As the red dust of misery and conflict begins to settle over Afghanistan, the national cricket team's remarkable triumph against the odds is one of the few heartwarming stories to emerge from the wreckage. Over the past six years, Dr Sarah Fane OBE has been striving with her charity, Afghan Connection, to grow the first green shoots of grass roots cricket in the desert. This is her story, as told to James Browne.
My love affair with Afghanistan first began as an unseasoned medical student. I worked at a hospital for women and children just near the Afghan border in Pakistan for three months, and later travelled there as a newly qualified doctor during the Soviet-Afghan war, working from a Mujahideen camp for refugee women and children. Thirteen years later, I returned with two ex-army officers to work in a clinic they had built in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, which was now under the Taliban's administration. Our extraordinary journey, the work I did and all the people I met had such a profound impact on me that I founded Afghan Connection.
I love the Afghan people. Their hospitality and resilience is astonishing. Everywhere I've travelled in Afghanistan, I have been taken in by total strangers and looked after, however little they have. The value they place on education and their determination to turn their country around themselves is an abiding inspiration to me. I feel privileged to stay in Afghan homes, in remote areas which receive so little support from the outside world, and to be counted as someone they trust. I don't want to let them down and will continue to support them for as long as I can.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: Sober Swedes and some trousers from Leicester
In 2008, I'd been working in Afghanistan for six years with Afghan Connection. This was initially founded to provide medical equipment, training and support for vaccination programmes, and developed into a focus on education programmes, specifically in north-eastern Afghanistan.
One day, my son Alex, who was 14 at the time, complained to me that it was all very well building schools, but had I noticed that the Afghan cricket team is doing really well? They had recently visited Sandhurst for a game and were just beginning to play around the world, laying the foundations for cricket's most modern fairytale. They didn't have much support at the time and he suggested that we might be able to help.
People were very generous with kit and we managed to cobble lots of bats and balls together. I somehow condensed all this into my luggage and headed out to Kabul where I met the national side, practising in a dust field. There had actually been a bit of a ball shortage when I got there so the new gear and just a bit of general support seemed to be well-received.
They went off to play and started winning tournaments and rising through the ranks. Meanwhile, Alex wrote to all the cricket counties to ask for support for the Afghan national side.
The grand sum of these considerable efforts was a pair of trousers from Leicestershire and a telephone number from Kent. It was suggested that we get in touch with Matthew Fleming, ex-England allrounder and MCC representative for Afghanistan. A message was left and Fleming rang Alex back directly. He said, "Look, the MCC are trying to support projects in Afghanistan but we can't find a way to do it. So why don't we meet?"
We were extremely fortunate to get some sponsorship from the MCC. The next step was to try to persuade the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, the operating partner who build schools for us, to get involved with the project. Cricket isn't unduly high on the agenda of most Scandinavian countries and I had to persuade them to start building cricket pitches.
Alex and I went to London to meet with the committee director. At first, I must admit, he came across as a rather sober Swede, without much of a sense of humour. But it later transpired that he had a marvellous twinkle and directed the entire interview at Alex, who explained, at length, the cricket idea.
When the pitch was over, pun intended, he said "Well, Sweden, cricket... I don't get you but actually, you're so enthusiastic, if you find out how we build cricket pitches, we will help you." So Alex went online and found a guide on "how to build a concrete wicket". This was forwarded to the Swedes and they promptly set their Afghan engineers to work on it. The engineers were absolutely thrilled because they're all mad about the game and certainly never expected to see the day when the Swedes would take an interest. To date, convincing them to is probably our biggest success story.
Just a few weeks and some efficient Afghan engineering later, a new concrete pitch was up and running. To open it, Matthew Fleming said he would like to come out in person to northern Afghanistan and then join in our first cricket camp, for 150 boys, in Jalalabad. The day after he touched down, I took him straight up to the school, which was in the middle of nowhere. It took us a solid seven hours, off-road up the Salang Pass, one of the highest mountain roads in the world.
All 2,000 boys in the school, which was actually twinned with Eton, had turned out to greet us when we arrived. We charged Ali, our driver, who's crazy about cricket, with handing out some equipment, which had been donated by the MCC. This was a marvellous job for him. All the boys lined up and came to the car. He'd been driving for the Swedish Committee for years but now this was his moment! We have a picture of him on that day wearing the broadest smile I've ever seen.
Matthew then joined in a game of cricket with all the boys in the school. A couple of them had been in Pakistan and they actually recognised him from a computer game, which made them all terribly excited. That was the first pitch we ever built in Afghanistan.
IT NEVER RAINS...
With the wheels set in motion, Matthew and I then flew down to Jalalabad, as the road was considered too dangerous at the time. We travelled on a small aircraft, as the only passengers on board, and landed slap in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm. When we awoke the next day, the whole place was underwater. There'd been more rain than they'd had for 40 years and there were rickshaws floating down the road.
"The girls tell me that the cricket camps are the happiest days of their lives, that it's unlike anything they've ever been allowed to do"
The entire Afghan national side were en route to give some coaching sessions for three days and I was in tears. After all that planning, I thought it couldn't possibly go ahead. But a stoic Matthew Fleming, as the water dripped onto our cereal from the roof, said to me "Sarah, look, what will be, will be. We'll be fine." We spent the morning in a colossal hall with the Afghan team. They handed out cricket kit to the boys who all hurriedly changed into their new whites. Many didn't even have shoes but they had these beautiful, brilliant white clothes.
Matthew gave a rousing speech about the MCC, which was translated, about "The Spirit of Cricket", and everyone was cheering and clapping. We all ventured outside because the sun had dried out all the rain and the boys were coached by the whole of the Afghan team, for three days, ending with a tournament. It was all very moving.
A month later, the Swedes went to visit the schools and the boys were still in their whites. After-school cricket clubs had been set up for them and their friends and now one of the boys from that camp is playing for the Afghan under-16s. His parents hadn't wanted him to play cricket but now they see the value of it.
WHO TEACHES THE TEACHERS?
Five years later, with generous funding from the MCC and private donors, we've built 37 pitches, staged camps for over 3,000 kids and set up some training for ICC Level 1 coaches. We've also started training teachers to teach the children proper cricket skills.
There have been two teacher coaching camps this year and 40 teachers from the schools where we've built cricket pitches have recently had training. With money we had left over, we staged a grand tournament between all the schools in which we'd built pitches over the last year.
This is fantastic for encouraging competition between schools and it boosts the morale of the schoolteachers that want to teach cricket. We're now concentrating on an area at a time so that we can consolidate our work. Overall, we've worked in 22 provinces but we did the east last year and this year, we're doing the north. We're basing it in Kunduz, building pitches and doing the camps there, but we're also going to do another camp and tournament for teachers down in the east to follow up last year's efforts.
It's enormously exciting. We don't know what's going to happen from 2015; we've got MCC support until the end of that year and then, after that, we'll be in discussions about how to move forward, how to find new investors or whether they'll fund us again. They're incredibly supportive.
Promoting women's cricket in Afghanistan can be difficult. When we first started, we only did male cricket but then a post on the MCC website said, "Well that's great, but what about the girls?" And so we supported a United Nations International Day of Peace, who organised a camp for about 150 girls in Jalalabad. We funded that for the United Nations and then we started funding girls camps in Jalalabad, Mazar e Sharif, and Kabul. I wouldn't do it anywhere outside of those big cities though. I don't want to blow all the good we're doing by moving too fast.
When we do a camp for girls we have to do it very sensitively and get parental consent, in schools where they play cricket (these are usually in Hazara communities because they're more broad-minded about these things). There are also some girls who've lived in Pakistan, in the refugee camps, who have already played. We use female coaches and there are some sisters who've played for the Afghan national team who help out too. They're such amazing women. There are various families where fathers have been incredible and let their girls play cricket, building pitches in their back gardens so that the girls can be hidden to play.
The girls tell me that the cricket camps are the happiest days of their lives, that it's unlike anything they've ever been allowed to do. Though there's a little more in Kabul, there's generally very little sport for most girls in Afghanistan. To support it, we've had schools holding cricket days in honour of the kids in Afghanistan and they have worn caps that say "Afghanistan Connection Cricket Project", got together kit to send out to Afghanistan and written letters to the schoolkids out there, letting them know they're supporting them.
Because of the instability of the country we've built all our pitches in schools where the Swedish Committee works, so they know the district education authorities. But the Afghan Ministry of Education is very pro-cricket and cricket has its own minister who reports directly to the president's office! We can do our camps in any area because it's the Afghan national side who are doing the training (as Afghans they can travel anywhere unhindered). But the schools we build pitches for are determined by co-ordination with the Swedish Committee and those areas in which they're working.
We've only really had positive receptions since we started out. However, I remember when Matthew came out for the first camp, there were some Mullahs on the touchline, causing a bit of a scene, trying to stop the cricket going ahead. And it was because I was there. Because I was female, a foreigner, and Matthew was a foreigner. They didn't want us there but, fantastically, nobody took a blind bit of notice. We just carried on. I got really worried! And everyone just nonchalantly said, "Oh, we're not going to listen to them." I think because cricket's such a huge success story and the team have done so well, everyone recognises that it's something to give them a distinct national identity, which is something that's been missing.
DOWN WITH THE KIDS
Looking forward, we need to keep going at grass roots. I don't really want to do anything other than help schoolkids and teachers because the ICC are supporting Afghanistan now; there are international stadiums, there's money coming in. It's whether that all filters down, and we're very happy to sit at the bottom making sure that it does. The kids are the future.
I'd like to be able to put more infrastructure into the schools when we build pitches, and perhaps organise some tournaments between the east and the north, rather than just having schools in the east play other schools in the east. We've talked about scholarships for the kids to come over here, to the MCC and others but I'd prefer to concentrate on the individual. There's so much to be done in Afghanistan but I hope that we'll be able to keep it going, that we'll do more for girls and keep the boys going strongly. Ultimately it'll depend on funding.
When I was there in 2001, I'd never, ever been somewhere with absolutely no hope before. It was so depressing, there was nothing even remotely good to raise the spirits. Throughout my time there, maybe one good thing happened: a baby, which we thought was dead, lived. And that was it. But now, seeing girls and boys out there, playing street cricket; it's been completely transformative. Nobody ever sees that, you just see the grimness of war. But it's getting that message out to people: that the country's not just a bunch of Taliban, that it's full of good people. All those Afghans who've seen us turn up at camps, and seen that the Swedes and the Brits are helping them with cricket and building schools for them, it's a very strong message that changes traditional perceptions of the West. The fact the MCC, that famous establishment, are supporting the Afghans in such a way speaks volumes to me.