There are guns... willows, too!

If the sound of guns force Afghanistan to take a step back, it puts its foot forward with the sound of the ball hitting the willow. After all, life is not just about guns. It offers roses too!

Afghanistan Under-19 cricket team coach Dawlat Ahmadzai (extreme left) with his wards at a practice session at the Sri Ramachandra Medical College in Porur, Chennai on June 27, 2017. The team trained in Chennai before the under-19 World Cup qualifiers. It was successful in making the main event, too.   -  K. Pichumani

As his team-mates walk towards the team bus, the youngster nods his head and says rather loudly, “there is nothing like that… it’s all in your head.”

The other players stop for a moment to see what has suddenly irked their captain Naveen ul-Haq. To their surprise, the skipper of Afghanistan’s U-19 cricket team is not angry, rather he is trying to explain that life in Afghanistan is not that tough as the world thinks!

“The international media makes it look gorier. Trust me, it is not that bad. We all have families there, and we are surviving,” Naveen says. By the time, the youngster could complete the sentence, the U-19 coach Dawlat Ahmadzai joins in. The former Afghanistan international too echoes the captain’s views. “That’s how life is, you have to deal with it. There is no point in talking about something that’s not in our hands,” he says, adding: “We can only play the game…”

And, it’s the game that had brought the bunch of Afghan boys to Chennai in the first week of July. Before the U-19 World Cup qualifiers began in Singapore, the Afghanistan cricketers had a 19-day training session at Chennai’s Sri Ramachandra Medical College (SRMC) grounds. Every day they would hit the nets, sweat it out and hope to make the most of it.

Their hard work did pay off.

When the action got underway in Singapore later in the month, the Afghanistan side won all its matches to qualify for the U-19 World Cup, next year.

Coming from that part of the world, where terrorism has become a daily affair, it is never easy to focus on the game. But these young turks have made heads turn with their consistent performances. So when coach Ahmadzai says that it is a strong bonding that gets the team going, one can’t really disagree. “The boys may come from different territories, but their thoughts and ideas are the same. The Afghan culture binds all of them. Terrorism, fear couldn’t affect the spirits,” the coach goes on.

While a major chunk of players come from Kabul, the current team has quite a few players who hail from the war-ravaged areas of Jalalabad, Kandahar and Khost Provinces. But even then, the likes of Parwiz Malikzai, Tareq Stanikzai or Imran Mohammadi have ensured that the big bad world doesn’t have an impact on their game. “There is a bit of problem in the border areas, otherwise if you are in the cities like Kabul, you would feel safe. So, that is the thing which keeps us going,” Imran, who comes from the Khost Province, says. The Province, which is close to the Pakistan border, is not known much for cricket, and when Mohammadi decided to continue with this game, there have been confrontations. “It required a lot of convincing, but I knew cricket is my calling. It is a pleasure playing for Afghanistan,” Mohammadi, who is one of the batting mainstays of the team, adds.

Coach Ahmadzai agrees. The former cricketer feels that the mind-set is changing, making the way smoother for the Afghanistan cricketers. “In our times, it was really tough to convince the parents. The families would not allow us to take up cricket. But now, it is completely different,” Ahmadzai says. Perhaps, that’s the reason why captain Naveen has taken up cricket despite coming from a family of doctors. “Cricket is now the most popular sport in the country, and you would find all the youngsters are crazy about the game,” the captain, who also played for the senior team during its series against Bangladesh last year, says. While the country now has eight international-level grounds, and 15 academies, the senior and junior teams have international base at Greater Noida. So, whenever there is an international series, the teams travel to Greater Noida to play the matches. But now with the International Cricket Council (ICC) granting it a Test status and full membership, the players believe the situation would improve further. Even Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) Chief Executive Officer, Shafiq Stanikzai, says that their main objective is to overhaul the domestic cricket structure. “That is one thing we are very serious about. Our objective is to develop domestic cricket, and we have taken quite a few steps already,” Stanikzai says.


Rashid Khan, the sensational teenaged leg-spinner from Afghanistan, is a huge inspiration for youngsters playing cricket in his country. -- AP


If the ACB is now thinking about how to implement the changes, the young cricketers have already found an inspiration. All this while, they only had cricketers of other nations as their idols, but for the last couple of years, the young guns are amazed by the way a certain Rashid Khan has added gloss to Afghanistan cricket. As Naveen or Waqarullah Khan starts speaking about their role-models, the name that invariably crops up is that of Rashid’s. “He has motivated us a lot. Coming from a humble background, he has made it so big,” Waqarullah says, adding: “If he can make it count, why can’t we?”

And, just not Waqarullah. The entire team believes that the sensational teenage leg-spinner Rashid has helped them think big. While they would like to believe that things are improving, what the cricketers don’t tell you is that, despite being a Test playing nation now, their struggle is harder than the others. “It is challenging. Coming from various backgrounds, we don’t have problems in striking the chord. But then, there are times, when you really don’t know how to handle the situation back home,” Malikzai, who comes from the tension-hit zone of Jalalabad, says.

The biggest challenge, however, is to continue playing for long. With no international venues, the teams keep travelling to other countries for matches or exposure trips. “The Board has helped a lot in developing the game. Now with full-membership coming our way, things should look brighter,” coach Ahmadzai hopes.

In the last few years, the cricketing scene has improved in the war-ravaged nation. With the senior team proving its mettle, the cricketing world has slowly started taking the Afghans seriously. And that is something the players and the support staff relish. “We have some real good talents, and there is no way why we can’t do well in the future. The starting has been good, now it’s important to keep the momentum going,” the coach says.

His wards, however, have proved the coach right by qualifying for the U-19 World Cup rather convincingly. And that is something the team would be proud of. At a time, when one positive step is undermined with a certain bomb blast or terror attack, the bunch of boys from Afghanistan has also shown the world what it takes to fight back. “That is what keeps us going,” the coach says.

If the sound of guns force the nation to take a step back, it puts its foot forward with the sound of the ball hitting the willow. After all, life is not just about guns. It offers roses too!