MCC at heart of Afghanistan's future
In another life, Matthew Fleming might have embarked on a trip to Afghanistan waylaid with bivvy bags and ponchos rather than pads, stumps and a weighty remit from cricket's oldest establishment. A former officer in the Royal Green Jackets, Fleming, 44, is off to Jalalabad on Thursday to open an MCC Spirit of Cricket camp and two school pitches in the country, just two weeks after Afghanistan qualified for one-day international status.
Fleming was first dispatched to the country at the end of 2007 following a successful tour by Afghanistan to Britain funded by MCC. "One or two of us argued very strongly that while we've created this momentum, let's keep it going," Fleming told Cricinfo. "In economic terms you get real value for your buck out there, so anything the MCC can do which fits its remit [is beneficial]. And while there are British soldiers out there, if we can help win the hearts and minds of Afghan people, that must be a good thing. The Afghan Cricket Federation were after help - they wanted help finishing their national stadium and so on - and having looked at everything, the best way we can support is at the grass-roots level, building facilities in schools, to help broaden the pyramid."
The pyramid Fleming talks of is conceptual at the moment, but so rapid has Afghanistan's rise been that MCC are at the forefront of building the game's newest of cricketing nations. Their performance in the recent World Cup Qualifiers surprised their opponents - they beat Ireland, Bermuda and Scotland twice - but never themselves. When they shocked Ireland by 22 runs, one senior player told me that they could beat Australia or South Africa on their day. The logic to this was wonderfully simple. "Ireland beat Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. We have beaten Ireland. And Pakistan have beaten Australia in the past. So can we."
For fiction to become fable, pitches and equipment are desperately needed. Most of the senior players learned the game as refugees in Peshawar, in camps or on dusty roads without conventional kit. The national stadium in Kabul is nowhere near complete, more famous as the forum for the Taliban's executioners a decade ago. But with the help of the MCC and a charity, the Afghan Connection founded and chaired by Dr Sarah Fane, schoolchildren are now able to play the game. Fane has built a network of schools serving over 26,000 schoolchildren - a remarkable feat in itself - and her influence as a force for change, Fleming said, cannot be underplayed. Today, for example, Fane and her crew were in a remote valley in northern Afghanistan, introducing the game to local people.
"Sarah's charity has been absolutely instrumental," he said. "Firstly, delivering projects in Afghanistan is incredibly difficult. Sarah's experience out there and the respect her charity has [has been invaluable], but also her relationship with the Swedish Committee, this extraordinary group who deliver projects on the ground, was fantastic. The last thing we want to do is give our money to someone who then disappears with it.
"Unfortunately corruption is endemic in Afghanistan. Rather than spend US$100,000 on finishing a stadium, we thought we could spend a lot less than that building concrete and artificial cricket wickets and providing kit, in underprivileged areas, through the schools that Sarah was building."
With the recent high-profile success of the national team, their timing could not be better either.
"What's not to enjoy?" enthused Fleming. "You're going to an extraordinarily historical country with an amazingly different culture, with this fiercely independent and warrior-like spirit, where they have a natural passion and aptitude for a game we all love, where you can see the very tangible difference that cricket can make on people's lives. And at the same time, you can help heal, in a spiritual way, a country's wounds.
"Cricket really is an amazing healer. Sport is probably the only true global language. Anywhere in the world if you have a cricket ball, football or tennis ball, you can speak to someone. And that's just the same in Afghanistan."
The optimism and feeling of hope is tinged, or singed, by war. Afghanistan remains a nation under siege, a country suffocated by prejudices. To underline the perilous security situation, MCC cannot disclose Fleming's whereabouts on Thursday and Friday. The aftermath of war brings corruption and, almost as inevitably, potential embezzlement: Afghanistan are now eligible for a vast increase in funding by ICC, and Fleming fires a hasty warning.
"The ICC need to be very careful that the increase in funding doesn't get swallowed up in the wrong way," he said. "Inevitably some of it will fall between the drains, but if the ICC work with organisations like the Swedish Committee, or the Afghan Connection - proven deliverers - then they'll make it work.
"These are players who are deeply religious who understand the opportunity that they have made for themselves, and they understand the opportunity that cricket can provide Afghanistan. And they are committed to lead Afghanistan. While you're nervous that some of the money will disappear, the great positive spirit that exists, the desire of enough people to make a difference, and the very low base from which they start means those fears should be offset by optimism and hope."
The ICC's latest buzzword is support structures, something Afghanistan need more than most. Their success from obscurity has relied upon their lion-hearted belief, but the framework itself is worryingly flimsy.
"They're not going play in Kabul in the next ten years, are they? That's not going to happen. Pakistan are talking about playing domestic games in UAE, and there's absolutely no reason Afghanistan shouldn't do that," Fleming said.
"I'm not worried about the players or the talent. Somehow linking the top of the pyramid with the bottom is going to be very hard, putting a structure in place, so they're going to have to overcome and adapt to that challenge. And I suppose the only way you can get that is by getting a good governing body and that's their greatest challenge: finding an honest, passionate but realistic governing body who actually concentrate on putting a strategy in place that can be delivered. And that's where MCC should be able to help.
"MCC is a terrific force for good. Every time we tour somewhere we leave a financial legacy behind, or a legacy in terms of local infrastructure. We help in areas in the world where others don't want to go to; we're committed to as many people as possible in the world, to not only enjoy the game, but enjoying the values that underpin it."
And Afghans deserve to enjoy cricket and have earned the right to be proud of their national team. That much can't be denied. How long the benevolence of MCC and other charities lasts, however, could determine the country's long-term future as a nation of cricket, not just of war.
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo