George Orwell’s definition of serious sport – “War minus the shooting” – does not seem apt for cricket in Afghanistan. When the national side qualified for the 2015 World Cup, the guns were not put away.

“One of the army commanders came to congratulate the team,” Dr Noor Muhammad, the then chief executive of the Afghan Cricket Board, explained. “He told me that it was the first time that both the Taliban side and our side were shooting, but not at each other. There was shooting in the air to celebrate the success of the Afghanistan national team.”

Jubilant celebrations greeted the Afghan side who arrived at Kabul Airport and then travelled in a coach through the city. “Everywhere the fans were shooting and flying Afghan flags to say ‘well played’ – they were very happy,” remembered captain Mohammad Nabi. “Everyone was shooting into the air.” Chants of “Afghanistan, zindabad!” filled the air. “The supporters came to the airport. Whole roads were blocked and they took big security, the government.”

Nabi had previously admitted, “We were a little fearful of a bomb blast.”

Their success might not have been possible without one particular ally. “It is the favourite game of everyone in the country, including the Taliban,” Noor said. After Afghanistan qualified for the World Cup, the Taliban sent a message of congratulations to the players.

Unlikely fallout of wars

Afghanistan’s relationship with cricket stretches back to at least 1839, when British soldiers in Kabul played the game during the First Anglo-Afghan War. In Wounded Tiger, Peter Oborne recounts the Revd GR Gleig’s observation that “horse-racing and cricket were both got up to in the vicinity of Kabul; and in both the chiefs and people soon learned to take a lively interest”. Gleig also noted that “they looked on with astonishment at the bowling, batting and fagging out of the English players; but it does not appear that they were ever tempted to lay aside their flowing robes and huge turbans and enter the field as competitors”.

Locals did play with British soldiers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War from 1878-1880. Yet cricket had long been forgotten when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan on Christmas Eve in 1979. One of the more unlikely consequences of the decade-long war with the Soviet Union was to inculcate thousands of Afghan refugees with a love of the game.

Afghanistan’s captain is one example. Nabi was born on New Year’s Day 1985 in a refugee camp in Pakistan. The Nabis had fled Afghanistan as the war between the Soviet Union and the Mujahideen became ever more devastating. It was in Pakistan that they came into contact with cricket for the first time. When the family returned to Afghanistan at the start of the next century, they took their enthusiasm for the sport with them. Although “there were no grounds, nothing in Afghanistan at that time”, Nabi was not to be deterred by the lack of cricketing infrastructure in his new home of Kabul, or the rest of the country.

Meeting Taliban’s requirements

As the Taliban extended their grip over Afghanistan in the 1990s, sport was not immune from the consequences. The Taliban took a markedly more draconian line than other Islamic regimes. While football thrived in Wahabi-dominated Saudi Arabia, it was anathema in Afghanistan. Yet the Taliban’s al-Qaeda-funded regime made an exception for one sport: cricket. The elder brother of the first head of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, founded in 1995, was a member of the Taliban. The Afghanistan Cricket Federation registered with the Afghan Olympic Committee as a national sport.

In January 2000, the Taliban urged the Afghanistan Cricket Federation to write to the Pakistan Cricket Board requesting support to join the International Cricket Council as an affiliate member. In cricket the Taliban saw a sport that could both promote the regime at home and gain some acceptance abroad. The Taliban recognised cricket as a sport that could fit easily with a hardline Islamic state. After all, cricket was Pakistan’s national sport, and Pakistan was one of only three states to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government.

Cricket sat easily with Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The sport bears significant resemblance to the old Afghan game of top danda. Both games involve a wooden bat hitting a spherical object. Cricket’s dress code also proved amenable to the Taliban. Unlike football, where the kit marked out those who wore it out as heathens in the Taliban’s eyes, cricket kits accommodated religious and cultural requirements. “Cricket became one of the favourite games of the Taliban because of the clothing,” Noor reflected. “They were not allowing sports with half trousers [shorts]. In Islam, your knees should be hidden under your trousers and that’s it. Your knees should be hidden because that will allow you to offer prayers.” In contrast to other sports, there is no direct physical contact between players in cricket.

Paradox of cricket’s impact

After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Afghanistan became the focus of President George W Bush’s “War on Terror”. As provinces have been fought over since, cricket has offered a rare source of stability. It is played and watched in all parts of Afghanistan.

But where cricket is most popular are the areas often inhabited by Taliban insurgents from Pakistan. “Cricket is stronger in areas where the Taliban are stronger,” Noor noted. The Taliban have latched onto the sport. It is a shrewd move to ensure that the success of the Afghan cricketing side cannot used as proof of the virtues of a more Westernised life. The Taliban have instead tried to claim the success of the cricket side as their own: leading players are reputed to have received gifts from people associated with the Taliban. “The Taliban don’t have any problem with cricket,” Afghanistan’s rumbustious former coach Taj Malik told me. “In areas that are ruled by the Taliban there are a lot of boys playing cricket.”

The Taliban stronghold of Jalalabad is regarded as the home of Afghan cricket, an emblem of the paradox of the sport’s impact in Afghanistan. For all that cricket has brought new hope to the country, members of the Taliban will be among the team’s most ardent fans when they make their World Cup debut against Bangladesh on February 18.

An extract from The Second XI, a new book on associate cricket, which includes contributions from Gideon Haigh.