Tricky wicket

It's raining carrots in the Afghan national cricket team's minibus as it ferries players from morning training to their once-grand hotel in Jalalabad. A bowler in the front seat cops a half-chewed carrot to the side of his head. A couple of players roll their eyes indulgently and stare out the dirty windows as more carrots sail through the air. It seems boys will be boys, even in places like Afghanistan.

Outside, two Blackhawk helicopters judder in the wind, kicking up sheets of beige dust as they land within spitting distance of the Torkham Highway, which runs all the way to Kabul. The team is stationed here, midway between the Afghan capital city and the Pakistani border, for a three-week training camp in preparation for their inaugural appearance in the 2014 Asia Cup.

The tournament is the first time Afghanistan will play some of the big boys of the 50-over one-day international cricket circuit, like India and Sri Lanka. And it's a welcome practice run before they land in Sydney for their cricket World Cup debut in February next year, after a surprise win in the qualifying tournament against Kenya secured the underdogs a spot in Group A, with the likes of England and Australia, and lodged cricket in the forefront of the Afghan psyche.

The meteoric rise of the national cricket team has not been without hiccups. The game's popularity has only taken hold in the past few years, and still fights a perception problem that it is too closely linked to Pakistan. Thousands of Afghan refugees brought the game back with them after returning from camps in Pakistan, where they learnt to play while escaping the Russians following the 1979 invasion and, later, the civil war and the Taliban's rule.

Such is the game's growing popularity today that in January in Jalalabad, a Twenty20 match between Afghanistan "A" and Tajikistan attracted crowds of 20,000 scarf-waving men. Later, when the national team visited Khost, one of the most dangerous regions in the country, 30,000 locals turned out to welcome them.

The battle for local cricket hearts might be gaining momentum, but the international team's campaign to prove to the world that Afghanistan can field more than just opium and carpet exports comes at a tough time for the country. Taliban attacks in Kabul have escalated ahead of today's national election, and outgoing President Hamid Karzai has won no favours with the West by refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US to keep troops and $US4 billion in aid in the country after 2014. But he does like the cricket.

"You boys have done more than my government because when you guys go outside from Afghanistan you bring lots of positive things and people look positively to us," former player and now squad coach and selector Raees Ahmadzai recalls Karzai telling them not long ago. "We have money, we have soldiers from 42 different countries, but still we are struggling and we salute you guys. You are the new national army."

The headquarters of the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) is in Kabul, in a single-level office building. It's over the road from the huge Chaman Hazoori public oval, where boys in thongs play cricket in the snow using plywood bats and stumps made of rocks.

It's here that I first meet all-rounder Samiullah Shenwari, who has agreed to give us a lift for the seat-wettingly steep drive through the canyons to Jalalabad. At 27, Shenwari is already a 10-year veteran of the national squad. He's got a bit of the Afghan George Clooney about him, although when I mention it, he doesn't seem to know who Clooney is.

We leave early, so breakfast is purchased from a shipping container-cum-convenience store. The shopping expedition nets an abundance of flat, cake-like bread, cans of energy drink, chips and some bottles of water that are half frozen by the frigid air. "You shouldn't be eating all this," I chide Shenwari. "You're meant to be a professional sportsman. You'll end up like Shane Warne in the bad years." He throws his head back and laughs for the first time since we met the day before.

Later, in Jalalabad for the training camp, we ask for a lift with the team to the town's cricket stadium, which looms from a flat, empty plain about 30 minutes out of town. Mohammad Shafiq, the dapper team manager, gives us the okay. Apparently, we're the first non-ACB people allowed on the team bus. "I didn't want to worry you, but going out to the stadium alone is very dangerous," he says. "It is very isolated. So you can come with us. For others it is a problem, but not for us. They love the cricket."

The "they" that Shafiq speaks of is the Taliban. In 2012, Taliban representatives contacted the ACB to voice their encouragement for the players before Afghanistan's first-ever one-day match against a top international team, in this case Pakistan, at Afghanistan's "home" ground in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

However, accounts of such support should be caveated for accuracy to say "support for men's cricket". It's quickly apparent that there's no love lost for the women's national team - evidence that while international aid organisations and foreign governments profess to be successfully changing the social culture of the country, the daily reality for women is still incredibly tough.

As for the men, the International Cricket Council, Asian Cricket Council and Pakistan Cricket Board have all helped fund the team, but the ACB wants more international assistance to help popularise the game in even the most remote regions. "Cricket has a huge future, it's a beautiful game," says Dr Noor Mohammad Murad, the chief executive of the ACB. "It's a fantastic opportunity to bring the youngsters in a good platform that can be used not only for sport, but as a means of communication about things like narcotics, drug addiction and adolescent health."

In 2010, Murad organised for the ACB to pay $US20,000 to a local TV broadcaster to kick-start national promotion of the game. It worked. Three years later, six million people tuned in to watch Pakistan defeat Afghanistan in Sharjah off the last ball of the match, in the first Twenty20 game between the two countries.

Murad is the fourth chief executive in five years and he admits the Afghan government's historical penchant of choosing friends, rather than experienced managers, as the ACB's chief hampered the game's development. "When you don't have a background of any sports management in the country, that is a thing that just happens. I think that created a very bad picture of Afghanistan in the ICC and the ACC."

The only external cricket representative not to let security concerns keep him from visiting the ACB in Kabul during the past 12 years is former Pakistani player, and now ACC representative, Iqbal Sikander. He sits in Murad's office discussing the economic viability of different equipment providers while recounting tales of his time in Australia as part of Pakistan's victory in the 1992 World Cup. "Our only objective is that we want cricket bats in the hands of the youngsters instead of guns," says Sikander. "We want them to stay away from drugs and trouble."

Like the players and Murad, Sikander is certain cricket can transcend and even heal political differences - between the Taliban and the Afghan government, between Pakistan and Karzai, and between India and its neighbours. But Sikander is realistic about the security situation that prevents international teams from touring both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sikander was present in the Pakistan city of Lahore in 2009 when 12 Islamic radicals opened fire on the Sri Lanka team as they were on their way to play the third day of a Test match. "It was frightening," recalls Sikander. "Our worry was that if any of the players had been seriously injured, what would have happened [for cricket]?

"It is a serious concern even now. Although we say we want to have international cricket in Pakistan, we have to be realistic, we have to be honest ... Coming to Afghanistan, I feel the situation is fairly similar."

In late January this year, five locals out playing afternoon cricket in Afghanistan's southern province of Laghman were killed when a motorbike rider opened fire on the group. The assumption is that hardline Islamists instigated the attack.

Back in Kabul, at the far end of the cricket stadium among discarded broken stumps, 15 girls wait for their coach, development manager and friend Diana Barakzai to arrive. Their motley set of uniforms make them look more like a bunch of mates playing down the park than the Afghan national women's team.

I ask Barakzai whether it is possible for the girls to go over the road to the vast Chaman Hazoori public oval and play among all the boys. "No, no way," she says, drawing a finger across her throat. "They would kill them." She shrugs.

Wayward balls sail over a nearby eight metre-high brick and steel fence. Two girls scoot up the metal struts framing the pitch to scout out where they've landed. It's not good, Barakzai says. "Next door, there are Taliban. The girls don't know that. It's not good." One girl up high yells to an invisible next-door neighbour to throw the balls back. Her teammates laugh, something women are not meant to do if following strict Islamic rules. "Once", says Barakzai, "they told me that instead of the ball they would throw back a bomb."

Barakzai is adamant sport and Islam are not mutually exclusive and that women can still be good Muslims if they play cricket. Her dress is modest, she prays daily and attends mosque. She recounts the story of her arrival at the ACB. She carried a prayer mat, which confounded a number of the male board members, who assumed that women who threw balls wouldn't bother with Allah. It was a studied move on her part. Her girls are more relaxed in their uniforms, although all wear scarves of some sort, often the black, red and green of the Afghan flag, loosely wrapped around their neck below baseball caps that barely disguise dark ponytails.

ICC rules require that a country must field a women's team for it to be eligible to participate in international games. But the impost of such Western rules in Afghanistan is still controversial, despite noises from various international aid organisations about how far and fast women's rights are developing in the country.

When asked about their female counterparts, most, but not all, of the men's cricket team is supportive. Mirwais Ashraf is a tall, cheeky blond from the north-eastern province of Kunduz who looks almost like he should be wearing the baggy green Australian cap rather than Afghanistan's blue-and-red uniform.

"The girls' team? In Afghanistan?" He pauses as we chat by the boundary line of the Kabul field. "Very difficult to make a team and make players," he admits. "But Afghanistan cricket have a plan to give a chance to the girls' team and make that team also for upcoming tours for next year."

Does he think that is a good idea? "Yeah, definitely," he says, before reminding me that the Australian women's team has won the World Cup six times.

For male players, the idea of a career in a sport such as cricket was laughed at 10 years ago. Now, players are paid around $US5000 a month by the ACB, the ICC and telco sponsor Etisalat. That is especially impressive when considering the average monthly wage is about $US200. "The first time I was selected for the under-17s, my Dad was very happy," Samiullah Shenwari says. "My brother sacrificed a sheep ... all of my family was waiting for me when I got home. It was a great feeling."

Shenwari says he has two brothers who live in England and have British citizenship. But even with the chance to live in the UK, he chose to stay in Afghanistan. Why? "There is no future [for me] in the UK. In Afghanistan, it's future. I will be happy in my country to stay ... to see my country happy together ... so I can't leave. Because they need me, and I need my cricket."

Later, in the Asia Cup, Shenwari is man-of-the-match as Afghanistan record a first-ever win in 50-over cricket against a Test-playing country, Bangladesh. "It is wonderful to defeat a Test-playing country," says captain Mohammad Nabi. "We know the whole country is supporting us and is really happy that we won. The fans love Afghanistan cricket and we love them."

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