Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A day to remember - ICC T20 World Cup, India

Nagpur is an unexceptional city in Central India. It is not a tourist destination and has little of interest to entice visitors off India's rich cultural trail.  But it has one gem which will certainly draw the crowds over the coming weeks - the cricket stadium.

The joy of cricket and the joy of winning was in full evidence yesterday at Nagpur Stadium where Afghanistan played Scotland in the opening round of the T20 World Cup. The irresistible pull of the Afghanistan National Cricket Team had drawn me to Nagpur where I was joined by AC Chairman, Sir Richard Stagg, KCMG, former British Ambassador to Afghanistan, who by good fortune was in the country on a business trip. I sensed that tourists were not a common site as everywhere we walked, we were stopped and asked to pose for photos. Beaming locals bombarded us with questions.  Where were we from, who were we supporting, and why?

It is hard to explain in a few words the Afghan Connection, (AC) journey with Afghan cricket, which began with delivery of kit for the team back in 2008 when Afghanistan was in Division 5 and had little in the way of facilities and cricket equipment. 

Since then, with financial support from the MCC, private donors and more recently, the UK Government, AC has funded 80 cricket pitch constructions in schools serving some 100,000 girls and boys, coached 4000 children and 180 teachers and held tournaments across Afghanistan. And since then Afghanistan has risen through the cricket rankings and in 2015 played in the ICC World Cup in Australia. Cricket has gripped Afghanistan and rivals football as the nation's favourite sport.  And so today, I am sorry Scotland, but after all the blood sweat and tears invested in Afghanistan, we are here to support them.

We are in the VIP area which is very empty and the seats are swathed in smart red nylon... which sweats nicely in the sultry heat of the afternoon. One area of the stands opposite starts to fill with Afghan supporters. They are armed with flags, faces painted and full to bursting with national pride and spirit.  People have travelled miles to be here. Some have driven for 16 hours from Hyderabad. Students, diaspora and locals have gathered in support. 

The security team look at us in disbelief as we ask to swop our VIP tickets for the much cheaper stand opposite. Impossible they say...  but of course this is India and everything is possible. And so, we find ourselves walking into the Afghan supporters' stand where we receive a boisterous welcome and euphoric response to our support for Afghanistan. 

The stand is buzzing. Men, women and children have come together to see their beloved home team, their heroes. We are lost in a sea of black, red and green, turbans and scarves, smiles and greetings. Our faces feature on hundreds of mobiles. The Afghan national anthem plays. Hearts and minds return to a country much missed, much loved.  A country where cricket has cut through conflict bringing seeds of hope and happiness.  A tremendous start! A four off the first ball and sixes to follow. The crowd goes crazy. We all allow ourselves to live the dream as the score soars and the team seems invincible. Some of the team have been there since the early days and have coached at our cricket camps. I know their faces so well and can't help feeling anxious for them as I will them to keep the runs flowing. 171... a decent score, and a tough act to follow.

 Scotland starts tentatively but any false sense of security is quickly lost as they start to outplay the Afghans and hit the boundary with increasing frequency and maintain a healthy run rate of 10 plus an over. The Afghan crowds lose their buoyancy as the Scots seem bound for victory. But a few wickets start to fall and the game evens out.  At 15 overs they are at 140 runs, exactly level with the Afghan score at that stage. The excitement rises; the crowd lifts their team, screaming encouragement. The flow of runs weakens and an Afghan victory is within grasp. Right up to the last over it could go either way.  A deafening crowd. They have done it! We are surrounded by joyous Afghans who ask us about the AC story and say it is because we are there that luck has blessed their team and they have won through.

A day I shall never forget. Inspired as ever by the Afghan people and their indomitable spirit, I am reminded exactly why we invest so much energy in support and exactly why cricket is essential for the future of Afghanistan.