Afghanistan May 3, 2009

The English lady bringing cricket to Afghanistan

Sarah Fane, chairman of Afghan Connection, meets Matthew Fleming to unveil new cricket pitches in a remote region of Afghanistan

Sarah Fane, chairman of Afghan Connection, meets Matthew Fleming to unveil new cricket pitches in a remote region of Afghanistan

© Sarah Fane

Two Britons, an Afghan and a Swede drive 12 hours to and from a school in Andarab to deliver cricket equipment to the kids. It has been an amazing feat and journey.

We set out on a stunning dawn in Kabul with clear skies and a long road ahead. Ali, our driver, is a splendid character and drove me all around Afghanistan last year. Rotund and jolly and sporting a moustache and a heart warming smile, he is larger than life and a great companion. We head up towards the Salang (yet again for me) and stop half way up by the river for a picnic breakfast provided by Jorgen, the Swedish Programme Director for SCA. Wonderful breakfast looking up to the snows of the Hindu Kush. Most perfect morning to see the views from the top of the pass stretching for miles along the spines and great for Matthew Fleming to have a first taste of Afghanistan beyond Kabul.

© Sarah Fane

The tunnel seemed longer than ever, with visibility down to a few feet in the three kilometres of Stygian darkness, thick with pollution and choking fumes.

On up towards the north for four hours and then off the tarmac and onto the off-road part of the trip. I didn’t recognise the landscape...there has been so much rain and my last visit was during a drought. The views are so beautiful: valleys stretching for miles, straddling the river and everything is so green. Poppies and wild flowers everywhere, farmers in the fields and intricate networks of irrigation channels all full and criss-crossing their way over the land. Huge bands of the Hindu Kush dominate the horizon.

Ahead, we meet a military ISAF convoy travelling painstakingly slowly and looking wholly out of place in this peaceful, timeless scene. Great armoured vehicles with men armed to the hilt surveying the landscape from the turrets. Huge red signs warn against trying to overtake, so we follow this line along the bumpiest of tracks .None of us can remember how far the school is down this track and as the minutes and hours pass we keep expecting it round every corner...but it never comes.

Then, at last, I recognise the local bazaar and see the school and six-and-a-half hours after we leave Kabul, we finally enter the gates to the school.

© Sarah Fane

It is so worthwhile. The school is Sang Boran and is twinned to Eton College. They have 2000 boys and only 10 classrooms and everywhere the children are outside or in tents studying in the heat of the Andarab noon. Afghan Connection has managed to get two donors to build a school for these boys and the workmen and engineers are hard at work on site. We are greeted with a warm welcome form Nasrullah—my favourite teacher - and the headmaster and other staff. They all say how happy they are in the community and the school that the new buildings are going up and at last they will have a proper school. They say that they are amazed that “a lady from another land” has found the means to build them a school.

We visit all the classes outside and see the new cricket pitch funded by MCC well under construction. Then Matthew is introduced as a famous cricketer from England and we start to hand out all the cricket equipment provided by the Fairstead Trust. Hundreds of children crowd around the vehicle as 15 are chosen to try on all the new kit. Matthew puts the stumps in to the hard ground and a space is cleared and he begins a coaching session. Everywhere I look I see children perched on piles of bricks or hanging out of windows or joining the crowd to watch the scene. Everyone is so happy, most of all me.

© Sarah Fane

The boys play on as we are led to lunch in a tiny room overlooking the hills and mountains in this idyllic spot. Have a wonderful lunch all sitting on the carpet eating kebabs and naan with the teachers and watching on my computer, the film of my last visit...which they love.

We say our goodbyes, conscious that with another 6 hours drive ahead of us, we will not reach Kabul before nightfall.

It has been quite a few days for Matthew, who only arrived after 24-hour flight from London yesterday. He played in the Kabul Cup and then travelled to the remotest parts of Afghanistan to touch it with cricket!

As we come back into Kabul, there is a dust storm and the winds sweep across the Shomali plain. The distant hills come alive with light as the lightning strikes to the East. Tiny stalls line the route with little swinging lamps and the streets are alive and full of stall holders selling their wares. A car with a bemused looking goat strapped to the roof overtakes us. Ungainly wedding halls are lit up like great ships in the night and as we drive through this scene of a chaotic evening, which is so vibrant. Ali tells us how it was under the Taliban: no electricity, no music, no thriving businesses, no joy.

But we have seen so much joy today and perhaps we may one day see an Afghan cricketer who heralded from Sang Boran and was inspired by some English cricketer who chanced to call at his school.

Sarah Fane is chairman of the charity Afghan Connection with whom MCC work to provide cricket equipment in Afghanistan. Matthew Fleming is the former Kent and England allrounder now working for MCC.

Additional reporting by Will Luke. For more on Afghanistan’s rise, see their homepage

All photos are copyright Sarah Fane 2009

Will Luke is assistant editor of ESPNcricinfo