Pakistan v Afghanistan, one-off ODI, Sharjah February 11, 2012

Even Taliban lends support to Afghanistan cricketers

Such is the unifying power of cricket in Afghanistan that even the Taliban sent a message of support to the team ahead of their historic ODI against Pakistan in Sharjah on Friday. The match, which Pakistan won by seven wickets, was Afghanistan's first ODI against a Test-playing nation and the first ODI played between an Affiliate Member of the ICC and a Full Member.

A spokesman for the Taliban contacted the Afghanistan Cricket Board on the morning of the game to wish the team well and assure them they would be remembered in their prayers.

Indeed, the event appears to have unified the Afghanistan nation in unprecedented fashion. The country's president, Hamid Karzai, phoned officials at the ground several times in order to be kept up to date with the scores, while the country's minister of finance, Dr Omar Zakhilwal, estimated that "hardly anybody was not watching" the match. "Nothing has ever brought us together like this," he said.

Zakhilwal, who is also chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, stressed the importance of cricket in his war-ravaged country and called on the Full Members of the ICC - the Test playing nations - to remember their "responsibility" to continue to develop the game and to reach out to a country in need.

"Cricket is not just a game for us," Zakhilwal said during the ODI. "We have had so much bad news in Afghanistan. But cricket - and this game against Pakistan - has brought good news for the people of a country who have suffered so much in the past. This is a proud day.

"There is nothing that can touch cricket in popularity or as a force for good in Afghanistan. There is absolutely nothing else that mobilises our society in the same way. Not politics, political events or reconstruction. Between 80-90% of kids will be watching this game and they play it on every street. President Karzai is watching and has phoned several times to get the latest news. Even the opposition Taliban have sent a message of support. Their spokesman said we are praying for the success of the team.

"We have received support from other countries. But it is important people realise the role that cricket can play: it can help in our development and help rebuild our society. It can be used an example to show what we can achieve if we have peace and we work together. It can help restore peace and give people a sense of purpose. For other countries to play a role in bringing something good is a responsibility; Pakistan has contributed to this purpose and I hope other countries will also contribute."

As things stand, however, Afghanistan have no more ODIs scheduled against Full Member nations. They will not be competing in the Asia Cup, an ODI event that includes India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which Zakhilwal refers to as "disappointing." He hopes, however, that when the Full Member nations realise how important the sport has been in raising morale and providing a sense of purpose and unity in Afghanistan, they will rally to the cause and ensure the momentum is not lost.

"The top teams shy away from playing us," Zakhilwal continued. "I suppose they feel the benefits of beating us are small but the pain of losing to us would be great. We are pushing India, Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for games as only by playing them can we improve and take cricket to the next step in our country.

"The story of cricket in Afghanistan only started about ten years ago when people returned from the refugee camps in Pakistan. But there is something about the game that seems to appeal to the psyche of the Afghan people. It has created a sense of unity and happiness that has brought people together. This match is breaking the ice. But we want to be part of the big club."

Cricket is booming in Afghanistan. Not only is the international team now full time, but there are league teams in 28 of the 34 provinces and the country has an A team, an Under-19 programme and, next year, the sport will be made compulsory as part of the school curriculum.

A country starved of entertainment, success and joy is crying out for support from the ten Full Members of the ICC. It remains to be seen who is listening.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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