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Swapping Kalashnikovs for bat and pads: Taliban's cricket connection

The sport is the only one most of the fighters enjoy, commanders say, with matches attracting hundreds of spectators from Taliban-controlled villages when there is no fighting.

They are also fans of the increasingly successful national team.

(Text from Reuters)

Taliban recalls enjoying a game of cricket

During a lull in Afghanistan's never-ending war, before the fighting season resumes once again in the spring, Taliban fighters recall laying down their Kalashnikovs and, for a brief moment, enjoying a game of cricket.

The sport is the only one most of the fighters enjoy, commanders say, with matches attracting hundreds of spectators from Taliban-controlled villages when there is no fighting. They are also fans of the increasingly successful national team.

(Photograph:Reuters)

Taliban banned cricket, football in early years

First played in Afghanistan by British troops in the 19th Century, the game was adopted by Afghans in the refugee camps of cricket-loving Pakistan.

Taliban had banned games such as cricket and football in the early years of their austere rule because they believed they kept men away from prayers, according to former national cricketer Hasti Gul, but later became more tolerant of cricket.

From there, despite at least two attacks in the past couple of years on cricket matches claimed by the ultra-radical Islamic State group, the game now rivals football for popularity in a country that has long been cut off from international sport.

(Photograph:Reuters)

Fighters asks about the game, their favourite players

Despite the Taliban's former suspicion of organised sports and their opposition to much of the transformation in Afghanistan since their hardline Islamic regime was toppled in 2001, many of the mainly Pashtun movement's fighters are fans.

Karim Sadiq, a former batsman in the national team and an early pioneer of the sport who visited some Taliban-controlled areas in eastern Afghanistan this year, said he was mobbed by fighters asking about the game and their favourite players.

A video clip he shot on his mobile phone shows dozens of Taliban, many with Kalashnikov automatic rifles slung across their shoulders, dissecting the quality of the team.

(Photograph:Reuters)

Taliban congratulates cricketers through social media

As peace talks between the US government and Taliban officials continue and Afghanistan looks for a way out of 40 years of conflict, excitement is building and officials and government ministers lavish praise on the players, whom President Ashraf Ghani has called national heroes.

From the other side of the war, the feeling is similar. Sadiq who has just returned to practice after a long injury, aiming to take part in the upcoming World Cup, said the Taliban usually send them congratulatory messages through social media and on his cellphone when Afghanistan win.

Such broad appeal has seen the sport widely hailed as a unifying force in Afghanistan, a patchwork of different languages and cultures, sometimes at peace with each other but increasingly in recent years in conflict.

(Photograph:Reuters)

Not everyone is on board the cricket bandwagon

Not everyone is on board the cricket bandwagon, however.

Look deeper, and the state of the game has much to say about a country where sport has repeatedly attracted violence, including suicide attacks on cricket and wrestling matches, and where politics is increasingly divided along ethnic lines that shade into all aspects of life.

For many Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras, cricket is a sport for Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group from the south and east of the country that has provided almost all kings and presidents throughout Afghan history.

(Photograph:Reuters)