesting project to be a part of," Khan tells me about his early days in charge of the Afghan national team. "I think Afghans are naturally built for sport and extremely fit cricketers. When I took over, I realized that they were cricketers of good quality who genuinely wanted to prove a point to the outside world and put their nation on the right track through cricket," Kabir says.
He took over as coach from Taj Malik, despite the latter playing a major role in Afghanistan winning its first international tournament, the World Cricket League (Division 5). "The local coach (Taj Malik) was a very emotional person who was instrumental in getting the side together. But unfortunately, he didn't have a plan for the team and was too emotional. He believed that hitting boundaries was the most important thing, and that singles and twos weren't." Malik's role model, as Kabir says, was Afridi and that somewhere had an impact on the way his wards thought, especially while batting.
When Kabir took over as coach, Afghanistan was a team of stark contrasts - an extraordinary bowling line-up capable of defending the lowest of targets (not to mention the level of opposition they played against) and sadly, a batting order, high on talent, no doubt, but lacking in maturity (often dismissed before their allotted quota of 50 overs).
"Firstly, I had to get our batting in shape and underscore the importance of playing 50 overs. For the talent we had, I believed that if we batted 50 overs and put up a 180+ total, our bowling was quite capable of defending it," Kabir says. He adds, "Batting 50 overs was critical to our cause. I had to tell our batsmen that playing dot balls and maiden overs didn't mean the end of the world. My approach was simple: I asked the top order to bat out the first five overs without losing a wicket, and try and bat normally for the first 30 overs, and then let instincts take over, as if it were a T20 game."
Occasionally, the batsmen would respond. But it was a challenge getting them to think that way rather than ask for immediate results. Next up on the to-do list was to improve their fitness, introduce professional methods and importantly, overhaul mental and tactical approach, and thus Kabir brought over an assistant from the Pakistan Cricket Academy to help him with the non-cricketing side of things - tactics, mental conditioning and tactics, while he'd focus on skills.
"Their attitude was top class, though we had to work on their mental and tactical side of cricket", he says. According to Khan, even harnessing emotion played a big role in the success of the Afghan team. He says, "They were immensely determined cricketers who wanted to make a name for themselves and most importantly, their country. They used to cry every-time they won a game, or the national anthem was played. Any coach would have loved to work with this bunch of players, who wanted to win at any cost."
For this cricketing story to continue, it is incumbent upon us as stake holders to help and play a part in the future of Afghan cricket, which going by the sheer results and meteoric rise, looks bright.
So, how do we keep this going?
Today, Afghanistan are a team with ODI and Twenty20 status, with a more than impressive show in the four-day competition, ICC Intercontinental Cup, a level below Test cricket for top Associate teams which they won in their first attempt, which included a successful run-chase of 494 runs against Canada in the competition and went undefeated.
Kabir feels it is important one of the Asian boards adopts Afghanistan as a pet project and helps in its growth. The BCCI for example. "If the ECB can help support the likes of Holland, Scotland and Ireland, why can't the Indian board think of Afghanistan?" he asks rather passionately, before adding, "and this isn't even about money, but opportunity."
Pertinent question, indeed. I think the BCCI can play a massive role in the development of Afghan cricket, not by the spontaneous thought of Afghan players participating in the IPL, but critically, the sort of exchanges that happened in the 1970s with Ceylon - an invitation to the Afghan team to play in the Duleep Trophy, maybe. Or even regular matches between India A and Afghanistan, much like what the PCB did recently. Rather sensitively, it's also important for the BCCI (or any other board) to not become the story, but a part of it, playing a more substantive, yet background role in this development process.
Conflict, they say, gives birth to great stories - one that becomes a legend and maybe later, an epic in their own right. Afghanistan cricket's rise is quite the folklore cricket desperately desired and as fans we must cherish this for as long as possible. In a matter of three actual years, Afghanistan demonstrated not just the sheer power of cricket, but what individuals as a whole could achieve, or what the cynics call "impossible".
A near heartbreak in South Africa aside, where they failed to make it to the World Cup, today, they've played the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, won the ICC Intercontinental Cup in their first attempt and clinched the silver medal in Cricket at the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010. All this, for a nation which still doesn't have a cricket pitch or even a proper cricket stadium. Sadly, the likes of Hamid Hassan, Mohammad Nabi or Noor Ali may never get to play Test cricket, but as long as they get more moments to cry with pride and more victories, cricket will be the richer sport.