Fleming takes hope from MCC mission
Norwich & Coltishall Wanderers Cricket Club president Matthew Fleming talks to Phil Banyard about his recent trip to Afghanistan, on behalf of the MCC, to discover ways of helping the country through cricket.
For a man who has sampled one-day international success with England and captained Kent to trophy honours, this was very much a trip into the cricketing unknown.
Concrete pitches amid the dust, extreme poverty and security issues awaited Matthew Fleming on his mission to Afghanistan - yet he has returned positive that cricket can play an important role in helping the country to a brighter future.
Fleming, 43, who lives in Coltishall, spent four days in Afghanistan and will report back to the MCC that while facilities are extremely limited, the passion for the game is intense.
"They have got very, very little," said Fleming. "They do not have anything you would recognise as a cricket pitch and the national academy is basically a bit of dust 80 yards long and 40 yards wide with a bit of concrete.
"The infrastructure is erratic, but the fact that they won the Asian Cricket Council Twenty20 Cup is an extraordinary tribute to their natural talent and fighting spirit. That is what is so exciting."
That Twenty20 match demonstrates perfectly the excitement surrounding the game in Afghanistan. Having posted a total of 152, Afghanistan restricted Oman to 150 with one ball remaining and when the batsman missed the final delivery, ecstatic Afghan supporters flooded the playing area. Unfortunately, the match had not technically been completed as the umpires had not called time, so the match was declared a tie, with the trophy shared.
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While that may have been a disappointment to some, it underlined the country's massive cricketing potential and the strides they have already made since becoming an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001.
Fleming said: "They seem to have picked up cricket from refugee camps in Pakistan, where people fled from the Taliban. Of course, it is not yet on the scale of Pakistan or India, where you see cricket played everywhere, but when I was driving through Kabul I saw the game being played in the strangest of places.
"Every batsman wants to hit it as hard as Shahid Afridi and every bowler wants to bowl as fast as Shoaib Akhtar, or to be a leg spinner. They are stuffed with talent."
Last year, an MCC XI led by former England captain Mike Gatting was roundly thrashed by Afghanistan in Mumbai and two Afghans, Hamid Hassan and Mohammad Nabi, were subsequently invited to Lord's as part of the MCC Young Cricketers Scheme. Fleming hopes that the duo's success could pave the way for more cricketers to emerge from Afghanistan - and he is in no doubt that the talent exists.
"Talent-wise, they have the potential to be a Test-playing nation, but maybe the political situation will never enable that to happen," he said. "However, I'm fairly sure that if England played Afghanistan in 10 matches of Twenty20, Afghanistan would win at least once."
Afghanistan are due to take part in the ICC World Cricket League Division Five in Jersey next year, which forms part of the qualifying process for the 2011 World Cup in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. That tournament would be the perfect stage for neighbouring Afghanistan to make their entrance onto the world scene, although their progress is of course hampered by the instability in their own country.
Having served as an officer in the Royal Green Jackets for four years, Fleming is acutely aware of the impact of war and his brief trip gave him a taste of the underlying tension in Afghanistan. "Security was a bit of a double edged sword," he said. "I spent most of my time with close protection and that in itself makes you more of a target. You are always aware that there are suicide bombings on a fairly regular basis. There is a large criminal element and kidnapping western hostages is not uncommon. There is also fantastic poverty and the power source, even in Kabul is irregular."
Unable to host touring teams because of safety fears, Afghanistan have to travel to play other countries, which, of course, requires funding. And with such limited facilities in their own country, there is the danger of Afghanistan's enthusiasm being wasted.
Which is where Fleming and the MCC hope to intervene. "If we were to come in with more money, know how, or providing kit and coaching, we could help them with their short term goals," said Fleming. "It would be great to provide a place to play cricket in Kabul and to put concrete nets into schools. There is so much we could do and that is what we are actively reviewing at the moment. The spirit is there and so is the talent, but the infrastructure is not.
"It is a poor country that is littered with conflict and misery. Anything we can do to help raise the hearts and minds of the locals has to be a good thing."
Closer to home, Fleming is keen to see cricket flourish at Norwich & Coltishall Wanderers. He recently voiced his anger at the process of the punishment meted out to Wanderers for failing to meet Norfolk Alliance requirements for running youth cricket - a penalty which ultimately cost Wanderers the chance of promotion to the East Anglian Premier League.
But he remains confident that the club can build on their runners-up spot in the Alliance Premier Division last season, saying: "I talk to the club officials more often than I get to see cricket at Barton Turf, but it is one of the most beautiful grounds around and there are some really talented youngsters at the club. It will be great if they get the chance to make the step up."