Noor-ul-Haq keen to put best foot forward
The story behind Afghanistan's qualification for the 2010 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand is remarkable, going by the war-torn nation's success at a sport still new to their country. They will be led by right-handed top order batsman Noor-ul-Haq, who speaks about the troubles associated with his country. The 17-year-old loves the game and all the hope that it can provide youngsters like himself.
He said he became interested in the game during his time as a refugee in Pakistan, while fleeing the war and terror that had gripped Afghanistan. "We saw the game in Pakistan when guys were playing with a tennis ball with tape on it. So when I got back to Afghanistan, I finally got the experience to play with a hard ball," Noor said. "There was a lot of cricket in Pakistan everywhere we went, on the streets, just everywhere. I liked the cricket in Pakistan, but when cricket grew in Afghanistan and we went back home, we had no facilities for cricket, no professional coaches."
The game has had a rapid rise in Afghanistan and, with its current potential, offers these youngsters a chance to travel around the world playing a sport that they have become so fond of. All this, even as some of their friends and relatives struggle to keep themselves out of harm's way.
Noor said though the game was new, people in Afghanistan were slowly seeing its benefits. With Afghanistan gaining full ODI status in 2009, he was confident that it would gain a huge following. "It wasn't until about 2003 when Afghanistan started to play cricket properly with hard balls and there were no facilities till then. There was cricket played before that of course, but just not in an organised way. So now it's growing, and everybody knows the game in Afghanistan and it's famous."
Placed in Group A of the World Cup, Afghanistan will play India in the tournament opener on January 15, followed by England and Hong Kong. Noor believed if Afghanistan could sneak two victories, they would be on course for a spot in the top eight - an amazing achievement. "We have a short history of playing cricket, something like eight years, but in that short time we have done very well and performed well in many countries. So now everybody knows that Afghanistan plays cricket very well."
War made it difficult for players in the 34-province state to participate in organised games, but the U-19 team believed where there was a will, there was a way.
"There was cricket during the Taliban government as well, but once all the fighting began there, everybody was fleeing from the war," Noor said. "During the day the Taliban allowed you to play cricket and even some of them played as well. However, there were political differences resulting in fighting and war, which meant there was no cricket for a while. But when we made it to the U-19 World Cup Qualifiers and then the main event, even the Taliban congratulated us."
Noor said the other nations were fortunate to have resources readily available for practice. "It's very difficult to find equipment in Afghanistan," he said. "It's funny turning up at the World Cup to see countries like Ireland, West Indies, Pakistan have the equipment and facilities available to them. We have the basics but not all the things that professional cricketers should have. We have nothing like what the clubs have here in New Zealand, where there are many great facilities.
"We have played two or three games at the club level in Afghanistan but not like the club teams here in New Zealand, which are very competitive. We want Afghanistan to be a great cricketing country, so we need to upgrade our facilities back home. If we had more facilities, more grounds, more players, bowling machines, academies, things like that, then the cricket will grow even more."
Afghanistan qualified for the World Cup by finishing second at the qualifiers in Toronto, losing only to tournament winners Ireland, and Canada, while beating other World Cup qualifiers Hong Kong, USA and Papua New Guinea.
However, unlike other countries with ODI status, Afghanistan does not have a regular provincial or club competition or structure, it simply has to rely on its players turning up at the right time in order to be noticed for higher honours. "We have a provincial tournament in Afghanistan but no U-19 tournament," said Noor. "When we realised we had the chance to qualify for the World Cup, they advertised on television seeking U-19 players living in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, informing them to come for trials. The selectors were standing in the nets with 500 players. They first trimmed the number to 250, then down to 60, then to 35. We then started playing matches after being divided into two teams. Whoever performed in the match was selected in the squad.
"I performed well in Afghanistan and in Canada, where I averaged 55.00. The cricket board decided to appoint me as captain and if they see me as the best man for the job, I want to do the best as to whatever the team requires."
Noor is extremely honoured to lead his country in their first World Cup and has the confidence to suggest he thoroughly deserves it. Now, he wants to do all he can to ensure Afghanistan continue to earn the respect of Test-playing nations, and what a better place to start than the World Cup.
Marc Ellison is a freelance sports writer