CNN  — 

He closes his eyes and the memories flood back. No clean water. No clothes. No shoes. With temperatures north of 45 degrees, his was a world about survival.

It is said that the darkest hour comes before the light shines. In the case of Afghanistan – a nation tied inextricably to conflict, out of the ashes of the Soviet-Afghan War and Taliban insurgency has risen a glorious phoenix of hope.

“Before cricket, everyone just knew Afghanistan because of war,” recalls Raees Ahmadzai, the former captain of the Afghan national cricket team, who spent his formative years in the refugee camps of Peshawar, Pakistan.

“For all the young people, the future was totally blind.”

The national cricket board was only founded in 1995, and it was only recognized as an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001.

Yet, less than two decades later, Afghanistan is one of 12 countries with Test status, having soared through the sport’s world rankings, successfully negotiating opposition as varied as Argentina and Jersey en route to a Test bow against the might of India, before a maiden five-day victory over Ireland.

"I never expected that the day would come when we would play a World Cup match," confessed Ahmadzai.

‘No electricity, nothing’

As this summer’s World Cup approaches, the Afghans are more than maverick minnows in the 10-team tournament. That merely taking part is no longer the barometer by which to judge the extent of this interminable ascent, perhaps, best highlights the scale of a logic-defying ride.

As Ahmadzai explains, the roots of Afghan cricket’s unprecedented surge lie in those refugee camps near the Pakistani-Afghan border – one cricket-obsessed nation passing on the bug to another. For many years, it was ‘home’ to a multitude of Afghan families who had fled their war-torn state.

“When I arrived there as a young boy, there was no electricity, nothing,” Ahmadzai told CNN Sport.

“I asked what cricket was. From my house, about 300 yards away, there was a family that had a black and white television. I went there to watch Pakistan play against England and I remember Alec Stewart,” adds Ahmadzai, referring to the former England captain.

Cricket has helped a country recover from years of conflict.

“He was the first ever name that I heard while watching cricket. From that time, we slowly started to play cricket in our house.”

What Ahmadzai describes, however, is the sport in its loosest possible form – no bat, no ball, no stumps; more an attempt to make something of nothing.

“We just had a mark on the wall and we used a stick as a bat,” he reminisces. “We used to make plastic balls from any plastic that we could borrow.

“It was like a minus level kind of a life,” continues Ahmadzai, who doesn’t celebrate his birthday; he doesn’t know when it is, such was the lack of hospitals and official records at the time. His is a common story.

“But the best thing was that we enjoyed life. We had no idea. We thought that the whole world was exactly the same.”

An Afghan boy bats in front of a makeshift set of stumps at an esplanade at Shuhada Lake in Kabul -- a city now obsessed by the sport.

Living in a ghetto

That love of life and the team’s extraordinary rise was captured by Tim Albone’s award-winning Out of the Ashes documentary in 2010. He recalls the group’s fervent passion: the result, he believes, of years of statelessness.

“For so long, they didn’t really have a country,” he stresses. “Being a refugee is so tough. They were Afghans, but they were refugees in Pakistan and they were outsiders. They were basically living in a ghetto. It was mud-huts.

“To go back and to represent their country and to live in their country, which they never thought they would get the opportunity to do, was amazing for them.”

Afghan refugees play together at the Khurasan refugee camp in the suburbs of Peshawar, near the historic Khyber Pass, close to the border with Afghanistan.

Albone has never produced another film. Quite simply, he admits, nothing since has seemed worthwhile.

“What they overcame and achieved is mind-blowing. I can’t think of a story in any sport where people have achieved so much with so little in such a short amount of time.”

The prejudice the team received in those early days sticks in the filmmaker’s mind, at a time when Afghanistan was not known for its cricket, but for conflict. Others would accuse them of not being real Afghans, but Pakistanis; the country’s social outcast status came with an inherent distrust.

“A lot of people would see them on tour and think they were brash or arrogant and a bit over-the-top,” explains Albone. “When they were playing in Division Five in Jersey, they were already saying that they were going to get to the World Cup and they did really believe it.

“I think when you see where they lived and where they grew up and where they learnt to play cricket and you understand what they had to overcome to even get to Jersey, you begin to realize that these guys do just have an incredible drive and determination.”

A pair of young Afghans sit on a wall as they watch a game on the outskirts of Kabul. "When I started filming them, they didn't have a grass pitch in the whole country. A lot of the guys had never played with a leather ball," Albone reflects.

‘This is my country’

When Shafiq Stanikzai, the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s chief executive between 2014 and 2018, returned to his homeland in 1999 as a 13-year-old, he was acutely aware of how the war had taken its toll: rubble lay where buildings had stood. When cricket started, aircraft remains doubled up as changing rooms. But at least they were home.

“We smelt that pleasure,” he recalls. “We finally had that feeling that: ‘Yes, this is my country, and this is something that I belong to. This is where I have to live my life.’”

In a previous guise, until being shot in the shoulder during an ambush attack, Stanikzai had been among a group of enthusiastic Afghan cricketers in Kabul during the Taliban regime.

“We hardly had 12 players,” he chuckles of a different time. “We used to knock on each other’s doors to come and play with us so that we’d have 11 players to field so that we didn’t have to run that much.”

These days Afghanistan has close to 1.2 million playing the sport, of whom 300 are fully-fledged professionals. Cricket is everywhere, and cricket is everything. Where there are streets, there is cricket being played. When the national team is in action, a country stops, Ahmadzai adds. “Everyone is watching.”

"Cricket is a profession," Stanikzai says. "We have given a pathway to the youth coming up -- they now have something to follow and to embrace. Every cricketer is a role model -- not just on the field, but also off the field in our society."

‘They have no popstars; they have warlords’

Enter Sarah Fane. Originally a wartime doctor, in 2002 Fane founded Afghan Connection, a charity providing children with both education and cricket.

In a nation where more than 50% of the population is under 18, her work has seen the construction of 46 schools, as well as 100 cricket pitches, serving more than 100,000 young Afghans.

She has been coined by some as ‘the mother of Afghan cricket.’ It is a flattering moniker, but one she finds hard to accept. Her sole purpose has only ever been to lend a helping hand to a country she found in need of empathy.

“Afghanistan doesn’t have heroes,” says Fane. “They have had no popstars or politicians to celebrate over the years; they have had warlords. Suddenly, they have these role-models.

“There are a lot of people who have lost their lives, lost their limbs, parents who have lost children fighting in Afghanistan,” she adds. “I think we owe it to them to show them that there have been some very positive changes.

“You only ever hear the negatives; you don’t hear that there are now eight million kids in school, whereas there were one million back in 2001. You don’t hear that there are tarmac roads and mobile phones and connectivity with the world.”

Afghan Connection has provided the country's children with both education and the opportunity to play the sport. One cricket camp -- attended by the whole national team as coaches -- brought with it 10,000 spectators.

Despite the improvements, difficulties continue to exist. Afghanistan still lacks stability, even amid suggestions of peace talks between the US and the Taliban. Kabul, too, remains an uncertain, chaotic city.

In 2017, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint outside the capital’s main cricket ground as a match took place, killing three people and injuring several others.

“I went to visit some schools in a drought area last year,” Fane recalls. “It just opens your eyes up to everything: the poverty, the lack of water, the lack of hope. There are people who can’t get to school because they have to go 20 kilometers to get some water.

“You can never understand that; even I don’t understand that, having been there so many times. You see the way the conflict has impacted people’s lives. Everywhere, you see it.

“It is pretty devastating, but that is why cricket is so vital. It gives them the opportunity to come out and have a laugh. It brings them in contact with the outside world.”

More than 100,000 young Afghans have been helped by Fane's charity, which has been supported by the UK Government.

‘The gentleman’s game’

Cricket was prohibited by the Taliban until 2000; even after the ban was lifted, families initially warned their children against the game, with sport deemed a distraction from traditional careers.

Both Stanikzai and Ahmadzai remember the vilification they received in the early days for even daring to break a firmly-set mold.

“There was not really any support for any sport in Afghanistan,” says Ahmadzai. “We would hide that we played cricket from our families.

“Now, because of cricket, everyone wants to be a sportsman, everyone wants to be a popular person.”

It is no overstatement to suggest that little in the nation’s rebirth has been as important. Cricket’s history as an epicenter of principle – ‘the gentleman’s game’ – has allowed the world to look at the country in a different light, one away from the Taliban and the terrorism.

“For the Afghan people, Afghanistan’s cricket is the only sole source of pride,” Stanikzai adds.

There is, arguably, no better bowler in limited-overs cricket than Rashid Khan. The 20-year-old has become a coveted commodity in T20 competitions worldwide. Speaking to CNN, Shane Warne described him as "probably the first name penciled in" in any T20 team worldwide.

‘We have rebranded Afghanistan’

“I cannot express in words how proud we are that today, when you name Afghanistan, cricket comes first,” he gushes.

“Through cricket, we have rebranded Afghanistan globally.

“If we imagine ourselves almost 10 years beforehand, we were nothing. We were close to nothing as a people. We were hated in society.”

For Peter Anderson, the first westerner to work with the national team, cricket’s ethos has been key.

“It is just absolutely massive for the peace movement,” says the Australian, who was Afghanistan’s assistant head coach during the 2015 World Cup. “The etiquette of the sport teaches everyone fair play. It provides so much good; it teaches so much respect. I have always said that good people make good cricketers.

“I admire them so much for coming in on those roads,” Anderson says, referencing the journey made by some of the players on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway. The 40-mile stretch is among the world’s most fraught with peril – in some parts, the roads hang on the cliff edges above the gorge of the Kabul river. Fatal accidents have been an almost daily occurrence.

“It was Russian roulette,” he explains. “To travel to Jalalabad, it’s such a dangerous road. You don’t have to be targeted – you just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Things go wrong.”

The road links the country's capital, Kabul, with the eastern city of Jalalabad, which is often viewed as the country's cricket capital.


Afghanistan’s cricketers, Anderson repeats, are “rockstars” – game-changers. He recalls a tale that, for him, encapsulates the sport’s importance in educating a generation with the potential to change its country.

“I can never forget this one story,” he says. “[A player] came in with his shoes and clothes spotless. I asked him who had done it for him and he said it was his wife. I said: ‘Did you thank her?’ He asked what I meant, and I just said: ‘Make sure you buy her a box of chocolates on the way home.’ And he did.

“To me, it’s about the little things like that. The whole thing with Afghanistan is education. The great thing about education is that it doesn’t matter how you get it, so they can get it through cricket. You bridge a lot of gaps.”

Afghanistan’s current “rockstars” are Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi – the trio thriving in the Indian Premier League, though the entire national side holds similar popularity.

Afghan children play cricket at a refugee camp in Islamabad in October 2018.

Stanikzai reflects on his own contrasting childhood – a time when role models were scarce and positivity was a distant notion. He had to follow the Indian and Pakistani teams in his search for a cricketing hero.

“I used to look at them, asking myself: ‘Will there be a day when we have our own country? Will there be a time when we have our own people that we look after?’

“There wasn’t any role model for us to look up to. At that time, we were just preached and educated that there was jihad. Our mindset was always directed to fight against those who occupied Afghanistan.”

How times have changed. When the team arrived back in Kabul after qualifying for a first global tournament – the 2010 World Twenty20, the streets were lined with Afghans, all desperate to catch a glimpse of their heroes. Even if the sport is traditionally associated with the country’s Pashtun tribe – and there are still those with little interest in the sport, success on a world stage has inspired a nation of youngsters.

“The stories of these guys like Rashid and Mujeeb are so important,” emphasizes Fane. “They had a dream, and their dream came true. The level of hope they are giving other Afghans is inestimable.”

The sight of Rashid (left) and Nabi (right) dominating games in the Big Bash is an image that -- until recently -- was, quite simply, unimaginable.

It is a role that the stars have embraced; Rashid and Nabi have both launched foundations to help Afghan children and orphans with health, nutrition and educational needs.

International success has led to drastic improvements in the country’s domestic pathway. The inaugural Afghanistan Premier League T20 competition was held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2018, featuring a plethora of overseas stars from 13 different countries.

When Ahmadzai looks back to the early days, it represents a scarcely believable transformation. “Nobody had any idea what cricket was,” he laughs. “They were asking what we were doing.”

Just 14 years separate Afghanistan’s first ever win over an international side – against Bahrain – and their Test debut in Bangalore against India.

In the strategy set out by Stanikzai in 2014, Test status was the ultimate target of a 10-year plan. Only, it took three years. So, what next?

“When can we dominate the world of cricket?” he boldly asks. The aim is to be among the World Cup favorites by 2023. If that seems fantastical, then so does a journey born out of exodus.

Even David Richardson, the ICC’s outgoing chief executive, struggles to explain Afghan cricket’s trajectory. “I know that cricket takes a lot of credit for developing Afghanistan, but it has come from them,” he explains. “It has been their initiative. They have taken to the game like no other.”

As fans queue outside the Kabul International Cricket Ground ahead of a domestic T20 game, Anderson recalls the continued challenges facing life in the country. "You are on edge all the time," he says. "Short-tempered and very aggressive. It is a warzone. It is the most dangerous city in the world."

‘Holy shit’

Of course, there are still challenges to overcome; it may be some time before the country hosts its own international cricket. Anderson describes “an aggressive society” still scarred mentally by the brutality of war.

Former England all-rounder Adam Hollioake was coaching the Boost Defenders as the suicide bomber detonated his explosive outside the Alokozay Kabul International Cricket Ground during his team’s match in the 2017 Shpageeza Cricket League, the country’s T20 competition.

The moment itself remains clear in Hollioake’s mind. “You feel it go through your body,” he recalls, estimating that the blast occurred between 50 and 75 meters from the pitch itself. “When you go into a nightclub and it has got so much bass that you can feel it, it was like that but about five times more. I could actually feel the vibrations.

“I was like: ‘Holy shit. What the hell.’ You just think that it can’t possibly have been a bomb because it’s too clichéd when you’re in Kabul.”

"My dad always told me to stay until the job is done," Hollioake explains of his decision to stay after the blast. "I could see how devastated these people were. They had given their lives to getting us there. It is hard to turn your back and walk. We were paid up front -- we could have taken the money and gone."

Although some of the overseas players and coaches involved left the country following the attack, Hollioake slept on the decision and chose to stay.

He describes the extreme levels of security provided: bomb-proof vehicles, army escorts, roads emptied, the two-kilometer radius of the venue cleared. Those who stayed behind were treated to a breakfast with the country’s president – a marker of Afghanistan’s genuine appreciation.

The desperation of those who had given their lives to making a success of the tournament was plain to see. There was a passion that was hard to leave behind, hard to let down.

“I would definitely go back,” Hollioake affirms. “I would want to know the security protocols. I would want to ask a lot of questions. But if they offered me the same security as last time, then I would.

“Ultimately, the security worked. They got [the suicide bombers] and they still had two more security checkpoints they would have had to get through [to enter the stadium].

“I’m talking as a survivor of the incident. When you go through something like that, it does change you a little bit. The people that were there, what we went through, the bonding and the discussions we had, have outweighed any other cricket tournament I have ever been involved in as a player or a coach.

“You are talking about survival and competing on the rawest level. It is the most primitive thing – we can live or we can die. It does bond you.”

Fans flocked to the national stadium in Kabul to watch the Shpageeza Cricket League in action.

Zimbabwe international Ryan Burl was batting as the drama unfolded. He was initially told that the noise was the bursting of a car’s gas cylinder. It is a split second he has never forgotten.

“Honestly, I didn’t realize what was happening,” he recounts. “The whole ground was shaking, your ears are ringing. We saw the Afghan players sprint towards the changing room. I was speechless for hours.”

Like Hollioake, he remained afterwards. It came just a month after Burl had narrowly avoided another terror attack; he had been shopping in the area by the Manchester Arena in the hours before the blast at an Ariana Grande concert. “It was life-changing,” he says, looking back.

“It shows you how short life can be. Now I understand how and why the Afghan style of cricket is what it is. They play with no fear. I think it is because what they’ve gone through – they don’t know when their last day is going to be, so they’re playing each day like it’s their last.”

‘Beacon of hope’

In 2006, a team sent by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the sport’s historic guardians, had traveled to India to take on Afghanistan.

Mike Gatting, the former England captain, led the side. It was a close game, with the Afghans batting serenely – at least until Nabi arrived at the crease.

“I expected them to have a few decent cricketers,” Gatting reminisces. “But then there was this boy (Nabi) coming in at number six, just demolishing everybody.

“We were playing by the railway lines, and he kept whacking it onto the tracks.”

Gatting (left) shakes hands with a member of the Afghan team after their match in 2006. The former England captain was dismissed for a duck.

Nabi made a rapid century in a 171-run win that, in many ways, represents much of the Afghanistan phenomenon.

Fane’s Afghan Connection later forged more formal ties with the MCC. It is a partnership that Matthew Fleming, a former president of the organization and an Afghan Connection patron, remains immensely proud of.

“This is helping to give a country hope,” he says. “Not only is it a tool for optimism, it is a vehicle for communication into hard-to-reach communities around the world.

“Afghanistan are a role-model for ambitious cricketing countries. They are the benchmark now. Nobody talks about Zimbabwe anymore. Afghanistan are the beacon of hope.”

Afghan refugees watch the live broadcast of the Cricket World Cup match between Afghanistan and Bangladesh at a market in Peshawar in February 2015.

He points to a second encounter between the MCC and Afghanistan – this time at Lord’s in July 2017. If the setting was grand and the occasion a symbolic zenith, the weather refused to play ball as the rain poured down.

Yet even so, Afghan fans packed into the Mound Stand; the sport’s spiritual home hosting a team that – two decades prior – couldn’t and didn’t exist.

More than Afghanistan’s shift from pariah state to cricketing powerhouse, however, the sport has achieved something of which, perhaps, only sport is capable.

It has provided hope where hope did not previously exist. It has united a country, redefined a nation – a bright light after the darkness.

As Fleming says: “There is still a raw emotion to being an Afghan, playing for Afghanistan, which other countries struggle to replicate. There is an extraordinary energy.”