The wicketkeeper used to be a cattle farmer. The fast bowler laboured building mud walls to buy his first bat. The all-rounder was once a refugee in Pakistan.
Over the past five weeks, all three have been part of a cricketing fairytale that has captured global attention and brought joy to one of the world’s most repressed countries.
Afghanistan’s national cricket team – nicknamed the Blue Tigers – has outperformed all expectations at the 2023 World Cup in India, defeating the former champions Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England and pushing Australia to the brink earlier this week.
Afghans thronged the streets across the country after each victory, defying oppressive Taliban regulations to dance and celebrate.
“When they defeated Pakistan and England, we rushed out, and there were many more people dancing in the middle of the street before the Taliban arrived and dispersed everyone,” said Firooz, a medical student in the capital, Kabul.
“The whole nation prays for them,” said Heshmatollah, a resident of Kandahar. “They are bringing us joy. It is very much needed for our people.”
Thousands of Afghans living in India also flocked to the stadiums, with some travelling hundreds of miles to support the team and celebrate after each boundary.
“I lost my voice from all the cheering and celebration,” said Abdul Basit Sadat, who embarked on a five-hour train journey to reach the stadium for the match against Pakistan. “I have never been that happy.”
“Hundreds of fans gathered around their bus and joined in the dance,” he added. “I felt an immense sense of pride being Afghan. They brought joy to a depressed nation in this tournament. It’s a miracle.”
The Blue Tigers appeared poised to qualify for the tournament’s semi-finals on Tuesday, halted only by an innings by Australian batsman Glenn Maxwell that many have described as the best ever seen in a one-day international.
“The boys gave their best, but destiny did not favour us,” said Naweed Sayem Kakar, an Afghanistan Cricket Board official who is accompanying the team, in advance of the South Africa game. “They have showcased their exceptional talent.”
In the four years since the last World Cup, Afghanistan’s US-backed government has been overthrown and thousands of its citizens have fled the country. Few of the teams Afghanistan has played recognise its new rulers, the Taliban.
The team plays under the flag of the former republic and players stand at the beginning of each match for an anthem the country’s rulers have scrapped.
“The Taliban leadership is a little bit upset about it,” another member of the board said from Kabul. “They’ve told players to tone down their enthusiasm for the [former] three-colour flag.”
But the squad has powerful backers. Members of the Haqqani network – sanctioned by the US as a terrorist group – have encouraged the team to play without concerns of any backlash and “bring home victories”, a member of the cricket board said.
Anas Haqqani, a member of the network and now a senior Taliban official, is a fervent cricket enthusiast and frequently meets the team. “Our cricket is in a better state than ever,” Haqqani recently tweeted. “Afghans are capable people, coming together and working as a team makes everything possible.”
Every member of the squad lives and trains in Afghanistan but two. Rashid Khan, a bowler, left the country for security reasons before the fall of Kabul and now lives in Dubai. Mohammad Nabi, the team’s all-rounder, left Kabul with his family nine months ago to join Khan in Dubai.
Both were brought up as refugees in Pakistan, where thousands of Afghans first got a taste for the game and brought it home.
Rahmanullah Gurbaz, the team’s right-handed wicketkeeper, was a cattle farmer in an impoverished village just five years ago. Fazalhaq Farooqi, a fast bowler, stumbled upon a game featuring the former national team player Nawroz Mangal on TV. Fascinated by what he saw, he laboured for days to build mud walls, so that he could afford to purchase a cricket bat with his earnings.
The International Cricket Council funds the Afghanistan Cricket Board, which has paid £2,850 to players for each match they appeared in at the World Cup. Upon returning home, they will receive a monthly salary ranging from £977 to £2,607, according to a source in the country’s cricket board.
The team is also exploring additional revenue streams, with more brands expressing interest since their exceptional performance at the World Cup.
One brand is providing a sponsorship of $250,000 (£203,705) for the World Cup, and more sponsors are expected, according to a board member in Kabul who spoke to the Guardian.
Since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed, plunging millions of people into poverty. Nature has compounded the misery with earthquakes reducing entire villages to rubble, claiming the lives of thousands of people.
“We should all show them respect,” said Heshmatollah, the resident of Kandahar, of the national team. “They are making us forget about our daily struggles for a few hours.”