For Afghans, cricket is a link to the world

Many learned at refugee camps and Pakistani religious schools.

A few days back, members of the Afghan National Cricket team had an important match to make. With cruise missiles and US bombers screeching through the autumn air behind them, they were being held up at the Khyber Pass border crossing. Pakistani guards wanted to make sure they were not refugees - in which case the Afghans would be turned away.

The US-led bombing campaign, now in its second week, isn't making anything easy. The team had already cancelled both a visit by the New Zealand national team and a cherished trip to Sri Lanka for a prestigious tournament.

Out came the cricket bats, the broad-brimmed white hats and the V-necked sweaters. There were smiles all around and the team was allowed in for a two-day showdown with a club from Nowshera, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

"The wars in Afghanistan have been going on for over 20 years," says Allah Dad Noori, the team captain, whose full-time job is trading wheat in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "We've got to keep playing."

Yesterday, the game went on - and on. The crack of a bat ripped the air and the ball flew 600 feet for a six-run score.

Like most of his teammates, Mr. Noori, in his late 20s, grew up knowing only war. For them, cricket provides a treasured link, and a sense of camaraderie, with the outside world. Many, however, are weighing what they would do if a major contingent of US troops sets foot in their homeland.

"War and sport are two different things," says Noori, whose black beard is longer and more sagacious-looking than those of his teammates. "It is really up to the players to decide which one they want to be involved in. Personally, I want to serve my country through sports. By playing cricket, I can be an ambassador for peace."

Cricket arrived in Afghanistan only in the past two decades. Thousands of the young Afghans fell in love with the sport while living in refugee camps and studying in religious schools, or madrassahs, in Pakistan, where cricket is all the rage, a legacy of the British colonial era.

"I guess you would have to say that cricket was a gift of war to the Afghan nation," says Azem Khan, the team manager. There are now 240 cricket teams in Afghanistan, including 11 provincial teams and 1 national team. The sport can be played in any makeshift sandlot, even in the impenetrable highlands of Afghanistan.

"Before the war, most people preferred buzkashi," he adds. In that rough sport, played at national festivals and large political gatherings, riders on horseback compete over the carcass of a beheaded sheep.

In 1997, the Taliban regime that rules most of Afghanistan accepted cricket as a "national sport" alongside buzkashi, with some restrictions. Clean-shaven players aren't allowed on the field, and the only acceptable cheer is Allahu Akbar, "God is great!" As with volleyball, basketball, and other sports, the Taliban prohibits women from both playing and attending games.

At yesterday's game, team leaders tell the 11 anxious players on their side to hush up about any personal plans for a "jihad," or holy war. They want players to focus on the task at hand. But among the hundreds of Afghans, mostly refugees, who had gathered to watch, talk of the war is simply unavoidable.

"We are just killing time until the US tries to send its ground troops to Afghanistan," says Sheffi Ulla, himself an avid cricket player. "Then, we'll have to give up this distraction and head back for the jihad. After all, most of us were just kids during the [1979-'89] war against Soviet aggression. This will be our chance to prove ourselves in battle."

Kheserow Habibi isn't so sure about fighting the Americans, however. His father, formerly a well-known Afghan actor (the Taliban also bans movies under its harsh interpretation of Islam) is in California working as an auto mechanic and trying to get visas for the family.

Mr. Habibi, an English language student in Pakistan, is attending the cricket match to watch his cousin, one of the team's star players. But he is also thinking of ways to avoid war. "I think you can consider this some kind of message of peace for the entire world," he says. "I don't want to fight at all. I mean, why should I put my life in danger over one man, [Osama] bin Laden. I won't fight the Americans, but I still blame them. Wasn't bin Laden all the CIA's making anyway?"

As he sits with his knees crossed on the freshly-mown lawn, Habibi muses wistfully that the match, which is tied at 224, won't end, "at least until the sun goes down."

"You know why Adolf Hitler banned cricket in Germany?" he asks.

"No."

"He was watching a match that went on and on one day. He kept asking when it would be over, and someone told him it would continue the next day for the entire day and well into the evening. He said, 'By the time this stupid game is over, I could have conquered three countries.' "

The match does at last end, at sundown. The final score is 321 to 320. Pakistan wins.

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