Afghanistan’s biggest success story is not in wars, politics or reconstruction, where most of international aid and Afghan energy have been focused for decades.
Instead, it is cricket that unites millions of Afghans in cherishing the sport as they cheer for a growing number of their superstar heroes.
Virtually unknown in the country two decades ago, cricket has now taken the country of 30 million by storm.
In the capital, Kabul, television screens and streets are taken over by the Shpageeza tournament. More than two dozen players from South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe are embedded with Afghan cricketing stars on six teams for a two-week cricketing gala.
In remote corners of Afghanistan, such as the restive southern province of Uruzgan, cricket tournaments are being held within 500 hundred meters of active front lines.
In Kabul on September 14, thousands of cricketing fans queued in long lines to buy tickets for a Shpageeza match a day after three people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest while attempting to enter the Kabul International Cricket Stadium.
Shukrullah Atif Mashal, chairman of the Afghan Cricket Board, wants Afghan spectators to enjoy one of the few sporting festivals in the country.
“God willing, we have put into place very good security measures. I am satisfied the tournament will go ahead in peace,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I want everyone to come and enjoy the game.”
Mirwais Ashraf, a key pace bowler for the Afghan national side, says the competition heralds peace in Afghanistan.
“This tournament is a message for peace, stability, and unity in the country,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “It also helps in honing the cricketing skills of young players, and they learn from playing alongside members of the Afghan national team and international stars.”
His colleague Nasir Jamal agrees. He says the annual tournament offers a good opportunity to learn from foreign players and coaches.
In June, Afghanistan earned the cricketing world’s ultimate honor by becoming a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC). Its inclusion in the 12-member body now makes it eligible for playing five-day matches against the game’s leading sides.
The achievement is the result of hard work, consistency, and near miracles. Nearly 16 years ago, a bunch of teenagers and young men founded the Afghan national side. Almost all had picked the sport at refugee camps in cricket-crazy neighboring Pakistan.
Against all odds, the team progressed in the international cricketing hierarchy and now even has its sights on becoming a world champion by winning the game’s global tournaments.
Asghar Stanikzai, the captain of Afghanistan’s national team, says even colleagues from international sides now see a bright cricketing future for his country.
“Friends from international sides where cricket has been played for generations are now telling me that if we keep on following the same trajectory, we will be ruling the cricketing world in 10 years,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Such ambitions keep the game going in remote corners of Afghanistan. In Tarinkot, the dusty beleaguered capital of southern Uruzgan Province, 16 teams concluded a month-long tournament.
Most matches in the competition were held under the shadow of small arms and artillery fire as government forces battle Taliban insurgents less than a kilometer away.
Amir Najibuallah, head of Uruzgan’s cricket board, says the competition is a good omen for peace in Uruzgan.
“We hope that such competitions will help in doing away with war and promote peace,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on reporting by Wasil Wisal from Kabul, Afghanistan. Abdul Hamid Mohmand and Sharafatullah Sharafat contributed reporting from Kabul and Tarinkot.