Afghanistan defied decades of conflict to join cricket’s elite club of Test nations, but now they have added a dash of glamour with their inaugural Twenty20 league in the United Arab Emirates.
Ten years after India’s IPL changed the face of cricket with music, fireworks and cheerleaders, the Afghanistan Premier League has joined the growing list of T20 tournaments worldwide.
The pyrotechnics weren’t long coming, as 20-year-old Hazratullah Zazai’s extraordinary six sixes in one over, part of a record-equalling 12-ball half-century, immediately drew attention from around the globe.
“It’s a very proud moment for the entire nation to have a league of our own which gives our players chance to showcase their talent and rub the shoulders with some foreign stars,” said Afghanistan Cricket Board chief executive Shafiq Stanikzai.
Despite its turbulent history, with most players learning cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan rose to become one of only 12 Test nations earlier this year.
Stanikzai knows the dangers of Afghan cricket more than most: his playing career was flourishing until it was cut short by a Taliban bullet in his right shoulder.
In September last year, a suicide attack outside Kabul’s main cricket stadium left three people dead, while eight were killed and several injured in an attack at a cricket match in Jalalabad.
Such conditions made it impossible to hold the APL in Afghanistan, but Stanikzai said: “I am sure this league, like in other countries, will further lift standards of our players and our overall cricket.”
He added: “There were challenges aplenty, they still exist but we have overcome those, received tremendous support from our government, the people of Afghanistan and from the International Cricket Council.”
– ‘Unity and love’ –
West Indies big-hitter Chris Gayle and India’s Yuvraj Singh are among the headliners, along with New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum and Shahid Afridi of Pakistan.
But the APL also provides a stage for Afghanistan’s own stars including Rashid Khan, teenage spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman and all-rounder Mohammad Nabi, who all featured in this year’s IPL.
Rashid, 20, is the world’s top-ranked bowler for T20 internationals, and this year he became the fastest player to reach 100 ODI wickets, in 44 games.
“Now is the time for the youngsters from Afghanistan to come forward and show their ability, like players have done in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Australia,” said Rashid.
Rashid took 10 wickets at last month’s Asia Cup in UAE, making him the joint most successful bowler as Afghanistan upset Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and tied a match with India, the tournament’s eventual winners.
The performances suggest that Afghanistan could prove a handful at next year’s one-day World Cup in England and Wales, after they made their debut in the competition in 2015.
“We don’t believe in fragmentation,” said Stanikzai.
“We want to send a message of unity and love and cricket has been a tool through which we send this message.”