Asia Cup 2014 March 4, 2014

Matiullah Abid, Afghanistan's 'cricket man'

Karthik Krishnaswamy
Meet a Washington-based Afghan journalist who follows the nation's cricket team as he tries to spread some cheer in a country starved of good news

Out in the middle, Mohammad Nabi has just pulled Thisara Perera for four. Afghanistan, chasing 254 to beat Sri Lanka, are 108 for 5. In the press box, I open Matiullah Abid's Facebook profile. His latest post, like most of his posts, is in Pashto, and I cannot read what he's written. But I can see it has attracted 60 likes in six minutes.

Two chairs to my right sits Abid himself, punching away at his laptop, a frown of concentration tugging down at the ends of his thick black moustache. "I'm telling my countrymen not to worry," he says, turning away from his screen. "Lots of big teams get bowled out for low scores. I'm telling them it's part of the game. They are still learning what cricket is all about."

Abid has played a big role in teaching them. Based out of Washington DC, Abid works for Voice of America, the US government's official radio station. His broadcasts in Pashto mainly cover youth affairs, and cricket has grown to occupy a prominent role in them.

"I have a show, weekly, and all the players, once they have become part of my show, everywhere they go I'm in touch with them, I find their phone numbers," he says. "If I can travel, I travel. If not I use my connections to bring them on the show and tell the listeners Afghanistan is playing and how they are doing. I ask them to send their pictures and post them on Facebook and on our webpage.

"Our Facebook page has almost 130,000 followers. I myself have over 5000 friends, and nearly 10,000 followers. I don't want to praise myself. If you go to Afghanistan and say my name, 'You know Abid?' and they'll say 'the cricket man?'"

Cricket entered Abid's life quite early. When war began in Afghanistan in 1978, his family migrated to Pakistan. He was seven at the time.

"First time I saw cricket was in Peshawar. My friends in my neighbourhood were playing on the streets, in the gardens," he says. "That was when Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad were playing. Then Shahid Afridi came, and Saeed Anwar was there. I was a left-hander, so I followed Saeed Anwar when I batted and Wasim Akram when I was bowling."

Following the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, Abid thought he could move back home, but the start of the civil war put paid to that plan. He moved instead to the USA in 2000. There, he realised that cricket had taken root in Afghanistan, and began following the fortunes of the national team.

After Afghanistan won the World T20 qualifier in Jersey, Abid decided he would start travelling to watch the team. He's been at nearly all of their big moments since, but the first time was a particularly emotional experience.

"I went to West Indies in 2010, and I could not believe it," Abid says. "How can Afghanistan be here, playing against South Africa and India in the T20 World Cup? I was listening to our national anthem, and I cried, in front of my friends, and I said, look, people think Afghanistan is a terrorist state and drug state and Afghanistan is nothing. But now, we have a flag, we have an anthem, we have representation.

"So this cricket has made us a country in the world arena and now people know us with a different name. If you go on Google, and write Afghanistan - attack, fighting, killing, death, drugs. If you add cricket with Afghanistan - jubilation, victory, fun. Cricket has changed the face of Afghanistan."

Apart from changing how the country is perceived by the outside world, Abid says cricket is also helping heal Afghanistan from within.

"The war is the base of all the problems," Abid says. "Infrastructure is totally destroyed. No schools for a long time, and two generations almost, from 1978 to 2000, remained out of normal life. They lived a refugee life. They can't think about moving forward. This is the big problem. In Afghanistan, they still don't believe that things will remain as they are now. If Americans go, what will happen? If the war started, what will happen?

"Second thing, the government has misused the money and funding the world is giving, so people live by their own, everybody taking care of themselves. So youth are struggling, trying to make their own life. Thirdly, peace. The main thing is peace. If you are free of all fears - I will go to my school, I will go to work, I will go to the ground, and come back - this thing Afghanistan is lacking.

"So these boys give hope to the Afghan youth, that look, we have qualified for the World Cup, so we are concerned about 2015, so we have already crossed this year. Recently, the Afghan cricket team went to the province of Khost. 35,000-plus people were there, and the big ground was full of people, only to see a glimpse of Mohammad Nabi or Hamid Hassan. The guys travelled from Kabul by helicopter.

"The reception they received there gave a message to all of the youth. They are the guys who were refugees. They were nobodies. Now the whole country is following them, there are pictures in people's houses. If you go to Kabul there are big hoardings with Mohammad Nabi and Hamid Hassan. This thing is very good, to push them, to motivate them, to say, look, if they can do it, everybody can do it."

And everyone in the country, it seems, is starting to play the game. Having first established itself in the regions bordering Pakistan, Abid says cricket is becoming popular in other parts of the country too.

"The youth who belong to the border areas, the Nangrahar province - Jalalabad is the main city - and in the south, Paktika and Khost, most of the people migrated to the nearest part of Pakistan [during the war]. Which is why most of the players [in the national team] speak one language - Pashto," Abid says. "Cricket was not that famous in the beginning in the north of Afghanistan [where Dari is the more commonly spoken language], but due to this explosion in popularity, now youngsters in that region also follow cricket. Mirwas Ashraf is from the north of Afghanistan, and there are some other players in the A team and the Under-19 team.

But Jalalabad remains the epicenter.

"The people who first spread cricket in Afghanistan - Taj Malik, Dawlat Ahmadzai - they belong to Jalalabad," Abid says. "They established a club, Nangrahar Cricket Academy, which is still producing youngsters, talented guys like the Under-19 players, Hashmatullah Shaidi, Fareed (Ahmed) and the captain [Nasir Ahmadzai], who is the brother of Raees Ahmadzai, the former senior team captain. So Jalalabad has made a big contribution to cricket."

The spread of cricket in Afghanistan, and the successes of the national side, have made Abid a very busy man. Since Saturday's historic win over Bangladesh, he's barely had a moment's rest.

"Day before, we beat Bangladesh, and our whole radio programme was based on this," he says. "Different programmes covering Pashto audience, they were just calling me, can you be our guest, so for four hours I was continuously on radio, talking and talking. Yesterday, I was watching the India-Pakistan match but still talking about what happened against Bangladesh."

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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