It was and still remains a nation troubled. Centrally located, geographically well-connected and territorially perpetually contested, Afghanistan has been entangled with anarchy and discord through the course of history. However, one thing that has lent immense encouragement and stability to the Afghans in this seething volatility is sports. Sports in various versions, some traditional, almost ritual-like and some borrowed from other countries while war kept intruding and disrupting peace.
Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ talks about one such traditional sport – kite flying, as it narrates the troubling societal hierarchy existing in the country between Pashtuns and the Hazaras. Kite flying as a sport is broached many times over by the author, from the start to the finish, so much so that by the time one finishes reading the book, one wonders who exactly the central character was. And leaving aside the other plotlines woven into the book, the importance of kite flying as a sport that possibly united the people with all their societal differences and mindsets was the other most significant aspect quite clearly emphasised throughout the course of the 300-odd pages of the fictional account.
Published when Afghanistan was still reeling from the effects of the American efforts to step up the search for a – late – terror fugitive, the book not only opened ignorant eyes to a different Afghani paradigm, but also spoke about a sport well-known and thoroughly enjoyed all over the world. And soon, kite flying was not the only Afghan sport that became open knowledge. There was Buzkashi –consisting of horse riders engaging in a different kind of polo, creating a stir; there was football – a sport mercilessly dampened, with its pitches used as grounds for public execution and various others – each with a demoralising and crushing end in the eyes and minds of the people.
To many of us, the word ‘ban’ sounds inappropriate and unjustified. But to many, living literally in the war zones, the word becomes the be all and end all of life – without any choice at all. For most of us, whose routine probably involves checking the daily TV listing for the most interesting sporting action of the day and catching up on the same, perhaps even watching the highlights in case of a memorable match, life without sports would be hard to imagine. But for Afghanis, living through the period between the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, meant going through a phase where watching and playing sports could mean an end, from where there was no return. But it was in these uncertain times that a different kind of sporting hope was breeding, thanks to the ever-favourite Sub-continental flavour – cricket.
Cricket in the sub-continent translates to life and exuberance. There are of course, other sports, but cricket has its own high-standing pedestal. In terms of linking Afghanistan with cricket, while cricket hasn’t exactly been one of the traditional sports played in the central Asian country, fan following developed, as youngsters living in the refugee camps in the neighbouring cricket-playing nation of Pakistan understood its dynamics and the passion it generated. These youngsters, living as secondary citizens in a country of reputable cricketing history, turned to playing the sport and as their playing time slipped away, started imparting knowledge to the next generation Afghani children and youth.
For all theoretical intents and purposes, Afghanistan is a free nation presently. The people can do whatever they want; watch sports and even play those elite ones that were tried to be eliminated previously. But the anarchy still remains, the conflict still persists. And it’s in this context of chaos, that the Afghanistan cricket team takes its stand against some of the best cricket playing nations in the world.
In the 2012 ICC T20 World Cup, as a qualifying participant, the country stands tall. Not so much by its cricket playing virtue perhaps, but definitely because of the way it has managed to reach where other countries – better equipped – have failed. And though the team may not make that much of an impact on the pitch, its spirit and mettle does count for a lot as regards performances go. Especially when it comes to defeating the odds, stacked against them.