By Robert Birsel, Reuters
Five years after the Taliban wanted to ban cricket because they thought it was an American sport, Afghanistan's national cricket team are about to embark on a tour of the true home of the game -- England.
Imported by refugees returning home from cricket-mad Pakistan in the 1990s, the sport has attracted a huge number of players in Afghanistan.
Gaggles of boys and young men play for hours on patches of dusty, sun-baked ground in the capital, Kabul, using stacks of bricks for stumps.
National team coach Taj Malik Alam hopes the 18-day, seven-match tour of England, the first by an Afghan national team, will help to put Afghanistan on the world cricket map.
"If we win all the matches then we can get the attention of the international cricket community," Alam said.
"This year is very important for our cricket. I think it will be a turning point."
The tour begins with a match against Oxford University on June 11.
Cricket is now Afghanistan's third most popular sport after buzkashi, which involves horsemen competing for a calf or sheep's carcass, and soccer.
The game was played during Taliban rule but the Islamists were deeply suspicious. The Taliban religious police used to punish players for practising when the rulers of Afghanistan said they should be praying.
"The Taliban were not against only cricket. They were against all sports," Alam said.
At one time they wanted to ban it because they thought it was an American sport. The Taliban, though, were not the only Afghan rulers wary of the strange foreign game.
"We also had some problems at the beginning of this government -- they said it was a Pakistani game. Some governments say it's an American game, some say it's a Pakistani game," Alam said with a laugh.
The Afghan national team have played and done well in competitions across Asia and the Middle East, including Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Kuwait.
The team are particularly excited about playing on English pitches.
"It is a great honour to play in England," said player Dawlat Khan Ahmadzai. "Everyone is waiting for us to go, they want to see what we can do and we want to make the most of this opportunity."
The players also hope the tour can drum up some international backing and help to improve spartan facilities at home where they still do not have a stadium.
"My only wish is to have proper stadiums so we can invite other teams and play them in our country," said captain Rais Ahmadzai.
The team play a warm-up match against a team of NATO peacekeepers on Monday.
Afghanistan is an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council and associate member of the Asian Cricket Council.
Alam, who is general secretary of the Afghan Cricket Federation, said the federation had 22 teams in the provinces and 12,000 signed-up players, with more joining every day.
Alam dreams of one day taking on the best. His team can already beat Bangladesh, he boasts.
"We have a long way to go but we really want to participate in the World Cup and become one of the best teams in the world."
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