Andy Moles has grown rather used to holding his breath. The former Warwickshire batsman spent six years as coach and director of Afghanistan Cricket.
‘The entire time I was there, there was the danger of terrorist attacks,’ he tells Sportsmail.
These days his fears lie elsewhere. After 20 years the Taliban are back in control of the country, and one of cricket’s greatest fairytales threatens to unravel.
Lance Klusener’s team go into the World T20 with ambitions clouded by the Taliban takeover
The Islamic fundamentalists were ousted in 2001 — the same year Afghanistan joined the cricketing community. The country has since risen to the sport’s top table and enters the Twenty20 World Cup armed with a fearless, talented side and former South Africa all-rounder Lance Klusener as coach. Soon, however, politics could render Afghanistan international pariahs once more.
‘All that hard work…’ Moles says, ‘hopefully it doesn’t get undone.’
Last summer, Moles was replaced, briefly, by Raees Ahmadzai. A former captain, Ahmadzai was among the first generation of Afghan cricketers whose run-up began in the refugee camps of Pakistan — shrapnel from the Soviet-Afghan war. No electricity, not enough hospitals for Ahmadzai to know his birthday.
Near enough, though, to a family who had a television — early memories of Alec Stewart linger. So, too, the stick ‘bat’ and a ball made ‘from any plastic that we could borrow’.
The first semblance of an Afghanistan team emerged a few years later. Now the likes of spinner Rashid Khan are among the world’s best players.
The Taliban have forcibly taken over Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years (pictured, a Taliban fighter in the capital Kabul)
Klusener, the former South Africa all-rounder (above), is taking charge of a fearless and talented side. However, politics could render Afghanistan international pariahs once more
The ICC will discuss Afghanistan’s fate next month but already seams have started to fray. Australia are threatening to postpone a one-off Test after the Taliban suggested girls would be barred from playing cricket.
Rashid, meanwhile, stepped down as captain over selection disputes with the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), who are now led by a Taliban puppet.
At least their World Cup place is safe following fears the Taliban would insist on their flag and anthem being used. That could have prompted a players’ boycott. Bad idea, given the likes of Rashid are ‘cult-worshipped’.
‘When I was a boy, I knew Argentina because of Diego Maradona,’ Ahmadzai says. ‘Now people know Afghanistan because of cricket. Because of Rashid.’
Jafar Haand, author of Three Centuries: History of Cricket in the World and Afghanistan, says: ‘Cricket is more than a game for Afghanistan — cricket is hope. This is the time to help Afghanistan. Don’t leave them behind, everything will vanish.
‘Whenever there is a cricket game, people feel safe, people think they are connected to the world, at least they have something to enjoy.’
For youngsters filling the streets for ad-hoc matches, it offers an escape route — the national stadium opens its doors from summer’s first light.
Andy Moles (left) spent six years as coach and director of Afghanistan Cricket and said the entire time he was there, there was the danger of terrorist attacks
The ICC will discuss Afghanistan’s fate next month but already seams have started to fray
‘Kids come in from 4.30am until 7pm,’ Moles recalls.
For politicians, meanwhile, cricket has become a crucial tool of law and order.
‘One of the provincial governors told me that when there is a match the violence graph decreases,’ Haand says. ‘In rural areas, if you have a TV in your home, the entire village will come and watch.’
Cricket has become such a financial boon for Afghanistan — why would any government jeopardise their international standing, ICC funding and the livelihoods they protect?
‘The Taliban love cricket, they know cricket is more than a game in Afghanistan and that it could be a good political tool,’ Haand says.
Moles never dealt with insurgent fighters directly but messages were relayed through the ACB.
One confirmed: ‘We will not come and target Andy Moles.’ They appreciated his help with Afghanistan cricket. Instead their targets were military vehicles and checkpoints.
‘If I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that was just unfortunate,’ Moles says.
Fortunately most of Moles’ tenure was spent behind bomb-blast doors. ‘The only time you go out of your hotel room is to have breakfast and dinner,’ he remembers.
A Taliban spokesman recently said that women will be banned from playing sport
Australia threatened to postpone a one-off Test after the Taliban suggested girls would be barred from playing cricket
Moles would be driven to work in an armoured car, accompanied occasionally by guards and their AK-47s. Every trip involved a different route, at different times. Greeting him on arrival were more armed guards — some housed in turrets around the ground. They kept watch, even as kids honed their skills.
Moles grew numb to most background blasts. But in 2017, during a regional game in Kabul, a suicide bomber detonated outside the stadium, killing themselves and two others.
‘Adam Hollioake was coaching the other team,’ the 60-year-old says. ‘The authorities said a gas canister had gone off… only later in the day did the truth really come out.’
Afghanistan’s players walk a tightrope every day, too. ‘The main issue for them was kidnap,’ Moles adds. The father of captain Mohammad Nabi was taken in 2013 and, for a time, Friday prayers became a hazardous venture, too.
‘The Taliban and ISIS were attacking mosques,’ Moles says: ‘The players simply considered it a risk they have to take.
‘A lot of the “security guards” were kids out of school given an AK47. On many an occasion, the Taliban would pay and look after a family if one of these young kids or security guards shot one of their masters.’
Somehow, these everyday perils have proven mere roadbumps on Afghanistan’s remarkable climb.
‘They win games from situations they should never be able to do because their whole lives have been about fighting,’ Moles says.
‘So whenever they come up against difficult situations, they think nothing of it, they just roll up their sleeves and get on with it.’
The problem now is that no passion or skill can negotiate this political quandary.
Jafar Haand (above), author of Three Centuries: History of Cricket in the World and Afghanistan, says: ‘Cricket is more than a game for Afghanistan — cricket is hope
A Taliban spokesman recently said women will be banned from playing sport. Under ICC conditions, nations must have a women’s team to achieve Test status, something Afghanistan fought for years to secure in 2017.
Last November, 25 contracts were announced for female players. But some have now fled the country, and several feel abandoned by the ICC. Many players are in hiding, with one reportedly warned: ‘We may come and kill you if you try to play cricket again.’
A women’s team already folded once, in 2014, amid threats by the Taliban. According to the ACB, the Taliban have ‘officially’ placed no ban on women’s sport. They say the typical criteria for full- member status ‘don’t apply to us’, either. Will that sleight of hand satisfy the ICC?
A ‘cruel’ decision to boycott Afghanistan, Haand says, would only punish civilians. ‘Cricket has nothing to do with the Taliban leadership. It belongs to the people,’ he says.
At least this T20 World Cup offers a break from the carnage. Klusener, Shaun Tait (bowling coach) and ex-England head coach Andy Flower (consultant) are tasked with plotting Afghanistan’s course.
‘A lot of people are still in panic,’ Haand says. ‘The only thing they can be positive about is cricket.
‘Afghanistan is a poor country. It’s very easy for terrorist organisations or other groups to work on young people, to encourage them to do bad things.
‘This will be one of the negative impacts if the ICC take any action against Afghanistan cricket… there will be no hope, no jobs, no wish for the future.’
But Ahmadzai won’t give in yet. ‘I was born in the war and for the last 20 years we still were in war,’ he adds. ‘It is normal for us. I’m sure Afghanistan will produce something very special at the World Cup.’