Cricket-mad Afghan fans flock to T20 match despite violence
Afghan soldier Ehsanullah waves a national flag as he dances half-naked in the stands of Kabul's main cricket ground -- one of thousands of fans defying rising insecurity for the rare opportunity to see their favourite game live.
The 23-year-old took time off from fighting Taliban insurgents in volatile Kandahar province to attend the Shpageeza Cricket League in the Afghan capital just days after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the stadium.
"I want to show my love and support for the sport," said Ehsanullah, wearing only the baggy trousers of his traditional shalwar kameez to show off his chest painted in the national colours of green, red and black and his back scrawled with the name of Afghanistan's teenage leg-spinner Rashid Khan.
Thousands of cricket-mad fans have been travelling across the war-torn country to watch the domestic T20 competition that ends Friday.
Photos posted on Twitter purportedly show a long convoy of mini buses packed with flag-waving supporters, some sitting on the rooftops, driving from neighbouring Logar province to catch the final days of play.
The fifth edition of the six-team tournament has attracted big-name Afghan and foreign players, coaches and commentators, bringing much-needed cheer to a country worn down by grinding conflict.
The deadly violence almost reached the cricket ground on the third day of the tournament when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint near the stadium where hundreds of spectators were watching a game inside.
Three people were killed including a policeman and five others were wounded in the blast that briefly interrupted play and rattled foreigners unaccustomed to explosions.
While some of the foreign contingent left Afghanistan in the wake of the attack, most chose to stay after receiving assurances from President Ashraf Ghani that their security would be beefed up.
"I don't feel that I am in any danger... I stand in solidarity not only with the Afghan cricketers but with the people of Afghanistan," former Zimbabwe captain and commentator Alistair Campbell told AFP.
Former England one-day captain Adam Hollioake, one of team coaches, tweeted: "I refuse to be terrorised. I stay til the job is done."
- 'Say no to terrorism' -
After the blast fans returned to the stadium, forming queues hundreds of metres long as they waited patiently to get inside as heavily armed security forces patrolled the grounds.
Spectators are happy to be able to watch a game banned in the late 1990s by the then ruling Islamist Taliban who viewed sports as a distraction from religious duties but is now making a stunning revival.
The country was catapulted into the elite club of Test nations in June and made its landmark Lord's debut the following month.
"We are scared but we have to say no to terrorism," said 22-year-old Shamsul Haq who travelled from the southeastern province of Paktika to sell Afghan national flags to spectators and watch the cricket.
Matches are punctuated by the blare of team songs -- broadcast in Afghanistan's two official languages of Dari and Pashto -- whenever a big-swinging batsman hits a four or a six, delighting the mostly male crowd.
Fans unable to go to the stadium follow the competition on televisions in homes, shops and restaurants around the country.
"I have come to the stadium only on the days when Rashid Khan's team is playing and I watch the other matches on television," said Azizullah Shabab, 17, who skipped school to watch the tournament.