Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan -- Hundreds of young Afghans are franticly cleaning the field after building a cricket pitch under the starry sky.
They are looking forward to playing or watching cricket matches at the sprawling stadium in Lashkar Gah. This southern Afghan city, the capital of volatile Helmand Province, has been virtually besieged by the Taliban for more than a year after they overran most of Helmand’s rural districts.
The summer heat during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which requires all adults to refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk, keeps Helmand’s youth away from sports. Their only option is to play after sunset.
With gun and artillery fire echoing in the distance, the youth are eager to resume a much anticipated local cricket competition. A small but noisy crowd of enthusiasts flash their cell phone lights onto a rickety generator they hope to revive to power the floodlights atop bamboo poles around the playfield.
“I’m bored to death, and I’d like to watch cricket today,” says Aimal Khan. This 16-year-old and his family now live in a rented house in Lashkar Gah after the fighting forced them to abandon their home and farm in the nearby agricultural district of Nad-e Ali.
“I find the sounds of gun and artillery fire extremely depressing. I hope to have some relief and a good time here,” he said. “I want some escape from the constant pain.”
Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, is considered the global epicenter of poppy production and its key derivative, heroin. This illicit trade is a key revenue stream for the insurgents. The Taliban are eager to recapture the region after the departure of most NATO troops from Afghanistan two and a half years ago.
But like youth across in Afghanistan, those in Helmand are crazy about cricket. Given a chance, they would prefer to sweat it out on a cricket field than become cannon fodder for the Taliban insurgents.
Soon the generator roars to life, but the flickering light it powers is barely enough to play the game, which requires the batsman to hit a white ball thrown at him by a bowler some 20 meters away on the other end of the pitch. Once the batsman hits the ball, fielders around the ground are required to stop it from crossing the boundaries or catch an airborne ball to send the batsman packing.
As the night progresses, the crowd grows more enthusiastic. They cheer players from the rival sides: Siyar Cricket Club and the Rashid Khan Team.
The tournament has attracted even more attention than the organizers could have hoped for. Vendors are doing a brisk business selling cold drinks and ice cream, and one young man is pocketing money by looking after the motorbikes and bicycles of players and spectators.
Muhammad Hussain Foladwal heads the local chapter of the Afghanistan Cricket Board. He hopes that by helping promote cricket in Lashkar Gah’s Wazir Akbar Khan stadium, authorities are sending a message of hope to the city’s estimated 200,000 residents.
“We want to show the world that security in Helmand is improving,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
The match finally ends around midnight. Weary players and spectators head home to prepare for another predawn meal.
All are looking forward to returning the next evening.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.