'It was like a home game in Kabul' - Afghanistan captain Naveen-ul-Haq
After Afghanistan Under-19s upset Pakistan, around 300 Afghan fans stormed into the Cobham Oval, which resulted in a rescheduling of a congratulatory call from the Prime Minister
"Fans were screaming with joy, running onto the field like we'd won the World Cup."
Naveed Sayyem, Afghanistan's manager had just switched on his phone in anticipation of a call from the country's Chief Executive* Abdullah Abdullah when he saw around 300 Afghan fans with flags painted on their cheeks storm into the ground in celebration of the team's win over Pakistan in the Under-19 World Cup opener in Whangarei. "It was mad, for a moment I didn't know what was happening," Sayyem said. They jumped over the electronic hoardings and ran towards the pitch to hug Darwish Rasooli, who had steered Afghanistan's chase of 189 with an unbeaten 76.
Rasooli tried to run to the other side, but in the end realised the best way to escape being hurt was to join in the celebration. "I was scared for him," Sayyem said. "Sometimes our fans, when they get too happy, they can get very emotional. But fortunately it was all good. Nothing happened. The fans just wanted to be a part of that moment. Rasooli had tears of joy."
What was to be a congratulatory call from the Prime Minister for the early morning gift back home in Afghanistan had to be rescheduled to later in the evening as the players had to calm the crowd. Once they were brought under control, the players happily posed for photos and enjoyed a celebratory lunch to break their roza [fast] that the team had pledged. They decided to break their fast only after the team had won. This was what they had decided on match eve.
"There was no telecast, people were following it online," Sayyem said. "Our board chairman, CEO and the Prime Minister were all watching this game. When we left the ground in the morning, they left us messages. They didn't sleep all night. Now when the players spoke to their families back home, all of them were very happy. Nothing brings us together like cricket. It feels like Eid has come early. I'm sure they will all celebrate the full day."
Naveen-ul-Haq, the captain, who took two early wickets to trigger Pakistan's top-order collapse, equated the scenes to a home game. "It felt like it was a home game in Kabul," he said. "It was amazing to see them come here and back us throughout the match. We didn't expect this kind of support. We knew they will run out onto the field. It was an amazing moment."
Naveen's first complaint after he got out of the team huddle and his team meeting was that his phone was heating up. All the players were returning to their respective rooms when Sayyem informed them that the Prime Minister had requested to have a chat with the entire team over a video call. The Afghanistan Cricket Board swung in to organise a dinner party for the team.
"Back home, cricket is the only thing that brings joy to the people," Sayyem said. "We don't like to boast, but I think this time, the confidence of this team is something else. All the players are like family. They have been together for close to one month here in New Zealand. Today, we really needed to come good because in this tournament, if you lose one game, things can become very difficult. But this win has only strengthened our belief."
Rashid Khan, who wasn't too far away in Australia, was also on the phone with some of the boys. Amidst the excitement, however, Naveen was pragmatic and aware of the challenges that lie ahead. "It's just one match that we've won, I told the boys we shouldn't celebrate too much also after today," he said. "This is a great moment for us, but we have Sri Lanka coming up, so we can't look too far ahead. I told all of them, enjoy tonight but let's get back to training tomorrow."
*0525 GMT The piece was corrected with Abdullah Abdullah's designation
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo