Afghan cricket team ready for England tour

Published: Monday, June 5, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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Kabul:Afghanistan's eager young cricket side leaves for their first tour of England this week convinced they have what it takes to make their mark in the home of cricket -- and the world.

The seven-match county club series starting on June 11 comes after a rush of successes that have been a fillip for the game's popularity in this country.

In March in India, Afghanistan hammered an MCC XI featuring former England captain Mike Gatting.

And on Sunday a watered-down side with just three players from the national team thrashed a British-dominated side from the NATO-led force stationed in Afghanistan in a morale-boosting send-off game in Kabul.

For coach Taj Malik the exposure was good experience for his players, most of whom picked up the game in refugee camps in cricket-mad Pakistan that housed millions of Afghans forced to flee their conflict-ridden homeland.

"The Afghanistan team will not be a joke," Malik said on the sidelines of the tightly secured 20-overs-a-side match on Sunday against the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"Our players have completed a 15-day training camp. They are ready to compete ... All the Afghans in London are very keen and are waiting for the team."

But Malik's true ambitions lie further afield, with the Asian Cricket Council Trophy in Malaysia in August in which the two finalists will go into the World Cup qualifying round in 2011.

And then there is the target of all-important Test-playing status by 2012.

It's heady stuff for a destitute country where the game only began to catch on about 10 years ago, before going into decline during the 1996-2001 rule of the sport-loathing Taliban. The new national team still practises on a concrete wicket.

The Afghanistan Cricket Foundation was set up in 1995 in part as an effort to persuade young men involved in the civil war raging at the time to "pick up the ball and put down the gun," said one of the founders, Allah Dad Noori.

"When I saw the situation of my country, all the suffering, I thought, 'What can I do?'," he said at a training session in the city's main stadium.

"At first they were not interested in the game but slowly, slowly you catch the monkey... I have seen people leave fighting and come and play cricket," Noori said.

Now about 340 clubs nationwide are affiliated to the foundation and cricket's popularity is growing, although not yet rivalling that of the national sport -- the more brutal horseback contest called buzkashi, played with a goat's carcass.

Opposite the stadium, groups of young men bowl and bat in a corner of a large dusty field largely given over to football. Some of them wear bright uniforms emblazoned Australia; others use concrete blocks as a wicket.

They are all excited about Afghanistan's prospects for the game.

"But we need a great coach, like England or Australia has," said Ajmal Karimi, 22.

Afghans hold back their enthusiasm for cricket because of distaste for long-time political rival Pakistan, he said.

Farhad Haidery, 20, said this hostility would make for great contest. "That is my dream -- if God is willing, we will play Pakistan."

Among the Pakistan-raised stars of the Afghan team is middle-order batsman Mohammad Nabi, 20, who made 116 not out against Gatting's MCC XI.

"As I left off in Mumbai, I will continue from there and do my best," Nabi said of his first-ever visit to England.

The ISAF team that met the Afghan side on Sunday were impressed.

"They are a young, incredibly talented team ... there is so much enthusiasm, it's fantastic to see," said Captain Ed Sutthery. "There are going to be some very surprised county players."

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