Afghanistan take over the Home of Cricket
When Afghanistan joined Ireland as the 11th and 12th teams to receive Full Member status last month at the ICC annual conference in London, the most commonly used phrase to characterise proceedings was that a glass ceiling had been broken. The old, traditional corridors of ICC boardrooms had welcomed new blood; the motion approved on the backdrop of one of cricket's great symbols of tradition, Lord's.
For the Afghanistan administrators, breaking that glass ceiling on June 22 had been a very delicate process. Tuesday, though, was for the Afghanistan fans, and they left no doubt about the state of that glass ceiling, stampeding their way through the Lord's turnstiles to make sure it was reduced to itty bitty granules.
"We don't ever get this for other games," one of the Lord's stewards said through a cacophony of Afghan fan excitement building at 9am, two hours before the start of play, on Wellington Place outside the North Gate. "This is brilliant, though I doubt the neighbours living in NW8 will be too thrilled with all the noise."
Noise. The theme of the day. Fans singing, music blasting, chants echoing. Every bit of it pure and loud. And so were the outfits. The richest, most vibrant shades of red and green: printed on shirts, painted on faces, rippling on flags in the wind. It was a sensory assault.
"This means everything to Afghanistan," Massom Shirzad, a father of two, now living in Birmingham, said. Shirzad has been living in the UK for more than 15 years and today was the first time his two Birmingham-born daughters, Nabeela and Saima, 11 and eight, were getting the chance to see the heroes of their ancestral home for the first time. They had left at 6am for the drive down and along with two cousins were five of the first group of fans that began gathering from 8:30am outside the entrance gates.
The story was repeated throughout the day. Members of the Afghan diaspora living in Coventry, Manchester, Wales, Germany, France, Norway and beyond. Almost every single one interviewed had never seen Afghanistan play in person, and had never been to Lord's. In a pocket of the Compton Stand sat a hoard of 100 men clad in blue polo shirts with "BIRMINGHAM" printed in white block letters on the back and "AFG" in black, red and green on the front.
"We support Afghans, we support cricket," Jan Shinwari, originally from Kabul but now based in Birmingham, said. He helped organise the two coaches chartered to drive everyone in this particular fan group down from the West Midlands, beginning 7:45am. "This is a new game in Afghanistan after only 13 or 14 years because of the war in Afghanistan. We want to show peace to the world and that we can do anything."
Peace. A recurring theme throughout the last decade of Afghanistan's cricket journey. During the early years of Afghanistan's pathway to Test status and a day at Lord's, Hamid Hassan used to cross the rope onto the battlefield, his face painted like Rambo. He was Afghanistan's most photogenic warrior, a warrior of peace. Each stump uprooted, every bail dislodged with one of his heat-seeking yorkers was another strategic victory to thwart the stereotype of Taliban terror.
"They are our peace ambassadors," Qudratullah Ibrahimkhil, another member of Shinwari's traveling band, who grew up in Maidan Wardak province before migrating to Birmingham, said. "Recently they got the Full Membership and every Afghan is very proud because in Afghanistan for the last four decades there has been war, conflicts and everything. The Afghan national cricket team brings happiness, optimism to people in Afghanistan and around the world.
"They unite Afghans in Afghanistan and around the world. In here, the atmosphere is amazing. There are people who have come from all over the world. They have come here to support their team. We are very proud of our national heroes for their remarkable achievements and accomplishments in a very short period of time. With very limited resources, they have achieved so much and made history."
History. Today was not just for Afghan fans, but for the genuine cricket lover who has seen his fair share of cricket over the years and has an appreciation for what Afghanistan has acquired in status and skill.
"Listen to that, this is what it's all about isn't it?" shouted 69-year-old Bob Blake over the roar of the crowd from his seat in the Mound Stand after the fall of the fourth MCC wicket. A Trinidad native, Blake came to London in his teens before settling in Luton. He has been coming to Lord's for nearly 50 years, ever since his beloved West Indies, led by Clive Lloyd, claimed their first World Cup at Lord's in 1975.
They might not be on par with Lloyd's feared pace quartet, but Afghanistan's pace attack has been the envy of the Associate world and left-armer Shapoor Zadran bared his teeth with the new ball for Brendon McCullum and Misbah-ul-Haq to see.
"I'm very impressed with the opening bowler, Shapoor," Blake said. "It's great to see Afghanistan today. They're a Full Test Member. I've never seen them live but they look pretty useful. I was aware they were a decent team over the years especially in one-day cricket. You can't take them lightly. If Ireland got Test status and Ireland's a good team, they're a better team than Ireland."
It was only last month that Afghanistan had drawn an ODI series in their maiden tour of the Caribbean thanks to Rashid Khan's destructive seven-wicket haul in the first game. It was a match that further dented the West Indies dwindling reputation and Blake said he hasn't decided if he wants to buy tickets to see the West Indies when they tour the UK later in the summer. The old calypso magic may have faded but remnants of it were evident in the Afghanistan side that was on the park in front of him.
"There are definitely similarities because the West Indian supporters really were noisy as well," Blake said. "We would back our boys to the hilt. We loved it when something went right so it's very very similar really. The enthusiasm is virtually the same.
"They're noisy, they're enthusiastic. They obviously love their players. They're behind them all the way and they're showing it. The atmosphere is pretty terrific really, especially at Lord's you're not accustomed to this atmosphere. It's more of an Edgbaston atmosphere here today. This is not a Lord's atmosphere, which is great. Lord's is too quiet."
Atmosphere. It was one-of-a-kind for Lord's on Tuesday, in part because, as Blake said, it was the antithesis of a typical Lord's crowd. Compared to the measured responses emoted by England fans during the Test match over the weekend, Tuesday was symbolised by the raw spontaneity from the Afghanistan fans.
"I think it's exciting because we're getting to see the Afghan team play," British-Afghan Sadaf Nader, 31, from Richmond, said. "I mean it's a pretty standard answer, but it is exciting."
Nader's husband Jawed, 34, was taken aback not just by the size of the crowd, which hovered near 8000, but by the off-the-wall antics of fans from their vantage point in the Edrich Stand.
"It's also overwhelming to see so many Afghan youths here," Jawed said. "I've seen Afghans at our own gatherings, but not in this number. It is such a big number and they're really enjoying themselves… and breaking all the MCC rules!"
"Breaking every rule!" chimed in Sadaf.
The slippery slope began well before the start of play at the entrance gates. Afghan fans are renowned for their flag-waving enthusiasm and perhaps uninitiated to the Lord's protocol, scores showed up with flags in tow, fashionably draped around their necks. The Lord's stewards who greeted them at the North Gate repeatedly asked: "Is this a scarf or a flag? Because flags are not allowed inside Lord's." Every streetwise Afghan duly assured: "Scarf! Scarf!" in reply. Initially they were shy about stretching out their "scarves" but they couldn't help themselves once Shapoor starting taking wickets, unabashedly heaving the tri-colour flag with merry abandon.
The ubiquitous flag infringements were relatively minor compared with what was to come in the 25th over of MCC's innings. When Dawlat Zadran pinged Shiv Chanderpaul on the left arm off the first ball of the over, a lengthy delay ensued as the batsman pondered whether to retire hurt. The fans were beginning to grow somewhat restless after having sat through a 105-minute rain delay following the 18th over.
In an attempt to placate his growing legion of worshippers, Rashid walked over to the railing of the Mound Stand to sign autographs and pose for selfies. Within 30 seconds an overly exuberant supporter leapt over the fence to hug Rashid. A dozen more imitators followed as the under-manned stewards were overwhelmed. Afghanistan's fans have a long-held reputation for storming the field after a landmark win, but charging the pitch for this mid-match show of affection may have been a first for them.
"It's just a good thing they had their clothes on," quipped Sadaf Nader.
When one fire was put out, another started as a couple of fans jumped the Tavern Stand railing. One headed for fine leg where Gulbadin Naib was casually standing, while the other made haste with a flag-turned superman cape towards a crowd of seven players gathered near Dawlat Zadran's run-up mark. When one steward finally caught up, the fan hid behind statuesque captain Asghar Stanikzai, shuffling back and forth in an absurdly impromptu game of hide and seek that had the fans - then Asghar and Dawlat - cackling with uncontrollable laughter.
By the time Chanderpaul walked off five minutes later to be replaced by Samit Patel, order had been restored. As has been the case at other events where there is a large Afghanistan turnout at odds with established etiquette, Afghanistan team manager Hamkar Shiraha got a hold of a microphone and diplomatically gave an announcement in Pashto over the Lord's tannoy. The gist of it, according to the Naders, was that the fans need to show they are good and respectful cricket fans by obeying the MCC rules, which drew thunderous applause. As ever, Hamkar ended his speech on a positive note, rallying the fans by shouting, "Afghanistan Zindabad!"
The rain could hardly dampen the mood of the day, but if there was one blemish it had to be those who were absent from the squad to take part in the day's festivities. Nawroz Mangal got the red-carpet treatment in January at the Desert T20 Final. Mangal received a fitting send-off for his services to Afghanistan cricket, but the real star of that day was Mohammad Shahzad, who became the first player to score two T20I fifties in a day. Countless fans at Lord's were pining for Shahzad, disappointed he could not entertain them with some holding signs pleading with the ICC to "forgive" him for testing positive earlier this year for performance-enhancing drugs.
The other forgotten soul was Hamid Hassan. Rashid may be the box-office drawcard of the moment but for those who were around to see Afghanistan first surface on the ICC's major tournament stage, Hamid was the original Afghanistan rock star. Hamid floated through the team hotel, training sessions, warm-ups and fiery 145kph reverse-swing bowling spells like a Greek god. But now it's as if those spells held a Prometheus trait. Injuries continue to ravage his body.
Chants of "Shah-POOR! "Rah-SHEED!" and "Nah-BEE!" were heard ringing around the Lord's stands early and often throughout Afghanistan's time in the field, but there were no such shouts for "Hah-MEED!" It's a cruel fate that someone who played such an instrumental role in Afghanistan's early fortunes has not been able to reap the adulation and rewards of his peers on days like this. Not only was Hamid not in uniform at Lord's, but it's unknown when or if the 30-year-old will ever suit up again.
Still, there was far too much to be joyous about. Who would have predicted after decades of war and devastation at home that there would come a day when peace and salvation would be ever-present in the happy and carefree smiles of the thousands of Afghanistan faithful who made their way to northwest London. Following a lengthy nomadic existence, they have worked to establish their roots once again. The seeds planted through a bat-and-ball sport over the last decade had sprouted up and were on full view on Tuesday at the Home of Cricket.
"It's a proud moment," Jawed said. "Afghanistan is often associated with all the bad superlatives, like the poorest, worst corruption, worst in opium production, but to see Afghanistan being one of the best in sports, that is unique and good.
"It's an extraordinary positive story about Afghanistan. When we have victories it unites the nation as a whole and that's very good. I hope that we have more sportsmen like Rashid Khan, like Mohammad Nabi at international level so that they also are inspirations for youngsters back in the country."
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna