WHEN they win, the skies ring with joyful gunfire. Afghanistan’s cricket team is wildly popular. They are mobbed in the street and featured in endless ads. After one victory, staff at a European embassy in Kabul mistook the celebrations for an attack on their compound.
On June 14th Afghanistan became the 12th country to play test cricket, taking on India in Bangalore. Test matches, the game’s oldest format, last for up to five days and can be played only by an elite club of nations selected by the International Cricket Council. Afghanistan’s ascent from cricketing obscurity to “test status” is a rare source of national pride in a country torn apart by conflict. Its progress is all the more remarkable given that its team cannot play at home. Other sides refuse to visit Afghanistan for fear of being blown up. So Afghans have to play their “home” matches in India.
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Until recently, cricket was virtually unknown in Afghanistan. Many Afghans, including most of the current team, discovered it while living as refugees in Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and brought their passion back home when they returned. The national team first gained recognition in 2008, rising from lowly Division 5 to the cusp of qualification for the World Cup in 2011. More success followed, including qualification for subsequent World Cups and victories over test-playing opponents.
It is hard to earn a living as a cricketer in Afghanistan, so most local stars play in richer foreign leagues. Rashid Khan, a 19-year-old bowler, received $1.4m to play in this year’s edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), where he dazzled television viewers across the world. Mr Khan’s IPL salary is 2,500 times Afghanistan’s GDP per person, so his example inspires many. Dozens of new cricket academies have opened around the country to cater to the growing demand.
You might expect the Taliban to disapprove of cricket, as they do of most kinds of fun, from kite-flying to music to hobnobbing with the opposite sex. Yet, although the bearded zealots are wary of football, they have a soft spot for the sound of willow on leather, even founding a national team in 2000. It seems they were reassured by the game’s modest attire of long trousers and long sleeves.
As cricket’s popularity has surged, the Taliban have found it politically expedient to ride on the team’s coat-tails. They have, for example, avoided killing people at cricket matches, allowing the game to be played in relative peace. They have even been known to contact Afghan cricket officials to wish the national team well before big games.
Of course, this indulgence does not extend to women’s cricket, which they deem an abomination. A short-lived national women’s team was disbanded in 2014, amid Taliban threats. Some prejudices cannot simply be batted away.