I am an Indian to the core. But today when I saw the 11 red caps walk out in Bangalore to the desolation of the stands, I stood up at the hotel room I was couped in, in another part of the country and clapped. I was joining the celebrations of a country broken by dogma, torn apart by war, ravaged by radicalism and still had enough courage left to find their way back to life. Fragile, but there was hope today!
Today Afghanistan’s national cricket team played India in a Test match reserved for a select group of nations. In cricket’s near 150-year history of international fixtures, only 11 countries have competed at that level; Afghanistan today became the 12th.
While Europe dug out of World War II’s rubble, Afghanistan’s king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, basked in his windfall. His treasury had swelled during the early 1940s through the sale of food to British forces in Burma and taxes levied on the export of Persian fat-tailed sheep pelts, largely to the United States.
In 1946, seeking to modernize his nation, Zahir Shah hired the American engineering firm that built the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge to construct a network of irrigation canals in the south and a dam on the Helmand River. He believed that harnessing the waters of the Hindu Kush would yield prosperity, transforming an arid valley into a fertile and thriving oasis.
Two new farming communities — Marja and Nad-i-Ali — were carved out of the desert. New villages constructed, with schools and health clinics. Nomads resettled. Families from different tribes lived next to each other. It was all part of a social-engineering experiment promoted by a cadre of modern-minded Afghans who had been sent, at great expense by the king, to attend American universities. These English-speaking, suit-wearing Afghans found in the firm the ideal partners for the transformation of their nation.
Over the following decade, a legion of Americans hungry for adventure and hardship bonuses descended upon southern Afghanistan. Within a few years, they had built a model town from scratch. The streets were lined with trees. The white-stucco homes with green front lawns resembled subdivisions in the American Southwest. There was a co-ed high school and a community pool where boys and girls frolicked together. A clubhouse along the river featured nightly card games and a Filipino barkeeper who could mix a potent gin-and-tonic.
The Americans called the town Lashkar Gah. The Afghans called it Little America. Sixty years later, the canals they helped construct still irrigate small farms in communities whose names — Marja, Garmser, Nad-i-Ali, Nawa— are known mainly because of the U.S. Marines and British soldiers who have been killed and maimed there. The valley never became Afghanistan’s breadbasket (although it did become the world’s largest grower of opium-producing poppies). There are no factories, co-ed schools or community centers.
To rise from this look impossible. Hence the achievement of becoming a Test playing nation emerging from refugee camps in Pakistan is magnetic. Only officially formed in 1995, Afghanistan’s cricket team has btoken free off obstacles unknown to most athletes — terrorism, displacement, war — with flair and panache that was as skilled as their cricket.
Of all the success stories created by Afghanistan’s extraordinary rise, none is more striking than that of Rashid Khan. To watch him is a celebration: TVs are set up in open spaces so that Afghans can watch him as a community, in open rebellion against the terrorists who scatter communities through fear. In a country where not long ago the mere act of playing cricket was taboo, Khan is a beacon of hope.
For this team, hope is a tonic they drink dizzy for just like the other day when Khan was playing in the IPL back in his home city of Jalalabad, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, terrorists set off three bombs in quick succession, killing at least eight and injuring close to 50 people. One of his Afghanistan teammates, Karim Sadiq, carried the wounded to makeshift ambulances.
But they refuse. They refuse to talk about terrorism. They refuse to cow down. They refuse to give up. Let us celebrate cricket with them. For life is here and now.
**Facts sourced from various papers and google
**Pictures of Afghanistan of the 60s taken Dr Bill Podlich found on the net.