Kabul (AFP)

They have hoisted Afghanistan into the top 10 in the world, but fear it will all fall apart: Afghan cricketers are hoping the Taliban will keep their commitments to leave their national team and their sport alone.

The sound of wooden bats hitting balls echoes in the international stadium in Kabul, where the Afghan national team is preparing for its next international matches.

A peaceful scene that seems surreal, a few days after the sudden capture of the city and the overthrow of the country in the hands of the rigorist Taliban.

And while just over three miles away, at the airport, thousands of Afghans try to flee the country in a tense and chaotic atmosphere.

"You can feel the fear in their eyes, in their voices, and even in their messages," one of them, Naveen-ul-Haq, told the BBC over the weekend of his teammates.

"The Taliban have said they will not go after sportsmen, but nobody knows what the future holds," he added.

- 'More than a game' -

The sudden fall of Kabul and the country ended twenty years of pro-Western rule.

It has panicked part of the Afghan population, the most urban and educated, who fear that a leaden blanket will befall society, as during their previous reign.

Afghan national team cricketers train on Saturday (August 21) in Kabul, eight days after the Taliban took power.

HOSHANG HASHIMI AFP

In power between 1996 and 2001, they had banned most recreation, including some sports, instead using the stadiums for public executions.

Cricket, known to be popular even among the Taliban, had been spared, although only men could play it or watch the matches.

Afghan internationals have become heroes, sometimes even ambassadors for their country.

Like the former captain of the national team, Mohammad Nabi, who, two days before the fall of Kabul, on Twitter begged international leaders to support Afghanistan so as not to let it "sink into chaos" .

Imported by Afghans returning from Pakistan where they had learned to play in refugee camps, cricket became very popular in the country in a short time from the late 1990s.

Its national team have experienced a meteoric rise, reaching the top ten in the world for one-day matches in the Twenty20 format.

It has become, like the red, black and green national flag, one of the rare symbols of unity of a country subscribed to conflict for decades.

Afghans play cricket in a Kabul park Monday 23 August 2021 ADEK BERRY AFP / Archives

"Only cricket brings positive news and brings people together. For Afghans it is more than a game, for the country it is very important," Naveen-ul-Haq told the BBC.

On August 19, Afghan cricketers marked Independence Day by posting photos and emojis of the tricolor national flag on Twitter, now a symbol of the fallen government and resistance to the Taliban, who soon replaced it with their white flag on official buildings.

- Concentration not possible-

One of them, Samiullah Shinwari, posted a photo of the capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15.

"The day the Afghans lost their country and the world just watched," he commented bitterly.

Young people play cricket near the site of the Bamyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 WAKIL KOHSAR AFP / Archives

Due to the context and the lockdowns in Kabul, the scheduled series against Pakistan next month in Sri Lanka has been postponed until next year.

And this at the request of the Afghan leaders, who in particular highlighted the disturbance and psychological fragility of certain players in the face of the return of the Taliban.

Players, especially those who play abroad, worry about their families, some of whom they are trying to get out of the country, in vain.

"You sometimes forget to think about Afghanistan for a minute, but it keeps coming back," said Naveen-ul-Haq, adding: "When you see your country like that, it's impossible to be fully focused on cricket".

© 2021 AFP

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