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'Cricket makes us one'
Deep in the heart of war-ravaged Afghanistan, where power resides within political pulpits and is guarded by the might of the gun and hardliners, a new religion of a different kind is steadily on the rise: cricket.
To the torn and tired population, the game is not only serving as a much-needed diversion but has also become the source of new hope and pride.
Now, with more than a decade of cricket to their credit, the pioneers of Afghan cricket are being feted as national heroes.
Captain Nawroz Mangal - easily the most recognizable face of the game in Afghanistan - considers the game to be an important tool in Afghan unification.
"No matter where we are playing, we know every Afghan in every part of the world is following and praying for us, " he says. "It makes us one. "
According to Mangal, Taliban's latest promise of promoting cricket on return to power is insignificant. "It was under the Taliban regime that cricket started. However, the game does not require support from any particular group. The masses support us, " adds the 27-year-old, speaking from his native village of Khost, where he is training with the local team for the upcoming Intercontinental Cup clash against Ireland.
Growing up in the backdrop of one of the most intractable civil conflicts in the world, and having lost his best friends and his best years of childhood, Mangal had the choice of giving in to the angst and even taking up the gun. Instead, against all odds, he chose to side with the cricket bat.
Uprooted from his home, during the Russian invasion, and thrown into the Kohat Road Refugee Camp in Peshawar, Mangal had been oblivious to cricket. It was only in the spring of 1992, when Pakistan won the World Cup, that it made a dramatic entry into his life.
"There was something electric in the air. People crowded in front of the radio, there were widespread celebrations;all of a sudden, people were taking cricket seriously and kids started playing it in the neighbourhood, " he reminisces. "Though it was new for me, I picked it up very fast and fell in love with it. " With his new-found love, he came to idolize the few names he heard from word-of-mouth. "I had heard so much about Imran Khan, Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Akram, but had never seen them. We did not have a TV. " It took him four more years to see the faces behind those names. "The first match I watched was the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal between India and Pakistan. Finally, the names had faces. " In the year 2002, after American troops had changed the face of the country, the family returned to their native village. With the semblance of normalcy returning to their lives, Mangal's father wanted his children to consolidate the family trade and build their fortune. Despite his undying love for what he calls the "beautiful game, " Mangal had a hard time convincing his father to let him pursue an alien game as a career. "Sports is seen as fun and games and not serious enough to be taken up as a living, " he says. In fact, he was allowed to go out for his first local match only after his coach Taj Malik pleaded with his father all night before the game. "The first local game I played is very memorable, that was the start. I was fascinated to see that the knowledge of the game had developed and actual cricket gear was being used. There were no rubber or tennis balls, but real leather ones. "
His fascination for the game and idolization of Tendulkar only grew stronger with time. "My friend got me this poster of Sachin back in 1999. I couldn't put it up anywhere, so I carried it with me everywhere I went. I still have that poster, " says Mangal. "I have admired his game and his courage. It has been my heartfelt wish to get his autograph on my palm, " he adds fervently.
It is with this added zest that he looks forward to the World T20 in Sri Lanka this September, where Afghanistan have been placed in the same group as England and India.
"Playing against India should be a learning experience. We have faced them before. They are world champions, and they improve their game with the amount of cricket they play. We need as much international exposure as we can get, " the right-hand batsman says.
As the local evening air fills with fervent cheers and heckling, the cricket teams get together for the routine practice that, according to Mangal, has increasingly come to be a part of their day.
From wooden planks to the polished willow and rough rubber balls to the hard ball, both Afghanistan cricket and Mangal have managed to carry a country's story from the ravages to a revolution.
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