KABUL - Afghanistan's cricket team received a heroes' welcome on Saturday as cheering crowds lined the streets and packed a stadium in Kabul to greet the players after they qualified for the 2015 World Cup.
The team was met by an official reception at Kabul airport before being driven through the war-battered city for a jubilant evening of speeches, dancing and live music. Cricket only became popular in Afghanistan as refugees flooded back from Pakistan after the fall of the harsh Taliban regime in 2001. The team's ascent to the top international level is seen as a symbol of hope and national unity. "We know the roads to Kabul are insecure, but I couldn't resist risking it to come for this," Mohammadullah, 28, from the eastern province of Paktia, told AFP.
"Me and my friends rented two cars and hit the road to welcome our team back. Cricket is a sport which can bring all Afghans together." Security was high for the players' vehicle convoy and at the national cricket stadium, where the team was met by wild cheers from fans who had waited for hours to see their returning heroes. "I have never been this happy in my life," team captain Mohammad Nabi told the crowd. "I feel proud and want to congratulate the Afghan nation for the victory and the historic achievement."
Like many of his teammates, Nabi, 28, learned cricket in a refugee camp in Pakistan after his parents fled Afghanistan in the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion. He hit the winning runs when Afghanistan beat Kenya by seven wickets in Sharjah a week ago to secure a place in the 2015 World Cup, which will be hosted by Australia and New Zealand. The stadium in Kabul was filled to capacity with cheerful fans waving national flags as the players showed off a golden cup marking their success.
An array of pop and traditional singers then took to the stage to entertain the happy throng. "This achievement tells us that we will be victorious in the future. It will inspire all Afghans," Afghanistan cricket board chief Noor Mohammad Murad told AFP. Afghanistan celebrated another major sporting success only last month when the national football side won its first ever title, beating India in Nepal to lift the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) trophy.
That victory was marked by long bursts of gunfire unleashed into the night sky in Kabul and elsewhere, though there was no immediate repeat of such celebrations on Saturday. Police were on high alert for the homecoming party as Taliban suicide bombers have struck at several high-profile targets in the capital this year, including the presidential palace, the Supreme Court and the airport. Among those celebrating on Saturday was Alina Barekzai, 17, a member of the women's national cricket team.
"I am so much excited to see them go to the World Cup, now I hope the government will also pay attention to women's cricket here," she said. Afghanistan is drawn in the same group as four-time champions Australia, New Zealand, England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and one other qualifier. The squad has received a $1 million windfall to help them prepare to face the world's best players. Cricket has boomed since the 1996-2001 Taliban era despite the bloody 12-year insurgency, and games are now a regular sight on any piece of open ground ranging from scruffy city parks to rural roads.
President Hamid Karzai watched the match against Kenya on television and sent his congratulations to the side. Afghanistan, who have twice played in the Twenty20 World Cup, became an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council in 2001 and an associate member earlier this year. A Taliban spokesman told AFP that the Islamist militants had no comment on the team's success.