Afghans offer hope to war-torn homeland
Willie Dick (The Herald)
THE story of Afghan cricket’s rise from refugee camps to World Cup qualification is a remarkable one.
That Scotland’s opponents in a crucial Intercontinental Cup fixture at Ayr this week have jumped from being also-rans of World Cricket League Division 5 up to the top six of associate nations in the space of two years is extraordinary in itself.
However, the individual stories of many of their players are of fairytale proportions – perhaps none more so than that of Hamid Hassan, the Afghanistan pace bowler now widely regarded as one of the best players outside the ranks of the Test-playing nations.
Hamid has packed enough adventure into the 23 years of his life to fill several volumes. Whisked away from his native Nangarhar in the east of Afghanistan as a toddler, he grew up in and around the refugee camps of Peshawar in Pakistan. There, inspired by his older brother Rashid, he quietly learned to play cricket with a tennis ball, later surprising his sibling with his self-taught skills.
Hamid’s tale involves a return to his homeland where he was an instant hit in Kabul, taking just one delivery in the nets to persuade the coach he should be included in the Afghanistan Under-17 side.
The talented fast bowler meanwhile met fierce resistance to his cricketing ambitions from his father, who had earmarked a professional career for his son. An act of defiance had him leave home. He is now an established star of the associate cricketing world and even became one of the first two Afghans to represent MCC.
This part of his story at least has a happy ending as Hamid’s dad, Abdul Mateen, is now his number one supporter. “I started cricket with a tennis ball when I was about five years old,” said Hamid. “My older brother Rashid was a very good cricketer and I was always asking him to let me play. Some time later I did play against him and he wondered where I learned and I told him I had been practising every day.
“A few years later, a former Afghanistan player told me I should go back home because I would be good enough one day to play for Afghanistan. My dad said I couldn’t play cricket because he wanted to make me a doctor. But I told my mum I wanted to play cricket and she told me it was my life and my choice.
“Nobody knew how good Afghan-istan was going to become back then so I took a risk and I joined domestic cricket back home in 2003. I didn’t tell my dad – I just ran away from home.My brother gave me some money to help me and I went to Kabul.”
In his first organised game, Hamid took four wickets, but if he needed any further convincing that cricket was the career for him, it came when he witnessed the 2005 Ashes series.
“I loved watching the way that series was played,” he said. “I became a fan of Flintoff and I was convinced I wanted to make myself a good cricketer like him.”
Hamid was awarded with his first full cap in 2006 against Saudi Arabia, responding with his by then customary four wickets. He has gone on to amass 54 caps and 103 wickets for his country, his proudest moment coming this year when Afghanistan played in the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies.
Hero status followed. Even his dad has been won over. “My dad is now very proud of what I have done. He didn’t like cricket before but now he has become a big fan.”
The Afghans showed they mean business by arriving in Scotland as early as Thursday to acclimatise to conditions. They had hoped nets sessions for five consecutive days at Kelburne and at Ayr would prepare them for whatever the Scottish elements might throw at them. Instead, torrential rain wiped out their first scheduled session on Friday.
Wednesday’s action at Cambus-doon will take on historic significance being the first time Afghanistan have played anywhere in the UK. The match organisers anticipate several hundred Afghan supporters could turn up.
However, Pete Steindl, the Scotland coach, and his players know what to expect from opponents they have got used to meeting in recent times. The Afghans perhaps caught Scotland cold when the sides first met in South Africa a year ago, twice beating the Scots during the World Cup qualifying tournament. Coached by former Stirling professional Kabir Khan, they were again too strong for the Saltires in a T20 World Cup qualifier this year.
However, Steindl’s men started to redress the balance last month with victories in a warm-up match for the ICC World Cricket League in Holland and in the tournament itself.
A further success at Cambusdoon would not only even the overall score but an outright 20-point victory against the side lying third in the table would secure top-of-the-table Scotland’s place in the final, leaving Afghanistan and second-placed Zimbabwe scrapping for the remaining place.
Steindl, though, is not reading too much into past records given that this is the first time the sides have met in the longer form of the game.
The coach said: “We know Afghanistan are a quality team who can be extremely dangerous. But it is import-ant for us to go back to what we have been doing in this tournament.
“We are top of the table on merit and, hopefully, the conditions will be in our favour.”
For his part, Khan does not hesitate to endorse the ideal his side are deemed to represent. The notion that the cricket’s spirit of friendship among nations can send a message to the wider world. In fact, he goes further, claiming that cricket can redefine his country in the eyes of the world.
“Cricket has brought good things to Afghanistan,” he said. “Before, it was known for the Taliban, suicide bombings and drug dealers. Now people know Afghanistan can play cricket. We see ourselves as ambassadors for our country. Cricket is a game of peace and the fact that we are playing is a victory in itself because about eight of my players were still in refugee camps in Peshawar when I became coach two years ago. Now, all but one, have gone back to their country.”
On a similar note, Roddy Smith, the chief executive of Cricket Scotland, said: “For us having Afghanistan here is a very positive thing. The story of how their players have risen from refugee camps to become a force in the game is uplifting.
“We are happy to welcome them but are not making any political statements – after all no-one is at war with Afghanistan, only with the Taliban. History shows that sport can be a vehicle to bring people together. In cricket we are happy to regard ourselves as a family of nations so we will make Afghanistan as welcome as possible – but hopefully beat them.”
Hassan had his own take on the hope offered by cricket. “It will be a very big day if we can play inter-nationals at home. Hopefully there will be no war and teams like Scotland can come to a peaceful place where we can give them a good time.”