Afghanistan bid farewell to the four-day format last weekend but the fact they can now look forward to playing Tests from next year, shows how far the country has come since they found its love for cricket in the 1990s.
Back then, there were no proper pitches, wickets or even kits and gloves to wear for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. But their sheer passion for the game was enough to draw a lot of interest, leading the way for the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now known as the Afghanistan Cricket Board) to be formed in 1995.
The cricketing fever continued even when they returned home before leaving the country again when the US’ invasion to the 9/11 attacks brought another war to the country. But their most significant step came from the Taliban when they officially authorised cricket to be played in the country.
The only way has been up since then and fast forward to today and their national team is now a full member of the ICC after being voted alongside Ireland in June’s board meeting in London.
Lalchand Rajput, head coach at the time, remembers the day clearly when he heard the news.
“I was in Mumbai on the day and once I heard we have been included, I was really happy. I was sending messages to the players and speaking on the phone to them,” he told Sport360 from India.
“The last couple of years, we did so well that it would’ve been difficult for the ICC to say no.”
Indeed, it would have been very harsh for the sport’s governing body to refuse Afghanistan based on their records on the field.
Their story has been nothing short than a fairytale and had already made gigantic strides.
— Denzil M Pinto (@denz_360) December 2, 2017
The signs were already there when they were crowned champions of the World Cricket League Championship in Division Three, Four and Five, while finishing third place in Division One in 2010. A season later, they finished runners-up to Ireland in the Championship competition.
That saw them become an Associate side in 2013 and having impressed at that level, it was only a matter of time before they would reach the biggest stage. That came in 2010, with a group stage exit at the World T20 in West Indies before repeating the feat in 2012 and 2014.
In the 2016 edition in India, they suffered a Super 10 exit but bowed out with their first-ever win over the eventual champions West Indies. It was their first triumph over a Test nation other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.
Their other biggest highlights so far is a maiden World Cup in 2015 in Australia and New Zealand as well as 1-1 draw against West Indies in the Caribbean in June.
Their ICC Intercontinental Cup 10-wicket victory against the UAE in Abu Dhabi last Saturday, which saw them regain their title for the second time, was their final four-day match before entering the Test arena in 2018 where even greater tests lie await against the elite.
For former captain Mohammad Nabi, who along with star leg-spinner Rashid Khan made history by becoming the first two Afghans to play in the IPL this year, has seen the ups and downs of the remarkable journey.
The 32-year-old moved to Pakistan with his family to seek a safe haven from the Soviet War and recalls it wasn’t an easy beginning at all to reach this stage.
“You can say that I and a lot of my team-mates have struggled a lot to reach to this level,” he told Sport360.
“To have been awarded Test status, I was very happy because it has been a long journey from the very first step of seeing the game played in Pakistan to how it is now. We struggled a lot back home but now it’s paying off because it shows that we have the talent,” added Nabi, who once played for the MCC.
Rajput had only been in charge of the national team for just over a year before being replaced in August. By that time, everything was in place for the team to succeed, yet was reminded on how far his players went to, to reach this stage.
“That’s why they are tough cricketers because they have really come up the hard way and their country was a war-torn country,” he said.
“They told me one day that they had come to Mumbai in 2004 or 2005 for a competition, and they said they only had 100 dollars among the 15 players. They could just about eat something with that money. They said they were so passionate about this game that they wanted to win and climb up the ladder. They were hungry for success.”
The ACB’s vision and ambitions in promoting the game from grassroots level has been a major factor for the country’s success.
Last month, they were crowned Asian U-19 champions after thrashing Pakistan by 185 runs in Malaysia, while their domestic competitions include a first-class four-day tournament), a 50-over List A event and a recognised Twenty20 league.
“The ACB have one goal and that is to make a big impact in cricket,” said Rajput. “The ACB are doing a great job right from the grassroots level. They have provided the facilities with an indoor academy, gym, their own ground in Kabul and continue to increase and develop the infrastructure.
“This helps more people to be drawn in. So with those things taken care off, the players can focus their minds on the field.”
Due to security in their homeland, the team has been forced to play their ‘home’ games either in Sharjah or India’s Greater Noida.
The closest Afghans have seen foreign players on home soil is during the Shpageeza Cricket League, their annual T20 domestic competition.
That was in the spotlight but for non-cricketing matters in September when three people were killed during a suicide bombing between Boost Defenders and Mis Ainak Knights match in in Kabul.
As the teams were not on the field, no players were injured including Nabi, skipper of Mis Ainak Knights.
“I wasn’t that much scared as it was a small blast,” he said. “For me it was normal. You can understand why the foreign players were scared. But it was great to see the players stay in Afghanistan and support Afghanistan cricket and I’m very thankful to them.”
Nabi remains hopeful there could be a day when they can play on home soil just like how Pakistan is trying to revive international cricket following the 2009 attacks on the Sri Lankan team bus.
“If you see last month, we had that Afghanistan Sixes tournament and there were a lot of foreign players playing in that. They enjoyed it very well and there are a lot of passionate cricket fans in Afghanistan. It shows that they want a piece of international games and we want to play those at home.”
For now, the main focus for 2018 is continuing their surge in Tests and prove the ICC’s decision was no mistake whenever they play their match.
Skipper Asghar Stanikzai said: “Playing a new format in Tests is going to be nervous. We know what to embrace for and how much we need to prepare mentally and physically. We are working on those areas and want to show everyone that we deserved to get that Test status.”
When England play West Indies in the lone Twenty20 match in Durham on Saturday, more than 3,000 miles away, the Indoor Cricket World Cup will get under way in Dubai.
Not only will the UAE be hosting the tournament for the first time, it will also be the first Indoor World Cup to be staged in the Middle East in its 22-year history.
Although it’s not played by professionals, the fact that it’s been running for more than two decades speaks volumes of how the format has grown.
This year’s edition at InSportz Club will see more than 400 players as hosts UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, who have won every global title, vie for glory in the men’s, women’s, Under-21 men’s and U-21 women’s categories between September 16-23.
It might not be as high-profile as the ICC World Cup or the World Twenty20, but those numbers show there is a growing market in this version of the game.
The inaugural World Cup in England was held in 1995, but it was way back in the 1970s when the game really took off on the other side of the world in Perth.
Played inside nets and with different methods of scoring runs in a 16-over-a-side match, the fast-paced action game appealed to not just players, but spectators.
Even the likes of Sir Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Desmond Haynes gave it the thumbs up when the great West Indies side played an exhibition match against Western Australia before the first Test during their 1984-85 tour to Australia.
— UAE Cricket Official (@EmiratesCricket) September 5, 2017
So, it was no surprise to see several Test-nation playing countries catch the indoor cricket buzz with regular fixtures, varying from club level to international series’ arranged.
With the World Cup hosted every two to three years from 1995 and the format established in places like England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, a new chapter was marked in 2004 when the World Indoor Cricket Federation (WICF) was launched.
With the platform already there, their mission is to continue promoting the game and take it to the next level.
Their calendar now includes the Tri-Nations Cup, Master World Series’ and Test series with Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Wales, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the UAE all members.
As members, one of their roles is to hold regular leagues every season which help create awareness for people to take up the game.
For instance, in England there are six recognised indoor centres and approximately 4,000 playing, while there’s one international standard pitch and around 400 players in Singapore. Yet, those statistics dwarf the 186,000 registered cricketers who play in the 90 centres in Australia.
That’s no surprise considering that indoor cricket is supported by Cricket Australia, the country’s governing body for cricket. Malaysia Cricket Association have also followed in their footsteps and WICF is hopeful more countries will follow suit.
Yet, despite having 10 members on their books, WICF doesn’t want to stop there.
They have big ambitions in making the game even bigger than it is. So instead of going back to the likes of Australia, New Zealand, England and Sri Lanka, which have all hosted a World Cup, WICF wanted to tap into a new market and identified the UAE as the perfect fit.
“Indoor cricket is now a very competitive sport and there are a lot of international competitions happening now,” Greg Donnelly, president of the WICF told Sport360°. “It’s expanding with South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand playing the game and having good numbers on their books.
“While we have hosted the World Cup in those nations, we want to create awareness and that’s why we are playing in the UAE now.
“We want to present the game in the UAE and hopefully look into other countries in the possibility of hosting a tournament.”
By awarding the hosting rights to the UAE, it could well open the doors for the game to take its biggest step yet.
With the ICC based in Dubai, the WIFC have the perfect opportunity to impress their outdoor counterparts. WICF’s ultimate goal is to see it played at either the Commonwealth or Olympic Games. Previously, the ICC have explored the possibility of including the outdoor game in one of the events but there has been no real progress.
Yet, Donnelly believes the indoor game ticks all the boxes for it to be a success, but knows the ICC’s support would be a massive boost for it to be considered on future rosters.
Invitations have been sent to the ICC to attend the tournament and Donnelly is hopeful they will be impressed.
“We understand it’s baby steps and it can be a long process,” he said. “We are looking to develop our interest with the ICC and build up in that area. I’m more confident if they come on board that we’ll be in a much stronger position to possibly have it in the Commonwealth Games or an Olympic Games.”
When the ICC officials do visit, they, as well as the others at InSportz Club, will notice a familiar face in action.
With plenty of Test, ODI and T20 experience under his belt, New Zealand all-rounder Jesse Ryder (left) has shifted his focus to the indoor game for a chance to lead the Black Caps to World Cup glory.
Having a figure of Ryder’s profile, a cricketer who has played in the IPL, is further evidence that the indoor game is being taken seriously for even ex-internationals.
Sandeep Patil, a 1983 World Cup winner, will also be in Dubai this week as the brand ambassador for the Indian cricket team.
“New Zealand and Australia have a very rich history in producing very good players,” added Donnelly. “There’s a lot more cross-over and with the advent of T20 success, people can see the synergies of playing indoor cricket.
“The days are gone where the outdoor game will have a negative impact on the indoor game, that holds no water. If anything, I can say indoor cricket will help your outdoor skills particularly at a young age.”
Robert Sheary has been associated with the game since he was 10 and will be playing in his fourth World Cup for New Zealand.
“Indoor cricket has come a long way,” he said. “There has been a great growth since 2007 and not just the men’s competitions but in other age groups and World Cup and Masters series, which is good for the game.”
“The fast action, thrill and heat of the competition was something I was hooked when starting.”
For the UAE, who are fielding sides in the men’s and women’s categories, they have their work cut out to stand top of their class.
But, Andrew Russell, national development manager of the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), believes the World Cup can have a big effect on the UAE.
“I think it’s more about awareness more than anything,” he said. “It puts the sport on a lot of radars where people who will be watching it, will want to try out the game, which we hope will be the case.”
Take extremely talented kids in the UAE, get them working with top-of-the-range coaches in state-of-the-art facilities, and then give them the chance-of-a-lifetime scouting camp in Spain – that’s the process behind du LaLiga High Performance Centre.
Based on the sun-kissed south coast in Puerto Banus, near Marbella, the band of 33 prospects are hoping that LaLiga sides will take a shine to their skills.
The objective of the three-week tour is to secure as many trials as possible for the teenagers, who hail from Bolivia, South Africa and almost everywhere in between but all call the Emirates their home.
They have already registered successes over Cadiz, and most notably LaLiga heavyweights Sevilla – both Under-18 and Under-16 sides put a club that developed Real Madrid and Spain star Sergio Ramos to the sword.
It was quite a time to perform as a Barcelona scout was present on the day, while one player already has a post-tour trial lined up for Cadiz after impressing against the second division side.
The initial success is indicative of just how far UAE grassroots football has come – from there not even being a nationwide, or even an Emirate-wide, teenage football competition of note from the establishment of the National School League and now du potentially placing a youngster at La Masia
The news too is music to the ears of Hussein Murad, the president of sports marketing company Inspiratus and mastermind behind the du LaLiga HPC concept.
“The idea started through the experiences of my kids – my daughter is a goalkeeper and my son also plays,” Murad explains. “There was nothing to do at the weekend, no official football.
“So we started in 2013 and came up with the Dubai Schools Cup to create an official tournament for schools or for youth. It was a huge success because they were starving for it, there was nothing, ‘thank you for coming up with an idea like that’.
“We also learned something from the first two years though. Whoever reaches 16 years old couldn’t participate any more, there was nothing for them to progress. And we did a study –after 15 years old, more than 70 per cent of kids leave sports and especially football.”
From that realisation the scouting platform was born, taking the very best kids who participated in the UAE Schools Cup and a new UAE Streets Cup and opening the kind of doors that barely seemed fathomable a short while ago.
Murad first got lead sponsor du on board and with the resources secured to give the kids the best possible chance, LaLiga stepped in to provide the Spanish flair.
On their recommendation UEFA Pro-licenced coaches in Rafael Gil – one-time head coach of Malaga – and his prodigy Enrique Gonzalez were installed full-time in Dubai, where The Sevens Stadium is available to du LaLiga HPC 11 months a year.
LaLiga have also ensured access to two pristine pitches a day at Marbella Football Centre, a venue so well-regarded that the likes of Bayern Munich have used the facilities in the past.
“We wanted the best for the programme because LaLiga is the best league in the world,” says former Real Madrid and Malaga defender Fernando Sanz, now LaLiga’s managing director for the Middle East and North Africa. “We have the best players, coaches and we sent them to Dubai like Rafa, who coached in the first division.
“It’s not just for them to play in LaLiga – any professional league we are happy to develop these kids. Dubai has a lot of people from the other part of the world, and you see this with the players on this tour. Our league is global as well so it makes sense for us.”
All this and the kids don’t even pay a penny. So where’s the catch?
Ultimately, nothing comes for free in this world but as it turns out, du LaLiga HPC is a rather small price to pay. The players have all signed an agreement whereby the company essentially represents them in their future careers.
Part of that may manifest in sell-on fees should their first club go on to sell them, though Murad insists that in many cases education comes first rather than trying to sell each player a pipedream.
“Many of the kids don’t want to go professional at 18, they want to study,” he adds. “That’s why we have 60 colleges in the US that gives them a full scholarship if they are very good academically.
“There’s nothing in it for us, it actually costs us money to send him there back and forth. But you take him to continue his football at a high level while he’s earning a degree.
“So really, we are changing their lives. We aren’t really thinking about making money out of professional kids, because this is really like hitting the jackpot.
“They are very good kids and they have gratitude too – but I’m not just betting on people making it big time.”
Adham Bayoumi is one player whose brains match his football skills – the 15-year-old is launching his own fashion line, Finesse Dubai, next month and recently took an entrepreneur course at Brown University.
“I have high hopes to become a professional, and my dream is to be playing in a top team – a team in the top five leagues in Europe,” said the attacker.
“If that doesn’t work out, we have different universities in mind like Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford if I’m crazy smart.
“They are all very creative universities and a lot of start-ups start there. We say if I can’t play professional football, why not buy a professional club when I’m older!”
Ahmed El Yamani is one football success story already, with the 16-year-old Palestinian midfielder wanted by Malaga, Villareal and Valencia on a full-time basis when he turns 18.
The La Liga Academy also launches in the UAE next month, further opening the pathways for would-be professionals.
“I wasn’t expecting this growth – it is a movement,” admits Murad. It remains to be seen whether any players from this year’s crop will be making the permanent move to Spain.