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The Taliban's favorite sport: Afghan cricket's battle for acceptance

Story highlights

  • Afghan cricket team is battling to become a fully-fledged international member
  • Many of its players learned the game while in refugee camps in Pakistan
  • Mohammad Nabi grew up in Peshawar due to the Soviet war of the 1980s
  • He is now Afghanistan's captain as the team bids to qualify for the World Cup

He plays the only sport approved by the Taliban, and Mohammad Nabi Eisakhil hopes the game he learned as a war refugee will play a big part in uniting his country.

"Now it's very popular. The young generation really like cricket, supporting the Afghanistan team," he told CNN's Human to Hero series at the team's training base in Sharjah.

"When we were children it was nothing. Now in Afghanistan we have big support. Everyone likes our cricketers."

It's a country ravaged by war since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

Following the Taliban's subsequent harsh period of rule, which ended in a U.S.-led intervention after the 9/11 terror attacks, Afghanistan's government is now battling to forge its own path of democracy between the opposing forces of Western expectation and fundamentalist Islamic tradition.

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Cricket, however, is being supported by Afghanistan's opposing factions, says Noor Muhammad, chief executive of the sport's national association.

"This is a game that can bring Afghanistan together and be a very good tool for peace and stability," he told CNN in a phone interview.

"Despite all these difficulties, the anti-government groups and armed groups hanging around, cricket has been progressing very well.

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"We have been receiving very good support, even from anti-government people as well, because we have been going frequently to the remote areas.

"Cricket has a very bright future here. The mountains cover 75% of land in the country -- despite the fact land is very expensive, we have been offered a huge amount of land to build cricket grounds, in the north, the east and the west."

Nabi has come a long way since his family had to flee Afghanistan in the 1980s during the war with Russia.

"I was taught cricket in Pakistan, where there's a lot of cricket in the street, in schools. We were a lot of guys, we played together, with a tennis ball," he said of his upbringing in the border region of Peshawar -- once the gateway to some of Asia's richest trade routes, now a breeding ground for extremist elements.

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Since then, not only has he had the chance to play for Afghanistan in one-day and Twenty20 internationals, he has also been appointed team captain. And the 28-year-old is doing everything he can to achieve the country's dream of being accepted at the top levels of cricket.

"It's a big pressure to take this challenge, as a captain," Nabi said. "It's a big challenge to me to lead in the front, and perform well. That gives me more motivation."

Muhammad says that, in a country where 70% of the population is under the age of 30, it is important to not only target but also to educate young people in order to develop the sport.

"That's why we are going to be working with the Ministry of Education so that this game will be part of the sports period and will officially be taught in schools," he said.

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"We don't need only cricketers, we need educated cricketers. We are appointing coaches to go to the schools and train their teachers. So instead of taking boys to academies outside of schools, we are in fact taking cricket into their venues."

Nabi's big break came when he was invited to spend three months at the home of English cricket, Lord's, in 2007 as part of the young player program run by the Marylebone Cricket Club -- which governed the sport until the advent of the International Cricket Council in 1993.

"It's a beautiful ground, a beautiful academy, beautiful facilities. It's a very interesting and moving experience for me," he recalls.

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By that stage the Afghan national team had been in existence for only six years, despite cricket having been played in the country as early as the 19th century by British soldiers.

It rose quickly through the ranks of the minor nations -- those not accorded full status by the ICC.

In 2009, the team finally won through to the final qualifying round for the ICC's 50-over World Cup tournament, scraping through after winning a rain-affected match against Uganda.

"It was a very important match at that time. If we lose that match we didn't qualify," Nabi said.

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That was just a small step in Afghanistan's journey to join cricket's elite. The team has twice played at the World Twenty20 finals, but despite earning one-day international status, has yet to win a place at the World Cup -- and hopes of becoming a full member Test-playing nation are yet far away.

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"There is a lot of thirst for this game but it is difficult to persuade the international community to come and play some matches -- that will further develop and promote the game," Muhammad said.

Outside of official tournaments, Afghanistan does not play many matches -- which hinders its chances of moving up the rankings. It is 13th of the 50-over nations, and 12th in Twenty20.

Two victories over Scotland last month kept alive Afghanistan's hopes of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup, but it will likely need to beat Namibia and Kenya in its remaining games to have a chance of claiming one of two places on offer for the tournament from the eight-nation WCL Championship.

The other six teams will have another chance to qualify, with two more places up for grabs at a final eliminator in New Zealand next year. The full member nations automatically qualify.

"It is disappointing that we are not receiving expected support from full member countries, apart from Pakistan, who is comparatively supporting us," Muhammad said.

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"But we are not hopeless, we together with media can motivate these countries, especially Asian counties, who can provide ODI and T20 opportunities.

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"It is difficult to convey our message at ICC level because we are an affiliate member. Hopefully this will change in the future, and we're hoping the ICC will come and see how crazy people are for cricket."

For Nabi, it would be a dream to lead out his national team on home soil at the highest level of cricket.

At present, the Afghans play their "home" internationals in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

"We are not playing in Afghanistan, one-day internationals or Twenty20," said Nabi, who this year signed a contract to play in the Bangladesh Premier League.

"We want to. We have good supporters in Afghanistan. We want the ICC to allow some teams to Afghanistan.

"That's what we want, to become a Test nation."