In 1992, Nawroz Khan Mangal would wake up early in a refugee camp in Peshawar and pray for Pakistan, which was playing in the International Cricket Council World Cup.
Pakistan won the tournament under captain Imran Khan.
Like hundreds of thousands of families, Mangal’s fled Afghanistan to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation.
“It was a beautiful time. I still remember those days of watching and playing cricket in the refugee camp,” he said.
But the country, known for decades of war is now taking part in One-Day Internationals (ODI) and Twenty20 (T20) cricket. Guns and rockets have been replaced with cricket balls and bats.
“I started playing cricket in my own homeland after returning from Pakistan,” said Mangal. “The craze for cricket finally guided me to enter the Afghan cricket team and become skipper. Now in our country, cricket is trying to replace volleyball and football.”
He has played 34 ODIs and 24 T20s for his team, and with the help of two centuries and four 50s, he has scored 960 runs in ODIs.
Mangal has been replaced by all-rounder Muhammad Nabi as team captain.
“The trend of cricket transferred to Afghanistan from Pakistan when Afghan refugees returned to their homeland,” said Nabi. “Most of our players were born in Pakistani refugee camps.”
As with Pakistan, in Afghanistan cricket is played in narrow streets, open roads, mountains and on open ground.
“A decade ago very few people had the knowhow of cricket,” said Nabi.
“Even our elders were telling us not to play cricket because they said it was a waste of time, but now it’s really interesting to see cricket being played everywhere. Seeing kids playing in narrow streets reminds me of my childhood.”
In Afghanistan, cricket is played mostly in Pashtun-dominated areas. The sport is not popular in the north of the country because during the Soviet occupation, Pashtun families fled to Pakistan while non-Pashtuns went to Iran.
Young Afghans learned cricket in Pakistan, while in Iran they played football.
Nasimullah Danish, chairman of the Afghan cricket board, said the national cricket team has not been threatened by the Taliban, who “also like cricket.
After winning a competition in Kuwait, the Taliban offered us a reward of 500,000 Afghan rupees as a goodwill gesture.” Danish said there is also “a lot of support from multinational companies” keen on the publicity of associating with a popular sport.
The 2010 Asian games in China were the most memorable event for Shahpur Zadran, a fast bowler in the Afghan team. “Beating Pakistan was like a dream,” he said, adding that it was the first time they had played against Pakistan.
Danish said cricket “is now a popular game in Afghanistan. People are proud of their players.” Nabi said they “are celebrities in Afghanistan. I can’t step out of my car in a bazaar as it attracts a huge crowd.”
Former Afghanistan coach Rashid Latif said the upcoming World Cup is “a good opportunity” for the national team in terms of “huge international exposure. I hope they’ll perform well, and will improve day by day and match by match.”
Afghanistan is in a tough pool against Australia, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Scotland. Afghanistan will play its first match against Bangladesh on Feb. 18.