World T20 cricket: Afghanistan cheered on by three fans

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Cricket fans Zia Aryoobi (L) and Ishan Hashimi and Islamuddin Aryoobi
Image caption,
The three men are proud that the Afghan national team made it to the T20 Cup

They have been exploring Colombo and Galle carrying their national flag.

"People keep asking us, which country's flag is this?" says one.

The black, green and red flag is Afghanistan's and Zia, Islamuddin and Ihsan are - they think - the only three Afghan cricket fans visiting Sri Lanka for the Twenty20 World Cup in support of their national team.

"We want to show the world that Afghanistan is not just about the war, we know other things as well - not just killings or being killed," Zia, 28, said, as Afghanistan played West Indies in a warm-up match at the P Sara Oval.

"In this stadium you can see we are just three but we are still trying to show the people the colours of our flag."

Local people have welcomed them warmly.

'Moment of pride'

Ziauddin Aryoobi and Ihsan Hashimi have lived in the UK for 12 and 15 years respectively but Zia's cousin, Islamuddin Aryoobi, lives in Kabul. All three have roots in Paktia, south-east Afghanistan.

Islamuddin, 26, runs a construction company but says that when Afghanistan qualified for the T20 cup - only they and Ireland had to go through qualifying matches - he knew he would drop all his jobs to come to Sri Lanka.

"First of all, I congratulate all the Afghans that our team is in the World Cup," he said in Pashto, his cousin interpreting.

"It's a moment of pride to have come all this way to support our team."

Each player is a hero to him and "all deserve to be supported equally", he says.

The three men came to cricket in different ways. Islamuddin says he has always liked it. Ihsan Hashimi, 35, learned the game in Pakistan where he spent some of his life - "we used to play in the street," he says.

"Now we've got our own team so it's a big thing."

He is also a rugby fan and his son plays in a rugby team in England called Afghan Lions.

Zia is a keen supporter of Chelsea Football Club and knew nothing about cricket when he arrived in Britain.

But today, cricket, with its rising popularity, is more than just a game for Afghans.

"It's very important because in so many ways it has united us," he says.

"In the north, like Mazar-e-Sharif and those provinces, where they used to call it a Pakistani game, they have now even started playing it. That's a sign of unity for me which is a good sign."

'Perfect' format

As in the host country, Sri Lanka, cricket is viewed as something that can unite fractured peoples.

Zia admits to finding Test cricket boring but finds the T20 format "perfect".

Image caption,
Islamuddin Aryoobi left his jobs in Afghanistan to support his team

He helped the others arrange visas and tried to get many more fans to come. For many, the airfare was just too expensive, although others now regret not coming, he says.

All three men talk up the chances of the Afghan side, which plays its first match against India on Wednesday, in a tough opening group which also includes England.

The Afghan players themselves also sound optimistic.

Gulbodin Naib, the 21-year-old batsman, told the BBC's Azzam Ameen that the effort put in by the fans was "really encouraging - we need to do well in the World Cup for them".

"India and England are two good sides, but we are confident we can do well against them," he says.

The national coach, Kabir Khan, believes the game can foster peace by challenging young people into something positive.

"Supporters... come in huge numbers when we play in Gulf countries," he told Azzam Ameen.

"These kind of matches always encourage young people to play cricket. They have heroes now by watching these guys play cricket on TV."

Ziauddin Aryoobi postponed a holiday in Kabul to come to the World Cup. Now he will go there after the tournament.

"I hope we'll go to Kabul happily," he says, grinning.