'New home team' Afghanistan out to win hearts in Lucknow

With no international teams willing to travel to the war-ravaged country, the Afghanistan cricket team has been fulfilling its international commitments, far from home.

Afghanistan cricketers train at the Ekana International Stadium in Lucknow.

Afghanistan cricketers train at the Ekana International Stadium in Lucknow.   -  Special Arrangement

Home is where the heart is, goes the age-old adage. And cricket is no exception. Even at a time when the game has expanded across formats, the teams still crave for ‘home comfort’. With favourable conditions, known pitches and maximum crowd support – the home teams usually have an advantage over the opponent.

But for Afghanistan, it’s a different picture altogether. With no international teams willing to travel to the war-ravaged country, the team has been fulfilling its international commitments, far away from home.

It has had its ‘home’ at different venues: Sharjah, Greater Noida, Dehradun. Now it has found a new base at the Ekana International Stadium in Lucknow, where it has already played a T20I and an ODI series, earlier this month. Starting Wednesday, it will also host Afghanistan’s lone Test match against the West Indies.

After playing in Dehradun for over a year, logistical issues forced Afghanistan to move out of the valley and settle in Lucknow last month. The conditions, of course, are different in the new city. It’s chilly and smoggy. But having spent a month here – for the T20I and ODI series – the players now have a fair idea about how things go on here. And ahead of the Test, that’s quite a positive for Rashid Khan’s men.

While the cricketers or the team management are not too keen on talking about the issue, former Afghanistan coach, Lalchand Rajput, believes that despite playing far away from home, things won’t get difficult for Afghanistan. “It’s true that these are adopted home venues, but the team has been practicing here for long and is aware of the conditions. So, it’s not much of a problem,” Rajput, who was the head coach of the team for a year and a half, told Sportstar.

READ: Williamson: Watling, Santner performances were something special

When Rajput took charge as the coach in 2016, Afghanistan was still an associate member and most of its international assignments would be held either in Sharjah or Greater Noida. However, over the years, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) has ensured that domestic cricket is promoted back home; and as a result, cricket has seen a sharp rise in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar or Jalalabad. With improved infrastructure, more youngsters are coming forward to take up cricket as a career.

“Afghanistan has immense talent and a good domestic setup back home, and it has helped in bringing out more and more cricketers. But the senior team has been playing away from home for long and all the players are fairly experienced, so it has never been a problem,” Rajput said.

However, problem lies with the lack of support from fans. Rajput remembers when the side used to play in Greater Noida, a large number of Afghan fans would come to watch the games from Delhi. “If you are playing at home, the stadiums will be full and the fans would gather to cheer for their team. That’s not possible if you are away from home,” he said.

When the team arrived in Lucknow last month, it had nine days to put things in order before the ODI series against West Indies got underway. But the team management ensured everything was in place by that period.

ALSO READ: One man standing, Mushfiqur Rahim

“It has been a new experience for Afghanistan and initially it took a bit of time for them to settle down. But slowly things have fallen in place,” one of the local officials, who is looking after the arrangements, said.

“For any new team, connecting to the local fans is very important and initially it was a bit challenging to let the fans know that an international series is happening. But slowly, fans are also showing interest in the new home team,” the official added.

In a bid to connect to the fans, captain Rashid and a couple of other players had also visited a local school a few days ago to interact with youngsters.

But the efforts haven’t yielded results so far as most of the stands remained empty for the limited overs series. But Afghanistan cricketers did play some exciting cricket in the T20Is and eventually won the series 2-1. And now, as the longer format beckons, the testing times are here for the new ‘home team’.

  Dugout videos