A game of cricket in Kabul
© Getty Images

Cover story

Desert rose

Afghanistan have achieved more in 15 years than most teams have in 50. Now, in their first World Cup, they want to be more than just a feel-good story

Sidharth Monga  |  

We must play some Bollywood music for you."

"No, I hear Bollywood music all the time. Play Pashto."

"No, you are our guest. We must make you feel at home."

I am with Said Rahman Ahmadzai, former Afghanistan wicketkeeper and now an academy coach and grounds in-charge with the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB). We are driving from Kabul to Jalalabad. By the time we have got as far as we plan to go today we will be about 20km from the Pakistan border. The proximity to Pakistan is possibly the reason Jalalabad is the cricket capital of Afghanistan. Proximity to Pakistan and the infiltration of terrorists from there is possibly the reason two people refused to accompany me to Jalalabad before Said Rahman agreed to. They weren't scared; they just didn't want to risk travelling into interior Afghanistan with a foreigner.

On the surface, Kabul is the same as any crowded old town in India or Pakistan. People are out and about. Markets are colourful. Malls have come up. Toyotas abound. Yet every few weeks a bomb goes off somewhere. Hotels are fortified. The Taliban remain a threat to life in general. Andy Moles, former New Zealand coach and now coaching Afghanistan, says: "Sometimes you hear a boom go off somewhere when coaching in the middle. You see Black Hawk helicopters flying over the ground, going on missions and coming back. Like coaching in a war movie. Actually it is a very surreal situation because I don't feel threatened. I don't feel scared when leaving for work in the morning."

Scenes from Afghanistan: fishing rafts on the Kabul river near Jalalabad, fresh naan in a Kabul bakery, the national lubricant (from top)

Scenes from Afghanistan: fishing rafts on the Kabul river near Jalalabad, fresh naan in a Kabul bakery, the national lubricant (from top) © Getty Images, AFP

I have ignored advice - exaggerated, as I have discovered - to wear a bulletproof vest and ride in an armoured car. Like Moles, I don't feel threatened. People have developed gallows humour about security issues. Driving here is more dangerous than bombs, they joke. As we move out of Kabul our driver says that driving here is like buzkashi, the traditional Afghani sport that resembles polo, except it uses the body of a dead goat in place of the ball.

We have been eating Afghani naan in the car. Ones with ghee, I am told. They don't need accompaniments. They are tough and stay good for long. A single one is so big it doesn't fit in a plate. They are eaten straight off a table or, mostly, off the carpet, because food is mostly eaten sitting on the floor in Afghanistan. The naans hang outside shops like dresses. Every household eats them. When Said Rahman takes school teams to Lucknow, he sometimes travels all the way to Delhi to buy naan from Afghani restaurants.

And we have eaten pomegranates. They're massive here. You had better be careful with your white shalwar kameez, I am warned. We have drunk sencha. These green-tea bags are carried everywhere, I am informed. Said Rahman has been slyly repeating Hindi songs and skipping the Pashto ones.

"But we should get doodh-patti [a particularly milky tea, in which milk and tea leaves are boiled together] for you. You are our guest."

"No. I don't like milk or sugar in my tea."

"Are you sure you are Indian?"

The ribbing continues over music and tea until the pen drive in the car stereo starts playing Ghulam Ali, the legendary Pakistani ghazal singer. There is instant agreement. We both know Urdu pretty well. Said Rahman grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, I grew up wondering how Pakistani musicians and comedians were so much better than Indian ones. He raises the volume, knowing we both like the song. "Aawargi" (Wanderlust), it is called.

"Sometimes you hear a boom go off somewhere when coaching in the middle. It's like coaching in a war movie" Andy Moles, Afghanistan coach

As the ghazal reaches the line "Iss dasht mein ek shehar tha, woh kya hua aawargi", Said Rahman raises his arm and points to the barren landscape. Dasht is actually a Persian word. It means desert. Shehar is city. "There once was some life in this desert. What became of that?"

I look outside the window and take in the stunning sights more closely. Those imposing hills that have seen it all: the wars, the insurgency, the Russians, the Americans, the jihadis, the Talibs. Yet peaceful. With colours you wouldn't think were real unless you saw them for yourself. The Kabul river runs parallel. We have crossed the town Maheepar. Mahee is fish, par is for parvaaz, flight. When the time of year is right, it seems the fish in the Kabul river fly. I imagine colourful fish jumping out of the pristine turquoise water with white speckles. Iss dasht mein ek shehar tha rings truer when we near Jalalabad. This general area used to be the centre for olive-growing in Asia. Its frost-free winters and fertile loam are ideal. All the olive gardens, though, were burnt during the years of strife. You look at what once used to be gardens, now the dasht, and you realise the damage left behind. Within this dasht, though, there is an upcoming shehar. This shehar doesn't fuss over uneven surfaces. It needs, sometimes, just three stones, of any size, on top of each other, to form a wicket. Tennis balls are shaved and then the core wrapped in electrical tape. And they are hurled as fast as possible. Kids in shalwar kameez, most of them with flip-flops on their feet, have games going everywhere. By the highway. By the Kabul river. In what were once olive fields. All the way from Kabul to Jalalabad there is cricket. Batting is mostly about swinging as hard as possible. However, the bowlers are all fast. With clean actions. They are all naturally strong. I wonder if, like the many small, unheard-of places in Pakistan, one of these towns will give cricket its next great fast bowler.

Mohammad Nabi, a senior statesman of Afghanistan cricket at 29, made his first-class debut playing for MCC

Mohammad Nabi, a senior statesman of Afghanistan cricket at 29, made his first-class debut playing for MCC © AFP

Said Rahman recently coached Afghanistan to an Under-19 tournament win. He has photos from it on his phone. When he starts to show the photos, every match stops and almost everyone on the field surrounds him. Impromptu coaching sessions also follow, mainly involving the need to pick the right balls to hit. It is a lesson the international team is trying to learn too.

When Mohammad Nabi, the current captain of the national side, came to Kabul in 2002, having grown up as a refugee in Peshawar, he saw a dasht. Collapsed buildings, rubble, and bullet marks. Over the next 12 years, the city made sound progress to get back on its feet. Over those 12 years, their cricket team has played three World T20s, and their story has won them fans all over the world. They have also qualified for the 50-over World Cup. The anticipation for it is huge. Right now every activity in Afghanistan cricket is channelled towards the 2015 World Cup.

However, it is this infiltration by the game in the streets and wastelands of Afghanistan that warms the heart. Cricket has become as ubiquitous as the naan. A sport brought to the country by refugees returning from Pakistan has now become arguably the most important activity in the country. "If you passed over Afghanistan in a low-flying aircraft," says Shahzada Masoud, chairman of the ACB and a huge patron of the sport in the country, "all you will see is games of cricket."

Nabi's phone has a highlights video from a recent domestic T20 final, played at the Kabul International Stadium, which was built with grants from the American consulate. All the seats are taken, the stands are full, about 12,000 are in, and people hang from the hoardings around the ground to watch. The live telecast has to repeatedly tell viewers that the ground is full and that they shouldn't head there. Cricket songs are being played - songs written specifically for the cricket, not the popular music you hear at other T20 leagues around the world.

Tennis balls are shaved and then the core wrapped in electrical tape. They are hurled as fast as possible. Kids in shalwar kameez have games going everywhere

Noor Mohammad Murad, the board CEO, who along with Masoud will have lost his job before this article is published, recalls a recent visit to Marjah, one of the most remote districts of Afghanistan, but not, as it happens, too remote for the game. The kids there wanted to know more about Shapoor Zadran, the long-haired fast-bowling phenomenon. Elsewhere, cricket is increasingly seen as capable of bringing social change. Zadran and the veteran quick Hamid Hassan are heroes in an instructional comic book, which confronts two of the biggest problems facing Afghanistan today - drugs and terrorism - and preaches patriotism and healthy living.

"Cricket has now covered the whole country," Masoud says. "It is a sport that has brought national unity. There are many tribes in Afghanistan. They grew apart during the war and jihad and Taliban [rule]. But because cricket represents the whole country, when we win every tribe celebrates. The relationships between the tribes have improved. And because it takes us to play outside Afghanistan, we have become friends with other countries too."

Before the fall of the Taliban in 2001 brought many refugees permanently back to Afghanistan, Nabi and others would often return for short visits. They didn't like what they saw. "Everything was destroyed," Nabi remembers. "Roads, buildings, all gone. Bullet marks used to be everywhere. We used to be happy going back to Peshawar. There was peace in Peshawar. There was freedom there. Facilities to play cricket.

"Once we began to spend more and more time here, it began to feel strange going to Peshawar. And then a national team was formed. Once you were selected, the name of Afghanistan next to your heart on your shirt, you began to really feel Afghanistan is home, your country. I began to play for the national team in 2002. Since then I haven't been dropped for a single game. I have had a few small injuries, but not enough to make me miss a game."

Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan star in a comic book that attempts to get kids on the straight and narrow

Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan star in a comic book that attempts to get kids on the straight and narrow

I find it fascinating how Masoud, the stern-faced but cheerful administrator who features prominently in the documentary Out of the Ashes, got interested in cricket. He didn't know anything about the game when he began to patronise it through his political connections and before he became chairman of the cricket board. He used to be a minister-advisor to Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's first democratically elected head of state. In the documentary, Masoud's face becomes visibly long when Afghanistan don't do well. You can imagine him letting go and performing Attan, the Afghani war dance, upon their winning.

"When the new government was formed in 2001," Masoud says, "the boys came to me saying they wanted to form a cricket team. I didn't know anything about the sport, but they were so passionate about it that I decided to support them. I remember I told a British journalist back then that our team will play the World Cup one day. He laughed at me.

"My interest also grew with the passion of the boys. It began with T20, but now I don't even find Test cricket boring. Earlier even 50-over cricket used to be a drag to watch. Now I watch any cricket that Ten Sports is showing."

That cricket is forging a national identity is hard to miss. It is all the more visible to an outsider. Moles, the coach, is one such outsider. A former Warwickshire batsman, he gave up a settled life in Cape Town to take up this job. His brother is in the anti-terror business. He advised him against it. The British government contacted Moles and told him he shouldn't be in Afghanistan. Once he came as a short-term consultant, however, he was quickly impressed with the natural talent and passion. He doesn't mask the slightly selfish motive of this being a stepping stone of sorts for him, a high-profile opportunity, should he help this side achieve something tangible at the World Cup.

When he comes to know I am vegetarian, out of thin air appear spinach, dal and mixed vegetables. He even offers to lend me a gun, should I need it

Before Moles came to Afghanistan he was with a non-profit organisation that worked with inner-city children in Cape Town, helping improve their lives with cricket. Since coming here he has realised Afghan players have endured worse hardship. He doesn't want to talk about any particular player, for it can evoke patronising pity, a stage Afghanistan cricket hopes to have gone past, a stage when mere participation was an achievement. Yet the reality of being an Afghanistan cricketer cannot be overlooked.

"There are certainly one or two guys who have had problems with their relatives being kidnapped by the Taliban," Moles says. "A lot of them were brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan. Without running water or electricity. Some serious hardship growing up. Lack of education in certain cases. One of the players told me how the Americans killed his cousins in drone attacks up in the north. They see cricket as a way to get out of the slums, the hardship, to give them a better life."

And hence there is a heightened awareness of being representatives of the people. "They are genuinely grateful for the opportunity to travel the world and see other places," says Moles, who has spent a considerable amount of the first two months of his stint trying to understand the players' backgrounds. "They genuinely want to do well for the public. The captain, in particular, is very, very proud of what the team does. He knows they have a direct influence on the general public in Afghanistan.

"All players are conscious they are playing for the country, but these guys, from where they started, it was a dream they perhaps never thought they could achieve. For others it is a dream you can achieve realistically. Here you have got to keep your life. This is a war zone. They come from areas where they have to be careful how they live. They have to be careful how they behave in public. A lot of the circumstances are outside the normal lives of other cricketers. I think they know exactly how good it is. When they were youngsters they dreamed of playing for Afghanistan, but the likelihood of that happening was a lot less than cricketers of other countries."

Home, victorious: crowds throng a stadium to welcome the team after it qualified for the World Cup, in October 2013

Home, victorious: crowds throng a stadium to welcome the team after it qualified for the World Cup, in October 2013 © AFP

When they were surging up international cricket's lower leagues and eventually to the World T20 - achieving in 15 years what Nabi reckons would take other teams 50 - their competitors felt they had an unfair advantage. Afghanistan's players, they thought, had the benefit of growing up and learning the game in an established cricket country like Pakistan; they were more Pakistani and had simply moved to Afghanistan at the right time. At any rate the divide between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Pashtun region is arbitrary and imposed by a foreign ruler. Peshawar and Jalalabad are more like each other than Peshawar and Karachi, or Jalalabad and Marjah.

I ask Masoud what he made of this. Did he ever feel his team was full of guns for hire? "When they go out to represent Afghanistan, [they] carry the Afghanistan passport," he says. "They know their fathers and grandfathers had left Afghanistan. They sacrificed a lot for Afghanistan. Nearly 15 lakh [1.5 million] were killed. They might not have had the same passion for Afghanistan when they were playing in Pakistan, but when they are back, they are reminded of the sacrifices, that feeling returns automatically."

The next generation of players is home-grown. The Afghanistan U-19 team has recently beaten its Pakistani counterpart 2-1 in a one-day series, having lost by the same margin to the same opponents earlier in the year. "All the boys in this team were born and brought up in Afghanistan," Nabi says. "The newer generation is stronger than us. We did it all through talent and passion, they now have facilities. The new players are mentally stronger too."

One of those players is the left-arm fast bowler Fareed Ahmad. In January last year he ravaged Pakistan Under-19 with 7 for 21. Nine months later he was in a camp with the national team, and was likely to go to the World Cup. His father lives near Jalalabad. Just before we reach Jalalabad, Said Ahmad calls him up. He agrees to meet us, despite the short notice. He is a man of means. Though time is limited he arranges a vast spread, another example of the famous Afghan hospitality. When he comes to know I am vegetarian, out of thin air appear spinach, dal and mixed vegetables. There is naan. He even offers to lend me a gun should I need it during my stay in Afghanistan. "You haven't seen half of our hospitality. You should spend the night in our village." Everyone calls him Malik Kaka (Malik uncle).

The national team's coach Andy Moles made the move from Cape Town, impressed by Afghanistan's passion for the game

The national team's coach Andy Moles made the move from Cape Town, impressed by Afghanistan's passion for the game © Getty Images

As with most people from his generation, Malik Kaka didn't know anything about cricket until his son expressed a desire to play. Once he found out, he supported him to the fullest. Malik Kaka has on his phone a clip showing highlights of Fareed's 7 for 21. He has learnt enough to note proudly that five of his wickets were caught behind, lbw or bowled, not some gifts of reckless batting. The pride in Malik Kaka's eyes is unmistakable.

Back in Kabul, Haji Amanullah, the father of emerging fast bowler Izatullah Dawlatzai, didn't have such means. He runs a small general store and lives in a neighbourhood called Arzan Qeemat - or "cheaply priced" - situated near the infamously oppressive prison Pul-e-Charkhi. Electricity reached this neighbourhood in 2008. Izat's brother remembers they had a broom for a bat when they first started playing. When Said Ahmad saw the talent in Izat and tried to push him further, the extended family pooled resources to help. Izat's uncle and his brother, who both work in a department store near Wembley in London, supported his pursuit. He now has a national contract, the house is renovated, and the whole extended family sits in front of the TV to watch every time Izat plays.

Wicketkeeper Afsar Zazai grew up in an even poorer neighbourhood. Off Chilsitun Road, we cross small lanes made slushy by mild rain to meet his father, Esajan, who drives a taxi. It's not the best way to earn a living in Afghanistan. I was advised, for security reasons, never to sit in a taxi. "Always go around in a trusted vehicle." That must be the refrain to other travellers too. Afsar's family live in a small house with a temporary roof that can't offer proper protection from the snow expected later in the year. It's early on a cold morning, but the Afghan hospitality is out in full glory: a big kettle of milky tea, naans and cake.

Cricket has become as ubiquitous as the naan. Brought to the country by refugees returning from Pakistan, it has now become arguably the most important activity in the country

Esajan then excuses himself, asks the women of the house to vacate the TV room, and insists we follow him to take a look at his son's trophies, neatly arranged on the shelf above the TV. It has taken the family many sacrifices, and much convincing from Said Ahmad - who was a wicketkeeper himself and so had a special affinity for Afsar - to get the boy so far. They are banking on him to make enough from cricket to pull them out of this life. When it snows this year, Afsar will be in Dubai, preparing with 29 other hopefuls for the World Cup. He might replace the immensely popular Mohammad Shahzad in the side.

Shahzad is the portly wicketkeeper who became a darling of Afghanistan fans with his Dhoni-like helicopter shot. However, he is not part of the 30 probables set to go to Dubai for their pre-World Cup camp. He is just too unfit.

This is the new Afghanistan. They have decided their instinctive game, based on passion and natural talent, has brought them as far as it can. They felt the same about their long-time coach Kabir Khan, the former Pakistan left-arm quick. The new coaching team and captain have recognised the need to take it a notch higher, to be able to compete against bigger opposition. Emotion is finally taking a backseat.

Moles, former Queensland wicketkeeper Peter Anderson, and South African trainer Jason Douglas are the new coaching team. Anderson is more an academy coach and was in charge for Papua New Guinea for two years. Moles and Anderson live in the Kabul Star hotel, Douglas in the new residential wing - more a hostel - of the Kabul International Stadium. The 30 probables are staying here too. It is not luxurious by any stretch, but it is a big step up for the players to be able to live in Kabul, near the cricket, gym and the indoor facility. "You saw the rain the other day?" Nabi says. "Previously that would have meant no training. Now finally we can train indoors."

Flagbearers: Fans ride in the streets to celebrate the win over Kenya that won Afghanistan a place in the World Cup; at the Sharjah T20I against Pakistan in December 2013

Flagbearers: Fans ride in the streets to celebrate the win over Kenya that won Afghanistan a place in the World Cup; at the Sharjah T20I against Pakistan in December 2013 © Getty Images, AFP

Coinciding with the camp is a domestic four-day match between Amo Region and Boost Region, in the country's first-ever regional tournament for matches of that duration (domestic tournaments in Associate or Affiliate countries are not given first-class status). The pitch is damp from overnight drizzle, and Amo are bundled out for 162. Batting at No. 3 for Boost, Shahzad scores a typically aggressive 145 (the next highest is 29). From peon to CEO, from auditor to IT expert, from chairman to cook, everybody wants to know Shahzad's score and everyone is excited he is scoring runs. I'm put in mind of Bangladesh's much-loved Mohammad Ashraful, just as I am put in mind of Bangladesh by the passion for the game in Afghanistan. I hope they don't stagnate and regress like Bangladesh.

It's 7.30am on a cold November morning in Kabul when Moles and Anderson take me along to the ground, which with its administrative office, residential complex and indoor facility is the home of Afghanistan cricket. A big round of meetings is scheduled. The two have come in early, and have woken Douglas up. Douglas makes coffee in an electric kettle, and the three start discussing Shahzad. Moles has noted his runs but insists Shahzad is still way short of the fitness required for international cricket. Douglas agrees. Yet they speak of his batting talent and wonder if he can play as batsman alone. Moles says he still has a long way to get fit enough to field in the outfield. "But I'll talk to him before we go to Dubai."

The team is due to leave a day later. This round of meetings is to do with World Cup preparations. The CEO Noor has told me I can sit in to get a hang of how preparations are going. When I tell Moles this, he laughs. The meetings are not going to be friendly. There are issues, selection for one. The team's leadership feels some senior players have been hanging on to their places for too long, and are supported politically too. "Afghan players do value the time with the team more than others would," Moles says. "One or two perhaps because they have worked so hard, want to stay for longer than they should. There is nothing wrong in that as long as they can perform."

Batting is mostly about swinging as hard as possible. However, the bowlers are all fast. With clean actions. They are all naturally strong

I start as an invitee to the meetings between national coaches, academy and junior coaches, and the administrators. We have a hefty breakfast followed by more green tea as well as regular tea. Noor chastises those who have come in late, is annoyed when a phone rings, and finally gets the meeting going. Ten minutes into it, though, he politely asks me to leave, by which time they have only just summarised what they have done since qualifying for the World Cup in October 2013.

For the next three hours, serious and furious discussions ensue. Noor then attends the inauguration of a cricket academy in Logar province, where thousands turn up though there is no star present. Moles proceeds to his one-on-one interviews with the players who will be at the camp. He asks each to list what he wants to achieve at the camp.

The next day, just before the team is about to leave for the airport, Shahzad takes off his wicketkeeping gloves and comes off the field. Moles has a chat with him even as the other 30 collect their tickets and visas and drag their kits out. At the time of writing his fate hung in the balance: he was not going to Dubai, but was not altogether ruled out of the final squad. There is a slight delay. News has just come in that fast bowler Mirwais Ashraf has lost his father. He stays back for the last rites. It is on a sombre note that Afghanistan's final journey to the World Cup has begun.

Something beautiful happens every evening in the Kabul International Stadium.

Noor comes across as quite a charismatic CEO. Everybody calls him Doctor sahib (he is a doctor by training). From what is being made for lunch - food is cooked every day for the players and staff at the Kabul International Stadium - to securing a foreign grant for a new academy, Noor is on top of everything. He comes to work in a suit but leaves in track pants. He is a fitness freak. After work, he goes to the indoor facility, gathers willing bodies and plays football. Peons play. The electrician plays. Dawlat Ahmadzai and Raees Ahmadzai, former internationals and now part of the academy coaching set-up, play. National cricketers join in when they are not too tired after their day's work. They play until they have exhausted themselves. Then they stretch and cool down, drink tea and eat biscuits. It's like summer vacations at school, when you play with your friends until dark, then shoot the breeze until your mothers call you in for dinner.

The expressionist: Shapoor Zadran

The expressionist: Shapoor Zadran © Associated Press

I join in too, as a substitute, and sneak one in past Raees, the goalkeeper. He is caught unawares. All of a sudden this hitherto perfectly nice and hospitable man shoots me a dirty look. My team-mates begin to shout at me for every mistake I make. Emotions run high when they play. You wonder if these are the same people who until now had been checking on you every 15 minutes, worried their guest might not be comfortable. And this is just a friendly football game. Imagine them, then, in competitive international cricket.

"They are openly passionate," Moles says. "When things don't go right, you can read it from off the field. They are really open that way. They argue a lot among themselves. It is not vicious arguing. It is just telling each other what they think there and then. We are trying to bring calmness to their game, a calmness to their attitude."

This passion, combined with their physical style of play, arrests the viewer's attention immediately. When you see Shapoor Zadran run in, all energy and intent, his wild long hair streaming across his face, you want more. Shahzad has already helicoptered his way into the hearts of the Afghan fans. They play with a certain freedom. They have imposing frames and expressive faces.

Players, coaches and administrators, have realised passion can only take you so far. Afghanistan have made it to three World T20s but have won only one match out of seven, and that was against Hong Kong. They have even lost to Nepal. They know international cricket is a tough place for a non-Full Member. It doesn't care for whether they grew up in refugee camps or slums. It demands results.

"We were getting the same results again and again," Nabi says. "Brilliant against Associates, but we got stuck against bigger teams. So we decided we needed someone with international experience."

I join in the football game as a substitute, and sneak one in past Raees, the goalkeeper. All of a sudden this hitherto perfectly nice and hospitable man shoots me a dirty look

Moles has taken the team on tours to New Zealand and Australia. He sees potential but says it needs to be harnessed. This is the next stage, after the romance of their entry into world cricket. "They are very reactive," Moles says. "They don't think, 'Should I take path A or path B or path C?' They just react. They are very passionate, very instinctive cricketers, whereas I am trying to get them to evaluate, look at their options, and then decide on one out of them. There are always two or three options with bat and with ball. I am trying to get them to identify and evaluate them, and then commit fully to the one option they decide.

"They have the full backing of the management and the team. If they make a wrong decision, no problem. We can learn from that. Be committed to that as long as you have consciously thought through that."

Nabi cites an example. Earlier this year, in the Asia Cup they upset Bangladesh in an ODI. They genuinely believe they can beat Bangladesh every time they take the field. "We have better fast bowlers," Nabi says. "Our batsmen are more attacking than theirs. Their spinners and fielders are better, but we are physically stronger." It was a victory set up by their quick bowlers, Zadran and Hamid Hassan. Yet when they were given a turning track 15 days later, against the same opposition in the World T20, they could manage only 72 runs. There was no resistance.

"They have had a lot of success in a short period of time," Moles says. "They expect to win every time. They are just a bit erratic. There were days in Australia when they were exceptional, followed by days when they were poor. I'm trying to get them to understand that on a bad day you have got to be average, and hit your own on good days."

A lot of Moles' work has been focused on simple cricketing disciplines. "When we lose a wicket, we lose another and then another straightaway. We don't understand the value of preserving our wickets. Not to have two batters on the crease on nought. We have silly run-outs. Calling is poor. Quick bowlers at times bowl a good spell, but if there is a dropped catch they get angry and bowl badly because they are not composed. They don't stay calm when the pressure is on them. They rush through their overs. It's all about slowing down and thinking clearly."

The Afghanistan side train in Islamabad in 2011, when they became the first international side to tour Pakistan after the attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009

The Afghanistan side train in Islamabad in 2011, when they became the first international side to tour Pakistan after the attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009 © AFP

Fitness has been an issue as even the players acknowledge. "They have probably improved 25% in two months, which is quite a lot," Moles says. "We started with a low base, to be fair. The fitness levels were nowhere close to where they should have been. With Jason, we evaluated on the first day. We had another test yesterday and on an average they have knocked two to three minutes off their 2.5km run. Which in two months is a hell of an improvement, but we still have a long way to go."

The good thing is, the players didn't resist. They did get bored of long meetings where they were made to plan the next day's play, and after the game sitting with the video analyst to review their performance. They have begun getting used to those now, but with fitness they have been asking for more work, which is an encouraging sign for captain and coach. After the one-week camp in Kabul, Dubai is going to be more intensive.

"We have been talking a lot of cricket, we have been watching a lot of cricket," Moles says. "Eating, talking, sleeping cricket as much as we can. Throwing questions around. Discussing possible eventualities that might arise. Just getting them to talk and live cricket.

"In Dubai we are going to role-play the whole month. Middle-wicket practice. First Powerplay, middle overs, death overs, batting Powerplay overs, and then review everything at the end of the day. Five sessions in the day [and] at the end of the day we will analyse the decisions they made, runs per over they took, where they lost wickets. Every day we will discuss how every situation developed and then redo it the next day to see if they do it better. [We will do] as many simulations as possible so that come the World Cup they have a memory bank to fall back on."

They are thinking of hiring a bowling coach, and also getting a few sessions with a sports psychologist if they can.

Afghanistan believe they can beat Bangladesh every time. "We have better fast bowlers," Nabi says. "Our batsmen are more attacking. Their spinners and fielders are better, but we are physically stronger"

This kind of preparation is the best Afghanistan can manage because they won't be getting international matches before the World Cup. They know all too well what a big jump it is to play Full Members, especially when those Full Members are not really interested in Afghanistan's development.

I like Marathi movies the most," says Dawlat Ahmadzai over another elaborate dinner spread, a well-earned one after the exhausting football game.

It perplexes me that he knows Marathi movies (from the western Indian state of Maharashtra). When he describes an over-the-top action scene, it becomes clear he is talking of South Indian movies. Raees Ahmadzai tells me of how some Afghan movies are aping that style of film-making. In one particularly popular film a hero wards off raining bullets from Kalashnikovs with a spade. They know that famous Bollywood actors Dilip Kumar and Kader Khan, among others, are of Afghan origin. Posters of Shah Rukh Khan decorate hair salons. When someone commits a foul at football or doesn't own up to a mistake, Noor calls him Amrish Puri, the legendary Bollywood villain.

It is part of a broader tapestry. Every day critically ill Afghan people fly into Delhi for treatment; every day just as many fly out. An Indian crew was called in when the domestic T20 needed televising. Afghanistan loves India.

Indian cricket doesn't love Afghan cricket. Noor, and everyone at the board, talks of a lack of help from the BCCI. He remembers a meeting with the then BCCI president N Srinivasan last year. He says that after the meeting had already been delayed, he was told, "You have ten minutes." He still managed to secure Afghanistan a spot in the Asia Cup, but hasn't been successful in drawing any other benefits. No tour to play smaller teams in India, no use of their facilities for a training camp.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has been an immense help - in fact the Pakistan board has, over the years, almost adopted Afghanistan cricket. There have been several A tours to Pakistan, and the training facilities at Lahore's National Cricket Academy have been used regularly. Pakistan were their first Full Member opponents in an ODI and also their first international T20 opponents outside of the World T20. Afghanistan, though, doesn't like Pakistan as much. Not at the moment anyway.

Dr Noor Mohammad Murad, the former CEO, who had his finger on the pulse of Afghan cricket

Dr Noor Mohammad Murad, the former CEO, who had his finger on the pulse of Afghan cricket © Getty Images

The geopolitics are complex. Historically the closeness of Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be denied ("inseparable brothers," Hamid Karzai once said). The Pashtun region essentially contains the same people; the Durand line separating the countries is almost randomly drawn in as a border - it remains porous physically and spiritually. The Taliban, for so long propped up by Pakistan, have ravaged Afghanistan, which now seeks closer ties with a more prosperous India in recovery. It has sought them increasingly, which doesn't sit well with Pakistan, which doesn't want India to have access to the other side of its western border. The deeper you go, the more complex it gets.

The delicate cricket co-operation has survived, but you can sense Afghanistan would rather the BCCI help them. One of the board employees talks of India being the lover they want and Pakistan being the convenient marriage they are in.

Yet it is Pakistan that Afghanistan cricket most closely resembles. In September 2014, Ashraf Ghani became the country's president. Three months later, with just two months to go to the World Cup, Ghani brought in a new chairman and CEO for the cricket board, Nasimullah Danish and Shafiqullah Stanekzai. Bowlers and batsmen might still be striving to play like the Pakistanis, but the administration is almost there.

The BCCI's attitude is a good reality check for Afghanistan. Come February 18, when they face Bangladesh in their first match of their first World Cup, no allowances will be made. If they are to leave an imprint, if they are to play more World Cups - and the ICC has always been keen on keeping the number of teams down - Afghanistan know they will have to beat Bangladesh, Scotland and one out of Australia, New Zealand, England and Sri Lanka to have a chance of making it to the next round.

"If you passed over Afghanistan in a low-flying aircraft all you will see is games of cricket" © Getty Images, Associated Press

Their swift progress, though, is not a laurel to rest on. Children of war they might be, but on the field they are equals. Only winning will keep them relevant. They will have to evolve if they want to be more than just a feel-good story. There are frustrations, there are roadblocks, but there are also expectations.

Coaches are working here against their countrymen's advice, living a straitjacketed life in Kabul. The players have learnt to sit through meetings, have lost many kilos and gained ground speed; they are working on curbing the natural games that have brought them this far, in order to go further. Kids playing cricket in the middle of nowhere are asking Said Rahman endless questions. Izat's brother will be working in a shop in London, but he will have his eyes on him. Fareed's father might fire a few shots if his son makes it and takes wickets; Afsar's will be hoping for a better roof for the next winter.

To some it will be professional recognition, for others sporting validation; some will see national identity and unity in it, others hope for their future. Businesses will look to join the bandwagon, administrators will want to cash in. This World Cup will arguably mean more to Afghanistan the team and Afghanistan the country than any other participant. Sencha and naans will be consumed endlessly as they follow, early on bitterly cold mornings, the other common thread that runs through Afghanistan: cricket. There is still life in this desert. Iss dasht mein ek shehar hai.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo