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Cricket : A ‘unifying force’ in war-ravaged Afghanistan

It wasn’t quite as warm and dry as Afghanistan, but at least it didn’t rain on the country’s national cricket team when they met Ireland in Belfast on Thursday.

The Afghan team is just 15 years old.

Despite a bloody war and the ongoing insurgency, it has gone from strength to strength.

Watching on is Shafiq Stanikzai, the chief executive of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, who was chosen by the country’s President Ashraf Ghani.

He says cricket’s popularity has been a unifying force in a divided nation.

“The way cricket has played a role in the prosperity and stability of the country,” he said.

“I don’t think any other sport in any other part of the world has played such a role and this is a magical journey.

“Cricket is loved by every single person, we are using it to bring people closer, to bring tribes closer.”


Cricket was the single sport allowed in the country by the Taliban, but it has only become a national obsession since 2001.

That interest was intensified by the return of refugees from Pakistan after the overthrow of the Taliban. Since the start of this year dozens have died on the streets of Kabul.

The country still has a significant security problem.

During the conflict of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the international perception of the place was sometimes at odds with the situation on the ground.

And Mr Stanikzai said it’s the same in Afghanistan.

“Back home we are loveable people, we are respectable people, we are hospitable people,” he said.

“We love living in Afghanistan and it is such a nice and beautiful place.

“Every single Afghan is hoping that it will be a better place and a very much different place in two to three years.”


Ireland certainly won’t be able to play a return game in Kabul soon as it’s still not deemed safe to play international games in the Afghan capital.

But Shafiq is hopeful that will change, adding that the country is “ready” to host any side.

“By 2019, 2020 I am very much hopeful and inshallah [God willing] we will be having games inside Afghanistan,” he said.

“We have the grounds, we have the people supporting us, but yes, we have to prove to the world that it is a safe place to play cricket.” On a hill overlooking the pavilion at Belfast’s Stormont ground are some Afghans who have come to see the game, several of them in their national dress.

Among them is Javid, who has been living in Letterkenny in the Republic of Ireland for nine years.

This is the first time he’s seen his national team in the flesh.


“We have suffered quite a lot, we have had a civil war for quite a long time,” he said.

“So seeing our flag and listening to our national anthem, it’s the only reason that makes us smile.

“It’s a new thing having heroes, having sport stars – we never had them before.”

Mr Stanikzai said the team has had a warm welcome on their first visit to Belfast, and he cracked a joke about the weather.

“We are even having two back-to-back games without any rain,” he laughed.

The Afghanistan team has another two matches to play in this one-day international series and soon they will head for home.

With recent bombings and the increasing strength of the Taliban since the withdrawal of British and US troops, uncertain days lie ahead for Afghanistan.

But it’s clear cricket is a huge force for good in the war-ravaged country. By David Maxwell-BBC News NI

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