MCC at Heart of Afghanistan's Future

JALALABAD, April 29 (Cricinfo)

A former officer in the Royal Green Jackets, Matthew Fleming - who played 11 ODIs for England - will open a cricket camp in Afghanistan, the newest of the ICC's one-day international countries

In another life, Matthew Fleming might have embarked on a trip to Afghanistan waylaid with bivvy bags and ponchos rather than pads, stumps and a weighty remit from cricket's oldest establishment. A former officer in the Royal Green Jackets, Fleming, 44, is off to Jalalabad on Thursday to open an MCC Spirit of Cricket camp and two school pitches in the country, just two weeks after Afghanistan qualified for one-day international status.

Fleming was first dispatched to the country at the end of 2007 following a successful tour by Afghanistan to Britain funded by MCC. "One or two of us argued very strongly that while we've created this momentum, let's keep it going," Fleming told Cricinfo. "In economic terms you get real value for your buck out there, so anything the MCC can do which fits its remit [is beneficial]. The Afghan Cricket Federation were after help - they wanted help finishing their national stadium and so on - and having looked at everything, the best way we can support is at the grass-roots level, building facilities in schools, to help broaden the pyramid."

The pyramid Fleming talks of is conceptual at the moment, but so rapid has Afghanistan's rise been that MCC are at the forefront of building the game's newest of cricketing nations. Their performance in the recent World Cup Qualifiers surprised their opponents - they beat Ireland, Bermuda and Scotland twice - but never themselves. When they shocked Ireland by 22 runs, one senior player told me that they could beat Australia or South Africa on their day. The logic to this was wonderfully simple. "Ireland beat Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. We have beaten Ireland. And Pakistan have beaten Australia in the past. So can we."

With the help of the MCC and a charity, the Afghan Connection founded and chaired by Dr Sarah Fane, schoolchildren are now able to play the game. Fane has built a network of schools serving over 26,000 schoolchildren - a remarkable feat in itself - and her influence as a force for change, Fleming said, cannot be underplayed. Today, for example, Fane and her crew were in a remote valley in northern Afghanistan, introducing the game to local people.

"Sarah's charity has been absolutely instrumental," he said. "Firstly, delivering projects in Afghanistan is incredibly difficult. Sarah's experience out there and the respect her charity has [has been invaluable], but also her relationship with the Swedish Committee, this extraordinary group who deliver projects on the ground, was fantastic. The last thing we want to do is give our money to someone who then disappears with it.

With the recent high-profile success of the national team, their timing could not be better either.

"What's not to enjoy?" enthused Fleming. "You're going to an extraordinarily historical country with an amazingly different culture, with this fiercely independent and warrior-like spirit, where they have a natural passion and aptitude for a game we all love, where you can see the very tangible difference that cricket can make on people's lives. And at the same time, you can help heal, in a spiritual way, a country's wounds.

"Cricket really is an amazing healer. Sport is probably the only true global language. Anywhere in the world if you have a cricket ball, football or tennis ball, you can speak to someone. And that's just the same in Afghanistan."

"MCC is a terrific force for good. Every time we tour somewhere we leave a financial legacy behind, or a legacy in terms of local infrastructure. We help in areas in the world where others don't want to go to; we're committed to as many people as possible in the world, to not only enjoy the game, but enjoying the values that underpin it."

And Afghans deserve to enjoy cricket and have earned the right to be proud of their national team. That much can't be denied. How long the benevolence of MCC and other charities lasts, however, could determine the country's long-term future as a nation of cricket, not just of war.