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Jan 20, 2011 at 02:19pm IST

Afghan's women cricketers aim high

Kabul: In a park where men are banned, surrounded by walls topped with barbed wire in a country embroiled in war, a group of Afghan women play a controversial game - cricket.

Afghanistan's first national women's cricket team - whose existence would be inconceivable under the hardline Taliban Islamists fighting to regain power - are practising for their international debut.

The team, many of whom play in headscarves, will compete against other female sides from across Asia in a Twenty20 tournament in Kuwait in February.

Afghan's women cricketers aim high

The team will compete against other female sides from across Asia in a Twenty20 tournament in Kuwait in February.

The Taliban, ousted in a US-led invasion in 2001, outlawed all sport for women - and members of the cricket team say they often encounter opposition from traditionalist Afghan men.

But in the park their enthusiam for the game is high. Loud cheers ring out as a batswoman is caught by a fielder at mid-wicket off the first ball.

Although the team members were only selected in recent weeks, their coach says they are learning fast in spite of the poor security situation, which can make practice difficult.

"Afghans are always very fond of games but unfortunately they have not got the opportunity (to play because) they have domestic problems," Hajra Sarwar says, taking a break from umpiring the practice session in the women-only park.

"There's a lot of good talent, they just need opportunities."

She adds: "They need a lot of work but, Insh'Allah (God willing), if we go (to Kuwait) and participate, we will get a good position."

Cricket is becoming increasingly popular in Afghanistan, where it is often played on dirt wastelands with bats and stumps improvised from pieces of wood and oil cans.

The sport was first brought to Afghanistan from cricket-mad Pakistan in the 1990s when Afghan refugees returned home following the collapse of Communist rule.

After the Taliban were ousted, Afghanistan's national men's team was set up.

Although the current men's side has enjoyed successes like winning the ICC's Intercontinental Cup in December, women's cricket - like many female sports here - is still in its early stages.

Around 600 women play in Kabul, according to officials, although the national side's coach has been brought in from Pakistan by the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) in a bid to raise standards.

Women's full involvement in sports is still lacking in Afghanistan - in many rural areas women conform to strict rules of purdah, which means they rarely leave their homes.

While the team's players stress that their families and friends support them, they say they often encounter opposition from men who think they should not be taking part.

"The men of Afghanistan think sport is bad for the girls. They say they can't play football, volleyball. We hope to bring hope to other people," says 16-year-old bowler Tabasom.

"When we exercise, cricket or any sport, we're complete humans, regardless of gender."

She adds: "It's a strong team, it's a good team and when we see other countries, I think we're sexy players."

The women's side was set up by 22-year-old Diana Barakzai, who is team captain and a fast bowler.

She says she and her three sisters, who are also in the side, were inspired to take up the sport by their father's work with men's cricket teams and toured schools to recruit players before arranging kit, equipment and transport.

"In the past they didn't know bat from ball but now they're good," Barakzai says of her team. "They have families with them and they support them."

Her father, Mohammad Naeem, is now women's cricket development manager for the ACB and is proud of his daughters' achievements. He hopes the team can provide inspiration to people across Afghanistan.

"I want all our sporting teams to be champions, I want all of them to have achievements for the poor Afghan nation, which has suffered more than 30 years of war," he says.

Although the team practises in a mix of strips, they will sport a blue and red kit with white headscarves for the tournament in Kuwait itself.

The practice session lasts for a couple of hours on a makeshift concrete pitch surrounded by a few newly-planted saplings struggling in the dry soil, as the call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque.

Towards the end, a bowler wheels in to send down a high-speed delivery to a wary batswoman. The ball hits the middle stump. The women cheer, clap, and point their fingers to the bright blue sky.

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