From refugee camp to Test match: Afghan cricket team face India

From refugee camp to Test match: Afghan cricket team face India

NEW DELHI (CNN) – Only 11 nations have ever played at the top level of cricket — until today.

On Thursday morning, Afghanistan’s cricket team made history when they stepped out on the pitch in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru to face India in their first competitive Test match.

The dramatic rise of Afghan cricket comes despite years of war, terrorism and economic hardships. Just last month, eight people were killed when a bomb exploded during a local cricket match in the city of Jalalabad.

Though cricket has been played in Afghanistan since the arrival of the British in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1980s, during the outbreak of war with the Soviet Union, that the game really took hold.

As the Soviet troops advanced, hundreds of thousands of young Afghans fled into Pakistan, where they were introduced to the game while in refugee camps along the country’s border.

Passion for the game quickly spread, both in the camps and beyond.

The national team was officially founded in 1995 and in the two decades since, Afghanistan has gone from among the world’s lowest ranked teams to its top tier, qualifying for two cricket World Cups and three World T20s.

But it is with Thursday’s match against India that the team enters the sport’s highest pantheon of Test playing nations.

Test matches, which can last up to five days, are considered the purest form of the game, demonstrating both the strength and the overall reliability of a team.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi marked the occasion with a tweet, wishing both teams luck: “I congratulate the people of Afghanistan as their cricket team plays their first international Test match. Glad that they have chosen to play the historic match with India. Best wishes to both teams! May sports continue to bring our people closer and strengthen ties,” he tweeted.

In the run-up to the game, Indian fans have taken to social media to demand that Afghanistan’s prized bowler, Rashid Khan, be given Indian citizenship.

As cricket fans debated on Twitter, the President of Afghanistan stepped in.

“Afghans take absolute pride in our hero, Rashid Khan. I am also thankful to our Indian friends for giving our players a platform to show their skills. Rashid reminds us whats best about Afghani. He remains an asset to the cricketing world. No we are not giving him away,” tweeted Ashraf Ghani.

In India, where passion during cricket tournaments typically runs high, fans have taken the unusual step of embracing the rise of Afghanistan, flooding social media with messages of goodwill and support.

India, which began playing test cricket in 1932 and chose to bat first in Thursday’s match, remain the firm favorites.