Twelve teams from around the world are competing in this year's international tournament for one-day cricket matches, the Twenty20 World Cup. While the presence of perennial powerhouses Australia, Pakistan and India are no surprise to fans, this year welcomes a new addition: Afghanistan. The Afghan team faces as many challenges off the field as it does on it.
The sharp crack of a cricket bat arguably is heard more in Afghanistan than the sound of gunfire, even in a country wracked by more than three decades of war. In fact, the national obsession with the sport is so strong that the Taliban did not outlaw it as they did kite flying.
But despite the Taliban's acceptance, Raees Ahmadzai, a batsman for the Afghan national team, tells VOA his country's ongoing violence threatens to kill the organized sport and forces him to spend most of his time during the season in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. "It's so hard, so difficult [a] life for us. Most of the time, we are traveling to Peshawar, and sometimes it's so dangerous for us," he said.
Most of the Afghan players first learned cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan, such as this one outside Islamabad. Young Afghan boys still gather each day to play. Their wickets are rocks stacked on top of each other, and some play in the dirt with bare feet.
Afghan all-rounder Mohammad Nabi says because of his country's violence and lack of proper facilities, the team spends most of its time practicing in Pakistan and host countries. "Before the tournament, we will camp for one month or 20 days, then we will practice," he said.
Officials with the Afghan Cricket Board tell VOA they rely on the international community, private donors and sponsors for funding.
About a year-and-a-half ago, they built a cricket stadium in Kabul, nestled between the city's soccer stadium, which was an infamous Taliban execution site, and a makeshift town of tents and mud huts, which exhibits an abject poverty mirroring a refugee camp.
Teenager Ismail Ibrahim was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan and still lives there. After arriving in Kabul at the stadium, he proudly displays his fistful of certificates and says he hopes his training in Pakistan qualifies him for Afghanistan's under-19 team. "I love cricket, and I wanted to do something for my country because I come here," he said.
Ahmadzai says "cricket diplomacy" helps spread a softer image of Afghans. He recalls last year's Asian Cricket Council T20 tournament in the United Arab Emirates where a local newspaper covered his team's overall victory. "The article... in the newspaper [read], 'New Afghan Army.' So that means we are doing [this] for peace, and we want a good relationship with the world, and we want to do (something) special for our country," he said.
Some cricket experts say the Afghans have a great deal of potential and a good chance of beating some of the more high-profile teams at this year's T20 World Cup in the Caribbean.
But after facing so many different obstacles, the Afghan players say just reaching the prestigious tournament is a victory.