Afghanistan meet USA in politically charged encounter
As a sporting nation, the USA sets itself apart from the rest of the world with its insular focus on homegrown pursuits such as baseball and American football. When it does venture outside its own sporting bubble, America often finds itself caught up in politically charged events. From the so-called 'Miracle on ice' ice-hockey game between the US and the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics, to the defiantly good-natured meeting between the American and Iranian football teams at the 1998 football World Cup, and the continued baseball rivalry with Cuba, American political relations have coloured those on the sports field.
Afghanistan's game against USA at the World Twenty20 Qualifiers on February 11 has taken on a similarly political complexion against the backdrop of America's military engagements in that country. The match was also made all the more intriguing after Afghanistan won both of their opening games at the tournament to clear a path to the Super Fours. USA shocked Scotland, running to an unexpected six-wicket victory, in their first match but crashed to a 78-run defeat at the hands of Ireland in their second, and so, in an interesting twist, Afghanistan are now well placed to knock USA out of contention in the tournament.
Although both teams have insisted they are approaching the match as they would any other game of cricket, it is hard to ignore the social context in which it is taking place. In the last few days, hundreds of villagers living in the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah in southern Afghanistan have been abandoning their homes ahead of what is expected to be one of the largest counter-insurgency operations since the Afghan conflict began in 2001, and the first major military action since US President Barack Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 extra US troops to the region.
Almost 1,700 kilometres away, Afghanistan's cricketers - already heroes and a source of hope in their homeland - are surging towards a fairytale entry to the World Twenty20. Though their passage to the Super Fours is all but assured, Nowroz Mangal, Afghanistan's captain, has already warned against complacency and insisted his side respect every team they play against. His comments have been backed up by Hamid Hassan, the MCC-groomed fast bowler who has played a vital role in both of Afghanistan's wins so far.
"Every game is very important for us in this tournament, because everyone wants to see the Afghanistan team on television and in international cricket," Hassan told Cricinfo. "The game against America is one that everyone is waiting for, because people expect us to beat them, but inshallah we will win all three of our games, and not just that one. Lots of people back home are praying for us all the time, so we are going to fight against these teams for a chance for World Cup qualification, and we have a good chance against them, so let's see what happens."
With media attention on both teams increasing in the lead-up to their encounter, USA captain Steve Massiah was equally unwilling to assign undue relevance to the game, while he remained quietly confident of a positive result. "We have never played against Afghanistan, but we will treat the game like every other game, we're not making any special provisions," he insisted in an interview with Cricinfo. "There is nothing special in the way we are preparing to play them. It's not that we're not giving special attention to them, but the way we approach the game against them is the way we approach any other team. I think we stand a very good chance once we can play to our potential."
While Afghanistan have risen rapidly to become one of the best Associate nations, USA came to this event with plenty to prove. Having fallen down the rankings in recent years they only made it to the qualifiers as a wildcard entry, along with hosts United Arab Emirates. There has been a whiff of controversy over their participation in this tournament, and despite some progress in the organisational problems and chaotic infighting that have plagued their board in the last few years Massiah admitted that the team's preparation for the tournament was far from ideal.
"Well, it could have been better," he said. "But you know we've got to work with whatever we have and we have to let bygones be bygones. That's totally out of our control, we can't do anything and I'm sure everyone would wish they could prepare well coming into a tournament. But that's the way it is, and we've got to pick ourselves up and do whatever it may take to become competitive and hopefully at the end of the day we can be victorious."
Don Lockerbie, the new chief executive of USACA and a calming influence after the disputes and controversies of recent years, gave an honest, yet hopeful appraisal of USA's standing in world cricket. "We start every cricket match as underdogs," he said. "Everybody wonders what does the USA know about cricket, but we take the game very, very seriously and want to be the best we can. But there's no question that our players are still amateurs, weekend warriors if you will. They are working very, very hard to professionalise their skills, in a bid to fast-track themselves to being a professional side."
And so although the circumstances of these two teams are a world apart, their aspirations are ultimately the same and whether or not we give some special significance to this game, the very fact that it is happening at all can be seen as a chance for a humanising connection through sport. As Massiah explained: "I think it's a good opportunity for us to forge a relationship and bridge the gap and show that through sports you can achieve unity and you can bring people together and hopefully that can help towards forging a healthy relationship.
"I would hope they [the Afghanistan team and supporters] receive us very well, and I hope this can show that we can work out whatever differences there may be between us as people, but we as cricketers would not get involved in the politics really. We're here to bridge the gap between us and hopefully have a healthy relationship with them." Hassan's comments in his Cricinfo blog provide a telling echo of Massiah's sentiments: "I think that it is a great thing that cricket can bring people together and that players from Afghanistan and the USA can play each other in an international match. It also shows what a global game cricket now is."
Commendably, Lockerbie also argued that his team understand the political and social value of what this game means to both countries. "We expect that tomorrow will be a great game of cricket and very high energy, but we intend to be gentlemen on the field," he said. "This is not about what's happening politically, but we can't miss the fact that there's bullets flying around in Afghanistan, and tomorrow it will be cricket balls."
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at Cricinfo UK