By James Gingell
The Lord’s press box is a wonderful place to watch cricket. The aspect is privileged, Emperor-at-the-Colosseumish, perfect for appreciating pace and fine-angle deviation. Sitting left and right, fore and aft, are world experts, all too generous to keep their sharp observations to themselves. And the food is excellent, if sometimes so tempting one can miss a wicket amid rumours of moist carrot cake.
But there is one drawback: it is something of an air-conditioned ivory tower, cloistered from the hum and shouts of the masses below. For every wicket or boundary, there are cheers, but because they are piped through a Tannoy there is a sense of listening through a wall, in the way one might to a party next door. It might help concentrate the mind, but there are days when you want to be at the party. And on July 11, when Afghanistan played their first match at Lord’s, the Compton and Mound Stands – packed with Pashtun passion – were where it was at.
Two days before, I had sat in the Mound Stand while England hosted South Africa for a Test. That day, a man in front of me scrolled through the Daily Mail app, seemingly more engrossed in Simon Cowell’s trousers than the play. A woman behind me blasted a succession of corks into the air and on to tutting heads, before issuing sham apologies and blaming the size of the bubbles in prosecco c.f. pukka champers. Everywhere, everywhere there were discussions of house prices. Everywhere, everywhere there were chinos and blazers, in defiance of the sweltering heat. England won that day, running through South Africa for 119. There was some beery shouting in the afternoon, but it was decorous and proper and contained. It was a party I enjoyed, yes, but one I wouldn’t have been disturbed by had I been next door.
As Afghanistan’s Shapoor Zadran charged in for the first ball of the morning, beginning his run closer to the Pavilion than the crease, I was sitting in the press box. It already felt like a different Lord’s. The Compton and Mound Stands were the only sections filled, yet produced as much noise as the packed Test crowd the Sunday previous. That was a group of people indulging in the old; this was a group revelling in the new. It was a timbre fierce and proud and strong.
Cricket came to Afghanistan because of war. Refugees displaced by the Russian invasion picked up the sport over the border in Peshawar, Pakistan. When they returned home, they did so with the zeal of the converted, and the game spread. Their rise has been remarkable. In 2008, they were playing in the World Cricket League Division Five, only scraping past Jersey in the final by two wickets. That was the catalyst for an extraordinary run of success: they qualified for the World T20 in 2010, earned ODI status in 2011, and added Test status earlier this year. As Michael Atherton has written, their ascent has been a fabulous story for the cricket world, and even more so for the Afghan diaspora. “Already, those in this country of Afghanistan origin feel pride and stand a little taller as a result of their cricketers’ renown,” he wrote in The Times. “Just as West Indian immigrants to England did all those years ago.”
As soon as Shapoor bounced out MCC’s captain Brendon McCullum in the third over, the raucous chanting from the Mound became too hard to resist. As I went down to join them, there were young men running around on the concrete path between the Nursery Ground and the main pitch. People don’t do that at Lord’s. They were desperate not to miss a ball of play. People aren’t desperate to miss anything at Lord’s. When I managed to find a seat, I was infected with their joy.
A frenzied crescendo accompanied Shapoor’s every approach. An uninhibited roar followed his every wicket. It’s worth mentioning that it rained a lot. And that this was a friendly, if one including stars of the class of McCullum. I began to wonder what Lord’s would be like when Afghanistan play their first Test here. Louder than usual, certainly. More colourful. And more fun. A man, looking not unlike Muammar Gaddafi, walked past in full army fatigues. Everyone stood and cheered as he ambled on. “Who is that?” I asked the boy sitting next to me, who was busily taking a photo on his phone. “Just an Afghan,” he said, with an enormous smile.
In the 15th over, Rashid Khan came on to bowl and the noise became deafening. “Rashid! Rashid! Rashid!” they cried, all around with unbridled brio, the kind of performance English people give only after five pints; of course, on this day, there was not a drop drunk. They idolise Rashid, a player who is plainly Test-ready, a fielder of scurrying menace, and a leg-spinner of singular quality. He hurries to the crease with the ball cocked in a wrist to his side, like a businessman running for a train with a briefcase. And, with a whirling, over-the-ear action, he has a quick and inscrutable googly, a weapon that has earned him a sackful of wickets. Along with Mohammad Nabi, he was one the first Afghans to play in the Indian Premier League, bought by Sunrisers Hyderabad for £475,000 in 2017; he took 17 wickets in 14 matches. In a recent one-day international against West Indies, he took seven for 18, the fourth-best figures in the format’s history. When Rashid finally gave in to the crowd’s demands for autographs, a group jumped the hoardings and mobbed him, while one ran on to the field wrapped in an Afghan flag to greet the other players. It led to a Lord’s first: a Pashtun plea for calm.
During a rainbreak, a group in cleanest white shalwar kameez gathered at the top of the stands. I went over to speak to them, finally finding among them an English speaker, Yousuf. Thirteen years ago, he had come from Kabul with his family, just before Hamid Karzai was elected, and now works as a builder in Stratford, east London. The 20 or so people around him were all his friends on a day out, all looking at me with broad grins, all with the pride and square shoulders of those in their best clothes. And who had they come to see? Rashid Khan, of course.
Everyone I speak to, and everyone I look at is smiling. But cricket is a serious business in Afghanistan, too. In a country still ravaged by internal fighting, it acts as a unifying force. Bashir Ghawal of the Afghanistan Cricket Association UK said, “Cricket has played a vital role in bringing sustainable peace, mainly because it is not associated with any political party nor or specific ethnic group.” It’s also playing a vital PR role. “Afghanistan is slowly getting recognised internationally for its sporting talents,” said Zubair Gharghasht, founder of the Afghan Voice media organisation. “Not just the Taliban and war.”
And their cricketers are not just making up the numbers. In July 2016, Shafiq Stanikzai, the chief executive of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, set the national team a target of breaking into the top six of the one-day international rankings by 2019, and the top three of both white-ball formats by 2025. If that felt ambitious, Rashid’s answers during the press conference were bullish enough: watch out for the talent coming through back home, he said. This was no starry-eyed dreamer.
In the stands, Yousuf became a little fidgety. He wanted me to help him meet Rashid. I try to explain I can’t really help him. But he keeps asking. He had a photo with him once, but his phone was stolen at Kabul airport. I’m as polite as I can be, but he presses again, and again. It feels like it’s the Afghan mentality: he’s happy to be here, but now that he is, he means business.
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