I'm a keen cricket fan, so recently I travelled to Colombo, Sri Lanka to cheer on Afghanistan in the World 2020 Cup competition.
I was able to wear my own Afghan cricket shirt as a few months ago the Afghan Cricket Board contacted the British Embassy, and wanted to know if people would like to buy an Afghan cricket shirt for $30. About 20 of the Embassy staff put their names down and a few days later a bag of shirts arrived. We were expecting replica shirts but what we got were the actual shirts worn by the players from their recent match! I was the only woman to get a shirt, and ended up with the assistant coaches – the smallest one.
At the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo I wore this shirt with pride for Afghanistan's first match against India. The crowd was small, mostly crowded in the grandstand. Indian supporters dominated, with Irish and Australian supporters staying on from the first match of the day. I counted about 40 Afghan supporters, all men, carrying small and large Afghan flags. At the official memorabilia stall in the ground you could buy replica shirts and caps for all the teams in the tournament. The only memorabilia for Afghanistan was caps, so I was the only person wearing an Afghan cricket shirt in the stadium! This drew attention to myself, and delighted the Afghan supporters in having a British woman cheering on their team. I had my photo taken with almost every Afghan supporter.
I was moved as we stood for the Afghan national anthem. The story of Afghan cricket is inspiring given the thirty years of conflict the people of Afghanistan have had to endure. Team members learned the game in refugee camps in Pakistan, and now were playing the World Cup cricket champions. Commentators and the Indian supporters were expecting an easy Indian victory, and they did but it was close. The Afghan team showed their intent from the very first ball, snaffling it in the field and accurately throwing at the stumps. Before long both the Indian opening batsmen were dismissed and the Afghan supporters roared and danced in the stands. Further wickets fell but unfortunately the Afghans dropped catches. The turning point in the game was when Nabi failed to hold onto a catch at the boundary. Not only did Afghanistan fail to take the wicket but the ball went over the boundary and scored a crucial six runs. In the end their efforts were in vain, but they showed India they were not giving up without a fight, and surprised the entire crowd.
The next day I had emails from friends who had seen me on the TV. They were all impressed by the Afghan's performance and were worried about the Afghan's match against England. Two days later I was back at the stadium wearing my shirt and cap and joined by two colleagues from our DFID Afghanistan team for the first ever match against England. Unfortunately it was not such a strong performance, when Afghanistan scored 28 for 6, but they showed real grit and were finally bowled out for 80 runs. The Afghans were out of the tournament but they did their nation proud.
Just a few weeks earlier, friends and I had stayed up until 04:30 am to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony where we cheered the Afghan team on as they entered the stadium. I've been watching cricket for 30 years but cheering on Afghanistan in Colombo is top of my cricket watching experiences. It is easy to neglect the power of sport to transcend difference and difficulties. When I left Kabul for Sri Lanka, there had been a violent demonstration against the You Tube video just near the airport and the next day a suicide bomber blew up a bus killing 12 people including foreigners. This contrasts with the joy of dancing, cheering and waving the Afghan flag with Afghan supporters and me - the woman from the British Embassy, Kabul, in Colombo surrounded by Sri Lankans, Indians, Irish and Australians at this big celebration of cricket.
A few years ago I was most fortunate to become one of the first female members of the most exclusive cricket club, the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lords. I look forward to the day when I can wear my Afghan cricket shirt again to watch Afghanistan play their first game against England at the home of cricket, Lords.