By Hashmat Baktash and Mark Magnier
Los Angeles Times
---- — KABUL, Afghanistan — In a victory that brought cheer to this war-torn nation, Afghanistan beat Kenya in a one-day international cricket match yesterday to advance to the World Cup for the first time in its troubled history.
Unfortunately, most of its fans couldn’t enjoy the sweet taste of success in person as their team beat Kenya by an emphatic seven wickets, reaching its target of 94 with 175 balls remaining. Afghanistan can’t play at home because of the security situation, and its stands at the United Arab Emirates stadium were largely empty. But that didn’t deter members of the winning team, who ran onto the field carrying a giant Afghanistan flag.
Back home, there was joy and celebration as word of the victory spread. Thousands of people marched, danced and drove through Kabul’s normally muted streets cheering, honking and shooting guns in the air.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” said Sayed Rahman Ahmadzai, a former national player and member of the Afghan cricket board. “It was our dream to one day qualify, and we did it today.”
At Kabul’s only cricket stadium, about 3,000 people stood on the field watching the match live on a large screen, waving flags and celebrating each boundary as their team scored four or six runs with a single ball.
“Kenya has (115) years of cricket and we have 10,” said Maiwand Habib Wardak, 28, a security official. “Now we’ve proved we can take on any team in the world.”
“Whether they win a single match in the World Cup, I don’t care,” said Boria Majumdar, a cricket historian and senior fellow at England’s University of Central Lancashire. “Just by being there, it’s a victory.”
The Afghan national team has morphed from “a disorganized rag-tag band of nomadic hitters into a well-balanced team that has impressed mightily,” the Malaysia-based Asian Cricket Council said on its website. “They play with dash and panache, care only for winning and consider every match played to be a matter of national honor.”
The vast majority of cricket-playing nations picked up the game from their former British colonial masters. Afghanistan embraced the sport after the 1979 Soviet invasion, when millions of Afghans fled to neighboring cricket-crazy Pakistan.
Afghan cricket has received financial support from Persian Gulf nations, especially the United Arab Emirates, which since 2010 has let the Afghan national team use the 25,000-seat Sharjah Cricket Club stadium so it has someplace to call home.
As the game’s popularity has grown, Afghanistan has increasingly come to resemble the rest of South Asia, with every alley or patch of rough ground transformed into a cricket pitch by youngsters using homemade bats and balls. At least 2,000 teams now play in provincial, regional and national competition, with leagues in Kabul and Jalalabad attracting large crowds in stadiums once used as Taliban execution grounds.
With Friday’s win, which some have called the most important game in the nation’s short cricket history, the national team secures a berth in the World Cup to be played in Australia and New Zealand in early 2015.
It’s been a heady rise. Just five years ago, Afghanistan was in World Cricket League Division 5, the lowest-ranked tournament among affiliate members.
“Today, Afghanistan proved its talent to the world,” said Shahzada Masoud, chairman of the Afghan Cricket Board. “It’s an achievement fueled by patriotism and a huge amount of hard work.”