The call to prayer rings out; a long, deep, echoing sound that billows through the streets of Johannesburg's Mayfair district. Here in the heart of the city's Muslim enclave, the Afghan cricket team the sporting world's favorite underdogs are eating curry and naan. "It tastes just like home," says Hasti Gul Abid, a 25-year-old middle-order batsman.
The Afghans are in South Africa preparing for their Cricket World Cup qualifying matches, which started April 1. They got off to a good start, beating Denmark and Bermuda. A top-four finish in Johannesburg will see them go through to the main event, due to be held in various cities across South Asia in 2011. It would also crown an astonishing rise. Seven years ago, in a country defined by conflict, and which does not have a proper grass pitch even today, there was no national team. But three tournament wins in the past year, comprising 15 victories in 17 matches, have brought Afghanistan to the brink of an appearance among the world's best. At home, they are national heroes. (See pictures of the deadly attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan.)
That this devastated country should be able to field a cricket team at all, let alone one as successful as this, is an unbelievable achievement. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, they sent the country spiraling into 30 years of war. Millions of Afghans fled the country, many into neighboring Pakistan (from which they only started returning after the U.S.-led invasion of 2001). "At the time when the Red troops (Soviets) came, we fled to Pakistan and lived in Kacha Gari refugee camp...We thought we would never come back to our country," Abid says. (Watch a video about cricket in India.)
To while away the boredom, a few exiled young Afghans began picking up cricket from Pakistanis. Abid was among them, and an unlikely source of national pride was born. Smashed concrete is all that remains of the Kacha Gari pitch now, and the boundary is marked only by lumps of piled-up dirt. But to many Afghans, it is a deeply moving place. On a recent return visit, Abid knelt down, kissed the ground and said, as if still astonished, "I started cricket here."
The squad still comprises unpaid amateurs (even in South Africa, they are not drawing match fees but a $50 per diem provided by the generosity of the ICC), many of whom look quite a bit older than their listed age. The Afghan National Cricket Academy in Kabul consists of four battered training nets and one bowling machine, a piece of equipment used by serious players to practice shots. When the power cuts out, which happens frequently in the Afghan capital, the machine can't be operated. These are the wretched resources used by the Afghans to compete against nations that have decades of experience in the game.
Despite these handicaps, they have been able to draw on seemingly limitless reserves of drive and ambition to reach their present position. "We will crush all the teams," says Abid's brother Karim Saddiq, a 25-year-old opening batsman, with the unshakeable belief that typifies the squad. "It's my mission to be player of the tournament." The players have already shown their mettle in South Africa, winning their first two games against Denmark and Bermuda with poised batting and destructive bowling. If they finish in the top four of their group which also includes, the Netherlands, UAE and Kenya they go to a knock-out stage and could meet the likes of Ireland, Scotland, Oman, Canada, Namibia and Uganda. The top four of this group will play in the World Cup.
"To be honest all these teams have 30, 40 or 50 years experience, but we are just jumping up the levels," said Kabir Khan, a former test player for Pakistan, who now coaches the team out of respect for his Afghan father's memory. "He migrated from Kabul to Pakistan in 1964," he says. "I want to make his spirit happy."
Ehmal Pasarly of the BBC Pashtu language radio service has been giving live commentary of several of the team's performances to date, including its historic win against Jersey last year in the ICC World Cricket League Division Five final a feat that put Afghanistan 29th in the international rankings. "During Jersey we received more than two thousand emails and phone calls," he said. "The emails came from all over the world, but most were from Afghans delighted by their team's success." The broadcaster adds that by the time the team played its early World Cup qualifiers in Argentina in February this year, the number of emails per match reached "over 10,000."
Afghans indeed cricket fans regardless of nationality are hoping that the miraculous momentum will continue. Says batsman, Raees Ahmedzai, 24: "In the last year we have played very good cricket and God willing we will qualify for the 2011 World Cup. We want to do something for our country. It has lots of problems, but we are very proud."