Five days of coaching in Kabul
I've been fortunate to travel to many places across the world through cricket, and I'm sure I'm in for another adventure as I head to Kabul tomorrow.
Along with Umesh Patwal, Global Cricket School's director of cricket, I have been invited to deliver the Cricket Australia Level 1 coaching course in Kabul for the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB). The course is being funded by the MCC Foundation as part of its efforts to develop cricket in the country, and it is the first domestic coaching course in Afghanistan. The 20 candidates will be a mix of coaches from the ACB system and schoolteachers who have been selected from different provinces across the country.
Apart from the obvious security concerns (of this I'm reminded by friends, family and colleagues alike), I have no doubt this will be a great opportunity to work on developing cricket coaches who can lay the road map for Afghanistan cricket's future.
We arrive in Kabul at dusk. The city is wedged in the beautiful, barren and imposing Hindu Kush mountain range. The view from the flight over the undulating, snow-capped range is spectacular, and sets a very picturesque though inhospitable scene for the city below.
The long and lonely 15-minute walk to the car park in almost pitch darkness is a little unnerving. No vehicles or people are permitted close to the airport's departure or arrival areas, and it's a long walk to reach the arrivals hall. Fortunately our driver is there, sign in hand, and we drive on to the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) compound which will be our home for the next five days.
The SCA has worked to improve education and health care in Afghanistan for the last 30 years. And in the schools that it has constructed, an NGO called Afghan Connection is building cricket pitches - through the MCC Foundation. The teachers who are participating in our course have been picked from some of these schools, and their role will be to introduce children to the sport.
First impressions of Kabul: like most major subcontinent cities, there are unfinished buildings, little signposting, and lots of traffic. The most striking detail, though, is the ubiquitous dust that infiltrates people's clothes and covers cars, roads and buildings. It's as if a dust machine has created a permanent haze through the city.
We get to the Kabul International Cricket Stadium by 7.30am to get set up. Our main liaison is Raees Ahmadzai, the former Afghanistan captain and current chief selector for the ACB. His passion for cricket is evident and he is very deliberate and considered in his approach.
We set up class in a room in the soon-to-be ACB offices adjacent to the playing arena. Clothing is presented as part of the welcome and the faculty and candidates make their introductions. The ten coaches from the ACB are all former players but the schoolteachers are mostly novices, so we need to make sure that what we teach is palatable to both groups. There is a lot of excitement and passion in the room and it overflows during question time. We cover topics like how to deal with a wayward player, how to teach the reverse sweep, why Ian Botham is a "Sir" and Imran Khan isn't. It's going to be an interesting few days.
When discussing the role of the coach, we realise the local view is relatively short-sighted in that they think the coach's job is team selection and supervising match-day performance. After some leading questions and discussions, we are able to show that coaches can have a hand at education, planning, keeping constant the focus on learning (and not just on winning the next match).
The students tell us that their country's spirit, passion, self-confidence and commitment to winning have been responsible for Afghanistan cricket's success in recent years, and that a lack of infrastructure, poor organising of domestic cricket, and virtually no grassroots development could hold them back.
We understand that Afghanistan's current coaching environment is prescriptive and heavy on technical content when we have a session on coaching methodology. This is a common subcontinental practice, which contradicts the free-flowing and instinctive game synonymous with the region. Our focus for the next three days will be to shift towards a more modern and player-centred coaching style.
In the afternoon we conduct a practical batting session. The schoolteachers, who have little or no cricket experience, prove to be a great coaching test for the former players.
We take a trip to the top of Tapa Nadir Khan to watch the sun set over Kabul. From up here the city looks warm and picturesque, not one torn apart by war and destruction.
MCC president Phillip Hodson and Afghan Connection CEO Dr Sarah Fayne attend the day's session. The two organisations have been instrumental in bringing this course together.
The challenge for the coaches and teachers taking this course is to use what they learn to re-establish community links and work on the social, emotional and physical development of children in war-torn areas. In today's session we work on basic skill acquisition and how to apply them to cricket coaching. These concepts are largely foreign and difficult to grasp for the coaches.
The afternoon's fielding workshop is a great session and the Afghanistan board chairman's visit is a nice way to complete the day's programme. We are invited to dinner at the chairman's house, in suburban Kabul, along with other senior board staff. It's a very Afghan dinner experience - sitting on mattresses on the floor and being served beef, chicken, rice and lots of bread. Security is surprisingly light, though the chairman is also a senior advisor to the Afghanistan president.
The candidates eagerly embrace the session on competency-based learning for which we conduct game-sense activities and modified games. In the afternoon we hand over to the coaches so they can practise what they have learnt so far. It starts slow and needs intervention from me and Umesh to revise the concepts we taught but then the coaches begin to blossom on their own. We can now see the effect of what we have taught - the candidates, who had no coaching education when they first came, have now understood how to structure and deliver a quality coaching session.
On the drive home, we stop at the local carpet market. There's so much on offer and so many eager salesmen willing to negotiate a sale that I feel befuddled. I guess not many tourists wander through the shops here and I am very conscious of the "living in a fish bowl" effect of having my every move observed.
We go to the British embassy for a dinner hosted by the ambassador, Sir Richard Stagg. There's quite a collection of nationalities, experiences and backgrounds, but what unites them all is the common imperative of doing their bit towards the social and infrastructure development of the country.
We get a clear understanding of what the coaches have learnt over the past few days. In the morning session the coaches make presentations about their coaching philosophies and their plans for what they will do when they return to their provinces. We are impressed with the intent and passion on display for what can be achieved locally.
A group of 15 local teenagers is brought in for the practical assessment, and a coach and teacher each pair up to work with the kids. Umesh and I are now confident that these coaches have learnt enough to go back to their provinces and get some cricket going.
An impromptu singing and dancing session that breaks out while we were waiting for the certificates to arrive provides a cultural highlight and a lot of laughter. But I think it's best for cricket to remain their key focus. Afghanistan Idol may have to stay on the backburner for a while!
On our last night in Kabul, Umesh and I walk down to the local ice-cream shop. We feel we could be anywhere in the world, until a man with a machine gun walks in as a security scout for a couple of local identities who have just arrived. Out in front as we leave, there are two 4WDs and four local guys carrying AK-47s as the security detail. Time to walk back to the compound.
There is a great opportunity for cricket to become a major sport in Afghanistan. Most restaurants or shops with television sets had cricket tuned on them and we saw a number of cricket games being played in the streets. Jalalabad, in the north, has a very strong cricket culture and the country's only private cricket academy, with nearly 1000 children in it. The success of the national team has also galvanised political groups and made some progress in uniting tribal factions. While the dominant Pashtos form most of the current cricket-playing fraternity, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others are also taking up the sport in encouraging numbers.
Cricket is not just a game in Afghanistan. It has the ability to unite, inspire and solidify a nation that has seen more than its fair share of fighting, violence and death.
For more information on contributing to cricket as a social development tool in Afghanistan visit www.afghanconnection.org
Martin Gleeson is the CEO of the Mumbai-based Cricket India Academy and has previously held roles with Cricket Australia and the ICC