Win or lose, Afghans turn out to cheer cricket heroes

Kabul (AFP) – Afghanistan's new Taliban government was very clear with cricket fans before Friday's much-anticipated clash with neighbours Pakistan.

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Celebrate the national team by all means, the interior ministry spokesman said, but: "If you win, you should not shoot in the air.

"If you shoot in the air, you will be severely punished," Qari Sayed Khosti tweeted.

In the end, despite a creditable Afghan batting performance, Pakistan won by five wickets.

And there was no sign of guns or shooting at the Habibullah Zazai Park, an amusement venue on a hill on the outskirts of east Kabul.

There, the thousand or so fans who gathered to watch the T20 World Cup match beamed from Dubai on a big screen, the mood was jubilant -- and realistic.

Under an illuminated Ferris wheel, they cheered as skipper Mohammad Nabi and all-rounder Gulbadin Naib's impressive batting partnership gave the Afghanistan side 147 for six.

Afghan cricket fans who gathered at an amusement park on the outskirts of Kabul wore their national colours, rather than the white and black Taliban banner, but the gathering  went ahead unmolested
Afghan cricket fans who gathered at an amusement park on the outskirts of Kabul wore their national colours, rather than the white and black Taliban banner, but the gathering went ahead unmolested Hector RETAMAL AFP

During the day, the landscaped 90-acre park, with its food stands, "9D" cinema and kid's rides is a haven for families, away from Afghanistan's crises.

On Friday night, an all-male crowd braved a chilly night to roar on their team.

"You know the situation in Afghanistan, it's very depressing, " admitted 25-year-old Abdul Wahab, who manages a Kabul medical centre.

"The only excuse to forget everything is cricket."

Afghanistan's opening game of the World Cup last week was a fairly easy trouncing of Scotland, but the Pakistan match had special resonance.

Many Afghans learned their love of the game in Pakistani refugee camps during the decades of war in their homeland.

Now they're excited be competing at the highest level with the cricket powerhouse next door.

"For me, Afghanistan is the best because they are new to cricket," Wahab told AFP as the fans cheered another boundary from their batsmen.

"We've been playing for 10 to 15 years, Pakistan for more than 100. They have more experience in cricket, even playing them is a pride for us."

Under Afghanistan's previous Taliban government between 1996 and 2001 many forms of fun were banned -- such as music -- but not men's cricket.

And now that the Islamist movement is back, having seized Kabul from the former US-backed government in August, they're still supportive.

Park manager Abdullah Ghafar Hatifya told AFP the new government has taken a hand off approach, and that Afghans of all backgrounds are welcome to come out.

One possible source of tension is the fans' use of the Afghan national flag -- a black, red and green tricolour -- instead of the Taliban's white banner.

But, whatever the new government's future plans, all fans agree, as one told AFP: "This is our national flag ... they don't have the right to interfere."