For the first time – ever – Afghanistan today played an international cricket match against an elite team. It was against top-ranked neighbor Pakistan, with whom it has a relationship that is sometimes fraught with uneasiness, sometimes full of professions of brotherhood.
But the historic cricket match, which took place in the UAE, both illustrated the love/hate relationship and helped fans on both sides of the border to forget, at least for a while, the tensions that exist between their countries.
“Everyone here is watching the match on TV. It’s very exciting and we’re praying hard for Afghanistan,” Pardis Haidary, a military officer in Kabul told the Monitor over the phone. “Matches like this help build friendship,” he says.
For newcomers Afghanistan, it was their first chance to pick up the bat against a major international team, having previously only played against other low-ranked teams.
Cricket was brought to war-torn Afghanistan through refugees who picked up the game during their time in Pakistani camps, and is popular mainly in the Pashtun-majority areas in the south and east of the country.
Though Afghanistan is new to the game, its rise has been nothing short of a “wonderful story,” according to the International Cricket Council, which provides the Afghanistan Cricket Board with $700,000 a year to develop the sport.
Relations between the two countries have remained tense since the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in September last year. Mr. Rabbani, who was head of a government-appointed peace council, was killed in his home by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace envoy, in an attack that some Afghan officials have blamed on Pakistan’s main intelligence agency.
Both sides, meanwhile, accuse each other of allowing militant havens inside their respective borders to carry out raids in each other’s countries. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is set to host his Afghan and Iranian counterparts for a trilateral summit in Islamabad next week.
At the popular Kabul Restaurant in Islamabad, staff and customers remained glued to their television, rooting for Afghanistan to pull off an unlikely upset. Though the Afghans eventually lost, Pakistan’s cricket captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, lauded them for the talent they displayed and their fighting spirit, which at times stretched former world-champions Pakistan.
Some hoped the goodwill between the players on the field could translate into better relations off it. “I have been in Pakistan for 19 years, but I can’t get a Pakistani passport,” complains waiter Naqeebullah Kabir. “Now we can’t get visas to visit home, either.”