Cricket was one of the few sports in Afghanistan to survive the rule of the Taliban. Now, the wildly popular sporting import is poised to leave the playground and enter the classroom.
Afghanistan's Education Ministry is teaming up with the country's Cricket Board (ACB) to make cricket a compulsory class in Afghan schools as early as January.
According to the board's chief executive officer, Bashir Stanikzai, the idea is to help develop the sport in Afghanistan, spot talent, and turn the country into a force in the international cricketing arena.
"We want to develop cricket in a proper way, and schools will be a big project," he says. "If we succeed in developing cricket in schools, we are quite sure that we will get good players in the country. And it will have a social value as well, especially for those who love this game but don't get a chance to play."
Cricket came into its own only recently after it found acceptance under the hard-line Islamist regime. After the Taliban's fall in 2001 the sport flourished when the children of Afghan refugees returned to the country after learning to play cricket in neighboring Pakistan.
Since the national cricket squad was first formed in 2001, Afghanistan has shown that it has the potential to become a major player. In 2010, it secured qualification to the prestigious 2010 World Twenty20 competition, and is ranked among the world's top teams in that category.
Now, there is even talk that Afghanistan's cricketers could soon achieve test-playing status
Although Afghanistan has not yet established a national cricket league, it regularly organizes domestic tournaments among the country's numerous clubs. The matches usually attract a full house of spectators, many of whom regard cricket players as national heroes and children's idols.
A recent nationwide survey indicated that nearly 75 percent of respondents consider cricket their favorite sport. Many of those questioned supported the idea of cricket being taught in schools.
In October, the board organized its first month-long training classes for potential cricket instructors and similar trainings for coaches and umpires are due to start on December 15.
"We are sending cricket kits for students that consist of plastic bats and balls, and other cricket equipment especially made for children," Stanikzai says.
Some of the country's top professionals are willing to lend a helping hand. Noorulhaq Malekzai
, the captain of the Kabul-based Al-Masafi team, says he "would be more than happy" to assist the coaches.
Malekzai, a batsman who has represented his country in numerous international tournaments, believes officials "should not wait until all conditions are perfect to launch their plan."
"If there is a will to play, you can play cricket with the most basic equipment," he says. "As they say, 'just do it.'"
"There are so many children eager to play cricket," Malekzai adds. "You can see them playing in the streets, Many schools have small sports grounds. In the beginning, a pair of bats, a pair of balls, a pair of leg pads, and uniforms should be enough for an entire team of players. Of course, it's a far cry from international standards, but it is just enough to start professional careers in cricket."
'Like A Dream Come True"
Officials have yet to work out the details, such as what age group they should target, and how many hours a week the children should be taught cricket during physical education classes.
The ACB and the Education Ministry are expected to finalize arrangements "within days" before starting the first cricket lessons at several schools across five provinces in January 2013.
Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Konduz, and Nangarhar provinces have been chosen due to their relatively developed cricket infrastructure. By the end of 2013, the project is expected to expand into six more provinces.
"We hope these schools will be a success story and serve as a role model to the rest of the country," Stanikzai says.
Fitratullah, a young boy who like many Afghans goes by one name, looks forward to that day. But for now he and his friends are honing their skills with a homemade bat on a dusty road in the eastern town of Jalalabad.
"We have only two special cricket academies in the province and they don't have space for everyone and besides they charge money," Fitratullah says. "If cricket becomes a school subject for free, it would be like a dream come true for many kids."
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Safiullah Stanikzai