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The night terror hit cricket in Afghanistan

A look back at the horrific events of May 19 at a club game in Jalalabad

Sharda Ugra
Sharda Ugra
The scene of one of the bomb explosions at the Spinghar cricket ground in Jalalabad, May 20, 2018

The scene of one of the explosions, the morning after

An innings has ended. The floodlights, shipped in from overseas, are working well over the compact Spinghar Cricket Ground. Speeches by local dignitaries ring out from the loudspeakers. The 1500-odd men milling about soak in the breeze coming off the Kabul river that runs alongside. Many head to the canteen, which serves tea, juice, ice cream, chips and local meals. It is close to 11:30pm. A post-iftar snack is most welcome. After all, Ramadan fasting in Jalalabad lasts a faint-inducing 16 hours or so.
Karim Sadiq wonders if his team's 140 is enough. Karim is the vintage Everyskill Allsorts cricketer: opening batsman, wicketkeeper, offspinner. He will always be cap No. 5 and shirt No. 10 in Afghanistan cricket history, a member of Afghanistan's first ever first XI in his country's ODI debut, versus Scotland in Benoni in 2009.
It is May 19, 2018, and Karim knows the Test team is going to be announced in about ten days for the first Test in Afghanistan's history. He has been going to the gym, he says, scoring runs (1300 in the season, he says) and taking wickets (35-40, he says). He hopes he will get a chance to play his first Test in India.
For the moment, though, his attention is on the match between his side, the Karim Sadiq Foundation, and Watan Pala Zwanan (Youths Serving the Nation), a group working towards a civil society, which has a cricket club. It is a warm-up game for the Ramadan Cup, a T20 competition under lights for local clubs, set to begin the next day. There's a group of young cricketers in the crowd, including left-hand batsman Ikram Ali Khil, who was in Afghanistan's team for the Under-19 World Cup.
Hidayatullah Zaheer, the 32-year-old head of Watan Pala, and a respected regional social activist is present. People are shaking hands near the commentary box area - a small raised platform with a gazebo-style asbestos roof near the third-man boundary.
It is the kind of local cricket event familiar to everyone in south Asia. The actual match is played in full seriousness, with the important personages in the locality getting the best view and the most attention. Everything earnest and also slightly informal.
Then it happened.
Karim seems to know the time - 11:28pm, he says. He remembers the deafening blast of sound. "I've never heard such a noise in my life." Smoke is billowing, fires have started, the ears are ringing, there is shrapnel everywhere.
This is Afghanistan. People immediately know what has happened.
Bashir Umar, 27, is about 30 metres away from the explosion. He is one of the co-owners of the ground and lead organiser of the event. He realises his younger brother, Hamayun, also a cricketer - first-class, List A, Afghanistan-A - was standing much closer to the blast.
He hears men in pain, men in shock, and then Hamayun's voice calling his name. Bashir starts running towards his brother, and finds him alive but very badly injured. Bashir and their cousin, Musafar, carry Hamayun towards a gate near which cars and pick-up trucks are parked.
Elsewhere, Karim rushes into the smoke, and the sight of the dead and the wounded wrench anguish from his soul. "Cheekh maar ke roya" [I cried out loudly and wept] Then I was only thinking, I have to help people, I have to help," he says. "There were about 50 people injured. I saw my friends covered in blood. I saw sportsmen, who play cricket for peace, I saw them injured, dead…" His voice, at the other end of a phone line, is still shaking.
The injured were being put into vehicles outside the ground and taken to nearby hospitals. As Bashir moved away, having taken his brother to safety, two more blasts rang out, near the exits, as people tried to escape. The force of one of them caught Musafar, injuring him severely.
An innocuous cricket venue had turned into hell, as a blurred photograph of Karim carrying the injured to safety, which made its way onto social media showed.
He remembers five explosions, one of which turned an autorickshaw inside the ground into a mangled mass of metal. Along with Bashir's brother and his cousin, the blasts leave another cricketer, Zamir Khan, badly wounded. One of the owners of the Spinghar ground, Rokhan Shirzad, loses his eight-year-old son, Khatir, and is himself seriously injured. Hidayatullah was killed instantly.
The news of the attacks soon reached the most famous son of Jalalabad, Afghanistan legspinner Rashid Khan, in Hyderabad with this IPL team.
Hidayatullah, popularly known as Zee, was a pivotal figure in grass-roots activism in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which shares a border with Pakistan, working with young people, marginalised refugee communities, and women, in the areas of humanitarian assistance, education, culture and sport. He understood the energy and goodwill that could be generated from cricket. It was Zee's idea, Bashir says, to have a cricket event under lights.
The Ramadan Cup was to be the highlight of the most holy month of Islam in Jalalabad.
It is an old, old town on the Grand Trunk Road, nestled between two mountain ranges, the Hindu Kush and the range after which the cricket ground gets its name - Spinghar (White Mountains). Seventy-odd kilometres from the Pakistan border, Jalalabad is the first big town in Afghanistan you reach after travelling through the Khyber Pass. The town is also, Karim says, "the home of cricket" in Afghanistan, where, according to his count, last year's tally of registered clubs was in the thousands.
Spinghar, privately owned, privately funded, was the most luminous of those clubs. It took six months' preparation to get things in order for the Ramadan Cup, including importing the floodlights. "But this incident has happened," Karim says. "It destroyed our plans and killed our people."
The Spinghar ground was constructed three years ago, and its owners wanted to match international standards. Bashir, formerly marketing head of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, is proud of what they achieved. "No one helped us. We started out on our own. We stood up and said, 'We will try and do this.' The cricket board doesn't have a ground like ours. It didn't have floodlights and facilities like ours."
Spinghar has six pitches - two centre-wicket turf ones, and four (of which two are turf) at the Spinghar Cricket Academy, which has pulled in close to 750 boys, who train in three batches every day under two coaches.
The attack was unexpected but there had been a warning of sorts three months earlier, when a group of unknown gunmen came into Spinghar late at night and dug up the academy's pitches and nets areas, threatening the ground's security guards - who, Bashir says, do not carry weapons. The ground is now locked up and a government investigation is underway.
Speaking on the phone a few days after the bomb attacks, he is distraught. "I am still in shock," he says. "It is like they destroyed our sentiments."
The Ramadan Cup was not an officially sanctioned event but the explosions of May 19 were heard by the country's cricketing fraternity everywhere, the grief shared.
Karim called cricket, "our only entertainment". His charity foundation raises funds to help the poor, and uses cricket to involve the young in a country where 57% of the population is under the age of 18. The sport does divert the mind from the daily wire-walk of living in a country plagued by war, but cricket is more than mere entertainment. It has put down new but deep roots into Afghanistan's ethos.
For centuries, the violent history of the region was twisted into a mocking, epithet - "the Great Game". Cricket became Afghanistan's only true game; its most beloved. It is why the Jalalabad attack has shaken everyone, because no matter what the government or the warlords fight over, cricket was cordoned off. Secure. Bulletproof.
Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Shafiq Stanikzai is sure the terrorists were not Afghans. "Afghans cannot target cricket." According to him, cricket is "the only thing which is loved by every single Afghan". He points out that the Jalalabad match lacked familiar terrorist targets - government officials, army men, police. "It is the biggest setback, and for the first time I see that cricket was targeted by terrorists." He says it over and over: an Afghan cannot do this.
"It is through cricket that we show love," Karim says." We want to live properly, live life for real, like it is meant to be lived. We want peace, we need peace. We have suffered so much. This war has been going on for 40 years. I want the bloodshed to stop. I want to tell all the presidents of the world: leave Afghanistan alone."
It is over three weeks since Jalalabad. Karim is crushed that he will not make a Test debut; he was not picked. Musafar is much better, and Hamayun and Rokhan are recovering in hospital. Grief has seeped into the walls of the home where eight-year-old Khatir's energy once did. Bashir now has problems sleeping at night. The number of deaths is estimated at eight; the injured number more than 45.
Yet the idea of cricket is alive, and will stir again, and it brings thousands of dissimilar people around the world together - to play, to compete, to watch, to argue, to laugh and to sigh. Whatever is predicted about the life or death of the game in some parts of the world, it belongs to the landscape. In Afghanistan it has taken on a truth like the country's unshakeable mountains.
Bashir and I have been talking for a while. He takes a deep breath. "We will keep working," he says, "This is our country. We are not going anywhere… even if there's only one drop of blood left in us, we will work for cricket."
A week after Jalalabad, Rashid dedicated an IPL Man-of-the-Match award to the memory of those who had died on the cricket ground. In four days, Afghanistan will become the 12th Test-playing nation in cricket, when Rashid and his team-mates step onto the field at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. In Kabul and Kandahar, in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, most certainly in Jalalabad, they will be watching. With the knowledge that despite the centuries of violence, death and sorrow, they have in cricket a thing of beauty, which no matter what, will never be surrendered.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo