Last Tuesday, the Afghanistan cricket team lost to World Cup hosts and title favorites Australia by 275 runs as the latter tallied 417 runs. To those whom the cricket stats read like Greek, it was the most lopsided loss in Cricket World Cup history.
The Afghans showed no disappointment following the loss. If anything, the fact that they played against the Australians — the Brazil-like titans in international cricket — in a World Cup match was a victory in itself.
As I have played major catch-up in following my first Cricket World Cup, consuming as much cricket news as I can, it was clear that Afghanistan is not just a one-time feel-good story like the Jamaican bobsledding team. There is a cricket revolution happening in Afghanistan right now, and they are climbing up the world cricket ladder at a meteoric pace.
They look like the most dangerous team in the sport, primed to break through the longstanding hegemony between Australia, South Africa, India, and England.
Afghanistan has not been the advertised minnows throughout the tournament. They already defeated Scotland for a historic first World Cup victory. They came close in upsetting last World Cup’s runner-up Sri Lanka in their first ever World Cup match. It’s mind-boggling when you consider they didn’t even have a national team until 2001.
Even their Under-19 national team got in on the act, defeating Australia in a shocking upset in February.
How did all this happen, especially in a country devastated by war and terrorism over the last 14 years? Most of the credit goes to its neighbors Pakistan, who, unlike Afghanistan, has been a cricket-obsessed nation for some time now. Pakistan’s passion bled over to Afghans who fled to its Afghan-bordering cities or refugee camps during the Soviet and American wars in the 1980s and 2000s respectively.
No player sums up the turbulent history of Afghan cricket better than their headband-and-war-paint-wearing, cart-wheeling bowler Hameed Hassan. Hassan, whose family fled to Pakistan from the Taliban, learned to play cricket in high school and quickly burgeoned into a key member of the national squad. Players like Hassan have formed the first Afghan generation to germinate the sport in their homeland. With the sport now spreading like wildfire in Afghanistan, cricket has unified its people in unstable times.
How can you not love a sports story like this? Every decade or so it seems as if there is a tale of one country with an internal malady–whether it be war or apartheid–that comes together through sports, like South Africa and rugby in the 1990s or the Ivory Coast with soccer in the 2000s. In the 2010s, we are seeing that unfold with Afghanistan and cricket.
They are blooming before our eyes right now. For those looking to ride the cricket wave right now, Afghanistan might be the cult heroes you are looking to root for.
SEUNG Y. LEE | @sngyn92
Seung Y. Lee is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, California. A UC Berkeley alumnus, he has previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. You can find him watching Tottenham Hotspur matches alone on weekend mornings.