I WAS doing a special feature on the Afghanistan cricket team in February during their tour here, and just four months before the war-torn country’s greatest sporting moment — attainment of Test status — there was an air of expectation and hope around the entire delegation.
Sports Panorama with Enock Muchinjo
Hope, yet also anxiety and uncertainty.
Their troubled country has suffered from years of violence and conflict and the Afghans are desperate for better days.
A touching moment for me during the interviews at the Zimbabwe Cricket Academy was when senior player Noor Ali, nominated for me by their coach because of his better command of English, remarked: “We are hungry for peace.”
In a country ravaged by decades of strife, cricket — the nation’s best-loved sport — carries the message of unity, love and peace.
“Cricket gives happiness to the Afghanistan people,” Ali added. “To the team, giving happiness to the people is our biggest accomplishment.”
Ali’s sentiments were echoed by his coach, Lalchand Rajput, who told me: “These players are coming from a struggle, so they are not afraid of hard work. The country has gone through so much turmoil but because of this sport, I’ve seen so many happy faces.”
With former India batsman Rajput as the head coach, Afghanistan appears in very good hands.
Incidentally, Rajput was not new to this country when the Afghans arrived in Harare in February.
When Zimbabwe was on its long and arduous road to Test status, which was finally awarded in 1992 following years of hard work and ingenuity, the African side was helped on its way up with competition from strongly-assembled reserve sides of the world’s top cricketing nations.
So courteous and affable Rajput was part of a formidable Young India side that toured Zimbabwe in 1984, teaming up on that visit with some of the greatest names in Indian cricket history such as Ravi Shastri, Mohammad Azharrudin, Manoj Prabhakar, Maninder Singh — young world-class talent then on the doorstep to stardom.
It is beyond the ordinary, when you think about it, how history keeps repeating itself.
Here was Rajput again, 33-odd years later, helping another young cricketing nation in making a strong case of its quest for admission to the pinnacle format of the game.
“Help” is a key word here, and Zimbabwe, itself a recipient of the global cricket family’s helping hand, has played its part in assisting Afghanistan — mainly through giving them competition and testing their skills ahead of their entrance into the Test arena.
Hastened to add, Zimbabwe has also indirectly helped Afghanistan’s cause, by losing to them in two bilateral one-day series, in 2015 and then when they toured at the beginning of this year.
Afghanistan’s closely-fought 3-2 series win in Bulawayo in 2015, the first time an associate nation has beaten a full member in a series, was received with wild scenes of celebrations back home, heavy gunfire going up in the capital Kabul.
Sadly, Afghanistan’s biggest dream, playing Test cricket at home in Kabul, will remain a pipeline one for now in the wake of a suicide bombing last week during a match in that country’s Shpageeza Twenty20 Cricket League, which killed two people.
Zimbabwe, with 11 players, had the biggest contingent of the handful of countries that had players taking part in that tournament.
A show of support maybe, especially with players from the other countries resisting the temptation to go there.
That is another way of seeing it, a sugar-coated and romantic view of it.
But in truth, the Zimbabwean players needed the money. Most of them who were in Afghanistan are not centrally-contracted by ZC and extra earnings of between some US$7 000 and US$20 000 are pretty cool for a month’s work.
You would understand why they were adamant to remain in the country and see through their contracts following the deadly terrorist attack. For Afghanistan, it meant more that the 11 Zimbabweans did not leave the country as initially demanded by their national association.
That it took the personal interference and guarantee of the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, speaks volumes of how much cricket is seen over there as a sign of peace, cause of hope and vehicle to bring normalcy to a battered nation.
Normalcy in Afghanistan does not look in sight at the moment, but when it finally happens, Zimbabwean cricket would have played a part in its small way.