Guns of the Afghan Local Police point towards the Hindu Kush mountains
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Feature

The Shahid Afridi of Kansas

Mohebullah Archiwal's story of how cricket took him from war-torn Afghanistan to middle America

Jarrod Kimber |

There might be a bomb on the field. No one knows.

There is no real grass, and most wouldn't call it a field. Just stones, dirt and agricultural troughs, with a concrete strip for playing on and a bunch of young men who want to play some cricket.

One of them walks around the ground looking for potential IEDs. He isn't wearing ballistic protection, he's not behind a mine-resistant armoured vehicle, and he's not controlling a bomb-defusing robot from a safe distance. He is wearing his cricket clothes, a blue Afghan Tigers top and a cap.

He is not supposed to be working today; he is supposed to be taking time off from his job as a translator for the US Marines. But there are no days off in Afghanistan.

This attack, if there is one, is not from some unknown enemy. The IED will have been planted by a fellow countryman, perhaps even someone he knows. To kill him or anyone in the game.

That someone wants to kill him is not a new thing: this is his life.

****

The Hindu Kush mountains are hard. Ice, rocks and trees. You don't travel through them, you travel around them.

He is a true Pashtun, from south of the Hindu Kush. When his family cross the border into Pakistan, he is a refugee who cannot crawl but is already on the run

A 39-day-old baby is being carried around them. It is 1987, or maybe 1986. He is sick the entire journey and never leaves his mother's arms. His family consists of his grandparents, his father, his uncle and his sister. They travel in a convoy with other villagers who are also making their way to safety in Pakistan.

The village they are leaving is Dashti Archi, in Afghanistan's Kunduz province. Not their tribal homeland but territory given to soldiers - among them, the boy's grandfather - by the government for fighting for the country. The boy has two more uncles, both soldiers. The family has not heard from them since they went to fight, and they won't ever again.

At night they move, fearful of the Soviet invaders, and their own people, who might consider them traitors. Behind them the Mujahideen, some of the greatest fighters who ever lived, and died, are resisting the Soviets.

The grandfather, a Mujahideen leader, travels with the family. Before that he and his brothers were in the Afghan army. One way or another, they have always been involved with war. They are Pashtun Ghazi. Warriors.

The baby's name is Mohebullah Archiwal. When his family cross the border into Pakistan, he is a refugee who cannot crawl but is already on the run.

Archi in his Afghan Tigers cricket kit

Archi in his Afghan Tigers cricket kit

Archi and his family lived in the Shah Jahan Abed refugee camp tents in Pakistan. What is now Pakistan and Afghanistan were separated formally in 1893, after the British drew a line where they believed King Abdur Rahman Khan's land finished and British India started.

The Pashtuns have been the majority in Afghanistan for generations. The current president of Afghanistan is a Pashtun, as were many of his predecessors. Afghanistan loosely means "land of the Pashtun", and that land is south of the Hindu Kush.

The poet Khushal Khattak once wrote, "Pull out your sword and slay anyone that says Pashtun and Afghan are not one! Arabs know this and so do Romans: Afghans are Pashtuns, Pashtuns are Afghans!" His was the mythology of Afghan men who would stand and fight like no others. Khattak was a warrior poet, who believed all the tribes that made up the Afghans should fight for what was theirs, fight for their land, their mountains, their culture.

That spirit was strong in Archi's family, whose father and grandfather regularly went back and joined their old militia groups across the border to fight the Soviets. Without homes to go to, they would sleep in the mountains at night, and by day wage war for their land.

In Pakistan they were Majar - a Pashto word used mostly for Afghan refugees and not as a compliment. In Afghanistan they were proud warriors of the Mamond tribe.

****

There is a pile of cloth, rope and rubber in front of Archi. He knows what he needs, taking each item carefully from the pile. He tightly packs the materials into a round shape. The tension is all-important. If he makes a mistake, it won't bounce; it will be a failure.

Fox's mother once said that if they bought a plot of land big enough, they'd build a ground for him. That never happened. Her throwaway line became the last goal on his list: to own a cricket field

One of Archi's friends stands by the field where some older boys are playing, waiting for them to discard the tape they are using on their ball. When their tape gets old and frayed, they throw it towards him, he grabs it and runs back to Archi, who carefully wraps it around his invention. His Frankenstein's ball is now ready. All of his friends are excited; they run off to play cricket.

****

Edward Fox is in Wichita, Kansas. He followed a woman there all the way from Australia. There they built a family and he built businesses. Fox is a successful man. He acquires businesses that excite him and then tries to make them better.

He loves his life in Wichita, he loves the wife he moved there for, the children they created, and the part of the world they inhabit. Over a decade earlier - before he made his flight to the US -  he wrote a list of goals. A family was one. Another was living in the US for an extended time. A third was to own property.

There was something else on that list that he never truly left back in Australia: cricket.

When Fox was a kid, he'd play cricket in the backyard. When he batted, he pretended to be Zaheer Abbas. Unlike Abbas, Fox was not tall and thin. He was graceless, he batted at 11, and didn't bowl.

He wanted to play more, do more, learn more. But there was always someone between him and the ground: an older kid, another team, some adults.

Have club-like object, will play: kids in Marawara, all set for a game

Have club-like object, will play: kids in Marawara, all set for a game

His mother once said that if they bought a plot of land big enough, they'd build a ground for him. That never happened. Her throwaway line became the last goal on his list: to own a cricket field.

Fox tried to get the city of Wichita to allocate him a cricket ground. They had shown him a book of parks, and he had picked one he thought was right for him, but they found reasons why that wouldn't work. This happened several times; the city officials never quite bought into his plans.

Since hooking his sons on cricket during a trip back to Australia, Fox had been travelling from school to school in Kansas like a cricket evangelist. He bought over 1000 plastic cricket sets to give out. He started a programme called Hot Shot Cricket, and a cricket Little League. But he needed a field.

This was still Kansas. Cricket was always going to be a hard sell. Fox was used to the fast-paced nature of business; he had no time for government bureaucracy. He said to his wife, "I'm an entrepreneur, dammit. I can build my own field."

He bought 15 acres to live and play cricket on.

He rebuilt a farm into a cricket ground, consulting former pro cricketers on the best kind of cricket pitch. He had training facilities as well, and plans for a pavilion with changing facilities and viewing decks. One day there will hopefully be professional sightscreens to assist the batsmen, an electronic scoreboard, the works.

In the first game on the ground, he and his pre-teen son Jason played together in the "Wichita World XI". They were hopeless. Their wicketkeeper was a 67-year-old New Zealander. They had two Americans who were playing for the first time. And Fox's own skill had not been greatly improved by the ten years he hadn't been playing the game.

Archi's father lived through a war, found work in a new land, and when Archi slipped, even a little bit, he saw that as a slight on all his hard work. For what he saw as a slap to his face, he used a fist to Archi's

But this wasn't about this game, it was about the fact he had created something, achieved his last goal, one of his earliest dreams. He and his wife, the woman who once accidentally took him away from cricket, stood by the boundary, looking at what they had done. So proud, so happy.

****

Cricket is a family heirloom. It is passed down via bloodline from those people in the former empire nations that are obsessed with it. Afghanistan was not obsessed with it; Pakistan was.

The trip over the border was enough for Archi to enter a world of cricket. And with it, be exposed to the contagious strain of Pakistan cricket.

In cricket, there is no beast more captivating than a Pakistani fast bowler. It starts with the run. They run like beautiful predators - like the cheetah you want to catch the springbok. At the crease, there will be a leap. Leap isn't the right word; it is a bound, a caper, an escalation of joy. Then the ball comes out. So fast, and with a mind of its own. The ball is now swinging around in any direction. Left and right, up and down, the definition of chaos.

The batsmen are powerless to resist it. So was Archi. One look at Aaqib Javed, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram was all it took for Archi to be a cricket fanatic, and a Pakistan cricket fan.

In March of 1996, when he was about nine, Archi went back to Afghanistan for the first time. His father and grandfather wanted to move home, so they went back to the Kunar Province, where Archi's family was originally from, to see if it was now safe.

Afghan refugees near the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office in Peshawar, Pakistan

Afghan refugees near the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office in Peshawar, Pakistan © Getty Images

Archi was happy to go back, but he took a piece of Pakistan with him. A small radio on which he would listen to commentary of Pakistan's important World Cup quarter-final against India.

Aamer Sohail and Saeed Anwar had taken flight at the top of Pakistan's chase, and Archi listened excitedly with his radio to his ear. A local patrolman saw him and walked over. As he got closer he heard the cricket commentary and slapped Archi in the face. "Why are you listening to this game? It is not for Muslims."

Archi didn't respond. He was about ten, but he knew that you don't talk back to the Taliban. The radio was broken. He never heard Pakistan lose.

He ran back to his father to tell him what had happened, and pleaded to go back to Pakistan. His father was firm - "This is our country" - but Archi didn't care. He didn't want to be there if the Taliban was there. Eventually Archi's father and grandfather felt the same, and the family remained in Pakistan.

Archi's father bought daily items in bulk and sold them to village and refugee shops. They weren't rich, but he was a regular provider. His family was very important, not just his wife and kids but his mother, father and his uncles.

Archi's mother was a kind and warm woman. She had two other sons and four daughters. Archi's mother gave him a special position within the family as the oldest son.

At school Archi did very well. He studied English, using books given by UNICEF, and was top of the class early on. His father would offer prizes for when he remained head of the class. But the more pressure he felt, the worse his grades got. He would often stay up all night studying for a test, only for the answers to disappear when he needed them. On those days Archi would be beaten.

Finally Archi was home. He felt like everything was perfect. The security was perfect. The village was perfect. The new roads were perfect. Everyone was so happy. Everyone was so excited

Lots of things would result in beatings. Bad grades. Comments perceived as disrespectful. Fighting with other kids. Other kids saying he beat him. Once a fortnight there would be a reason for him to be beaten by his father.

Archi never understood his father. He didn't know why he was beaten. He didn't talk back, he tried not to cause trouble, he gave his father respect.

His father did not go to school beyond 13. He had no way to better his life, and he sacrificed his future for his sons. He lived through a war, found work in a new land, and when Archi slipped, even a little bit, he saw that as a slight on all his hard work. For what he saw as a slap to his face, he used a fist to Archi's.

One day Archi was playing cricket with the son of one of his father's best friends. Archi knew that he had to respect this boy. He had already learned to always be alert in case there was a reason for him to be beaten. Still, there was a cricket squabble, one of probably a million in the world that day, after he refused to go out and field. The boy ran home to tell his father what had happened. His father told Archi's father.

As Archi walked home, his father met him on the street. "You have disgraced my friend by disrespecting his son," he screamed. He tried to explain that it was nothing, that it didn't matter, but his father wasn't listening. Instead - right in the middle of the street - Archi was beaten.

He woke up the next day, stumbled towards the mirror and saw himself covered in blood. His grandmother told him he'd been unconscious since the beating. He smiled. He thought he looked like Shaan Shahid,  his favourite Lollywood star ,  after a final fight with a villain.

Soldiers hold a bridge in Marawara

Soldiers hold a bridge in Marawara © Getty Images

The bloodied boy who looked back at Archi from the mirror had more than his consciousness beaten out of him. His love for his father, and some of his self-worth and his hope for a better life had been beaten out of him.

****

Late in 1996 a 16-year-old Pakistani batted for the first time. Less than an hour later he had broken a record for the quickest hundred runs in cricket. Shahid Afridi was - is - something special.

There is a natural conservatism bred into cricket batsmen. From a young age they know one bad decision can end their day. You protect your stumps, keep the ball on the ground, and grab caution from the wind. Afridi didn't do that. His way of batting was to throw everything he had at every ball, like a religious zealot, believing that something, someone, would save him, that destiny was on his side. It made him an inconsistent cricketer. It made him an idol.

He has the spirit, energy and predatory nature of a Pakistani fast bowler, but he also has a massive club that he swings around recklessly. His batting isn't violent, it's fun and cheeky. He's a drunken samurai, the greatest flawed action movie star. Once you're hooked on Afridi, there is no going back.

To Archi, to all the young Afghan boys in Pakistan, Afridi was something more. He's Pashtun. When he spoke Pashtu, in a beautiful singsong dialect different from theirs, they loved him even more. Young Afghan cricket fans didn't just relate to Shahid Afridi, they wanted to be him.

After that hundred, every time Archi picked up a bat, he was Afridi. But Archi couldn't go back to his country, and even if he did, Afghanistan had no team. He couldn't make plans, he was just dreaming. He wanted people to know who he was, he wanted to play cricket and he wanted to be Shahid Afridi. But he was still a Majar.

****

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban called their dominion in Afghanistan, was ousted from Kabul late 2001.

Rahman's men rested the rockets on rocks or logs, pointing them in the general vicinity, and then launched them. The rockets never hit anyone playing cricket, but the fear was there

Archi's family made their way back home less than three months later. Their trip should have been short, but the roads were not good enough for their truck full of belongings, so they went a long way roundabout to get back home.

Home was Marawara village in Kunar province, five miles from where his grandfather and father were born, and about 13 miles from their refugee camp in Pakistan.

Marawara was surrounded by some farmland, where wheat and poppy were grown. The locals made money by cutting trees in the mountains, soldiering, or working for the government.

Finally Archi was home. He felt like everything was perfect. The security was perfect. The village was perfect. The new roads were perfect. There were soldiers in different uniforms, but nobody was getting hurt and everyone was getting respect. Everyone was so happy. Everyone was so excited.

It was the Afghanistan that his family had fought for.

When Archi was a small boy in the refugee camp, if he got bored he'd visit the local blacksmith, who would sing him silly songs and make funny faces to entertain him. The blacksmith had a son who was Archi's Koran teacher, Qari Ziaur Rahman. As a young man Rahman memorised the Koran, becoming what is called a Hafiz-e-Koran. He was well respected by Archi's family.

Archi in his US Army uniform

Archi in his US Army uniform

Unlike the majority of Afghan refugees, Rahman didn't come back with the fall of the Taliban. He eventually did come back to Afghanistan, where he took a special dislike to Marawara, to its government employees and pro-American ideals. On his radio show, or just by word of mouth, he let the village know it was now a target for him.

Rahman's past is murky. People say he worked for Afghanistan, for Pakistan's ISI (Inter-State Intelligence), Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and even the CIA. By accounts, he was a militant with shifting alliances.

They say Rahman is in charge of a brigade in Al Qaeda's Lashkar al-Zil, the Shadow Army.

The Taliban had a confused relationship with cricket. Some elements within the movement saw it as a pious game, and even promoted cricket while virtually banning all other sport. But the Taliban is not of one mind, and for Rahman the Taliban was just a means for violence.

Rahman sent a letter to the mosque in Marawara, saying that cricket should cease, that it stopped people from praying. He asked that Archi and some others named in the letter come in for a meeting with him.

No one was going to attend a meeting with Rahman. People weren't seen again after meeting him. The cricket continued, but with a checkpoint for security.

Archi saw war as a game. He said he once managed to hold a checkpoint for three months, when usually it changed hands once a week. He kept stats on how often they were attacked

The cricket ground in Marawara was one in name only. The locals had rented the field  from a wheat farmer. Fielding a cricket ball was hard enough, but the dirt surface also had irrigation troughs running through it, meaning that on the rare occasion Archi or his friends hit the ball on the ground, it would fly up randomly and hurt people.

Rahman followed through on the threats in his letter. One day on the field, a player tripped over an IED. Luckily, it didn't work. But the device had been put in a part of the field, cow corner in cricket, where young Afghan players imitating Afridi love to hit the ball.

Archi was one of those who would check the field after that, so the Taliban then changed tack, taking to rockets. They didn't have rocket launchers, so Rahman's men rested the rockets on rocks or logs, pointing them in the general vicinity, and then attached batteries by cable to the underside of the rockets to launch them. The rockets never hit anyone playing cricket, but the fear was there.

****

Farman was Archi's young cousin. He was an oldest son, a happy kid, good at school, loved by everyone.

When Farman joined first grade, he instantly became the top student in his class. Just like Archi. Farman was very confident even as a young boy. Just like Archi. People said that Farman was going to go far. Just like Archi.

Farman was one of those young kids people are drawn to. He looked older than his years. He could have passed for a teen, despite being ten. He looked like the kid with all the answers. He would stroll around Marawara dressed in his leather jacket, as if the whole village wasn't a war zone but some computer game that only he knew the code for. Archi adored Farman.

Farman came running into Archi's home one night, telling everyone he had just won a fight. Archi's grandfather reacted like a Pashtun warrior, praised him on his victory, and told him how proud he was of him. Farman beamed.

Farman, Archi's cousin

Farman, Archi's cousin

Archi took Farman aside to speak to him alone. He explained that going around beating people up wasn't the way. That he had to be smarter, that he had to be better.

Archi was trying to break the cycle. His people, the Mamond Tribe, the Pashtun people, were soldiers, but Farman could be more than that. Archi would never break free, but he still believed Farman could.

One of the few joys Archi had was watching Farman play cricket - and he could play. Once, Farman promised Archi that he would score 50 runs in his honour. He did, and it wasn't just the runs he made but how he made them that shocked Archi. Even as a young boy, Farman had the strength and technique to hit straight sixes. The other local boys, and men (Archi included), slogged across the line. Farman wasn't just a Shahid Afridi warrior with a bat; he had grace, skill and temperament.

He was also Archi's personal shopper and messenger. When Archi fell for a girl, he would use Farman as his go-between. Despite the age difference, Archi would confide in him. It was his dream to be able to one day send Farman to London. To study, and escape.

****

Archi signed up to be a soldier for the Afghan army in 2006. He did so in part to honour his family but also because he had no job, his education had been stopped, and his world was at war.

Four months of training and he was on a bus to Kandahar province. His battalion was supposed to be crossing from Helmand into Kandahar. They had sent out scouts before their move, Archi said, and there had been suspicious activity on the road they planned to use. In one village everyone seemed to be packing up to leave, and when asked why, they told the scouts that it was because the Taliban were hiding out nearby.

One day Archi asked his nine-year-old brother to go to the store to get him a drink. On his way back, several men in masks holding guns stopped the boy and asked who he was taking the drink for. When he answered, they slapped him

The American and French forces found an alternative route through the desert, but the Afghan lieutenant colonel refused to travel that way, saying it would take three hours longer and the rough journey might ruin his equipment.

When the Afghans' convoy entered the village, they were attacked. Archi arrived in the village the day after the attack. With no chance of an air strike, his battalion was trapped for three days.

Archi's job included negotiating ransoms for the bodies of the deceased. There were over 20 dead soldiers. No one counted the dead Taliban.

Archi saw war as a game. He said he once managed to hold a checkpoint for three months, when usually it changed hands once a week. He kept stats on how often they were attacked. And when the Taliban rang him before a raid in the hope he would turn and run, he said he would goad them like a boxer at a weigh-in. He quickly became a sergeant.

For him, the dark side of the war wasn't death but corruption. Once, when he was in charge of a checkpoint, a suicide bomber made it all the way through security. Archi knew he had been let through by other soldiers, who he had asked to be transferred out but whom his commander had decided to put in the most important positions.

When he discussed the corruption with his father, even he thought that maybe Archi should quit. But Pashtuns don't quit. To them a quitter is a quitter for life.

A game of cricket in Marawara

A game of cricket in Marawara

One night the Taliban attacked one of their checkpoints. The soldiers protecting it fled without a fight, leaving not only the checkpoint in Taliban hands but also an SPG-82 rocket launcher and 60 rockets.

It was a terrible mission to try to take the checkpoint back, but Archi put his hand up. As they approached the checkpoint, his lieutenant got scared and fled. The Taliban saw them coming and attacked.

The firefight was messy and unpredictable, but it got worse when bullets started flying at Archi from behind. His lieutenant had gone back to the forward operating base, and to cover for his cowardice he told them that the rest had changed sides and were now fighting with the Taliban.

Archi was now being shot at by two enemies, both Afghan.

Somehow he and his team survived and made it back to their base, where Archi was stopped and shown that he was bleeding. Three bullets had gone through his vest.

A year into his time in the Afghan army, Archi served under Major Diego Davila of the Puerto Rican National Guard. Davila saw some important things in Archi: fearlessness, serenity in the face of danger, and good spoken English. Archi also spoke Urdu, Dari, Farsi and Pashto. He was the ideal candidate to be a translator for the Americans.

The sort of money Archi was earning - about  $1000 a month - made them quite wealthy in their village, and they were able to build a house far better than they ever could on a normal Afghan wage

Davila wrote Archi a letter of introduction, and soon he was a translator for the 82nd Airborne army division.

Archi liked the Americans better than he did his own army. He felt there was no corruption, and the soldiers were well trained and had good discipline. And he felt like by working for them, he could save the lives of even more of his countrymen.

His father wasn't as sure. He knew that Archi could do good with the Americans, but he was also naturally suspicious of outsiders. Eventually they came to an understanding that as long as Archi was trying to protect his country, his father would accept it.

It wasn't long into his new job that Archi started hearing, via friends and family, from Rahman. "Mohebullah, son of Habidullah, I remember him. Tell him to quit his job. If he doesn't, one day he will end up under my wing."

Perhaps this should have worried Archi, but it was common for anyone who worked with the Americans to receive threats.

Then there were the phone calls from Rahman to Archi's father directly, asking for Archi to be handed over. But Archi didn't know of these at the time, as his father didn't tell him.

Archi (second soldier from right) at work as a translator for the US forces

Archi (second soldier from right) at work as a translator for the US forces

One day Archi asked his nine-year-old brother to go to the store to get him a drink. On his way back, several men in masks holding guns stopped the boy. They asked who he was taking the drink for. When he answered, they slapped him and told him to pass a message to Archi: "We'll see you soon." His brother ran home crying.

****

In March 2010, Pakistan's interior minister Rehman Malik announced that Qari Ziaur Rahman was killed in an air strike on Pakistan soil. It was not the first time his death had been announced. Years earlier, when Archi and his family still liked Rahman, there had been rumours of his death. Archi's grandfather had been sad that such a fine upstanding man had been killed.

Around the same time, Rahman had started training and equipping women to hide bombs under burqas for suicide attacks that were near impossible to prevent.

Rahman was captured by the ISI at one point, but instead of being handed over to the Americans and ending up in Guantanamo Bay, he was given back in a prisoner-exchange programme.

Archi wasn't specifically targeted. Rahman and his shadow army used Taliban force and fear to go after anyone who worked for the government or was seen as a US sympathiser. Rahman didn't want Archi to be dead because of a personal grudge - he was just trying to kill or intimidate another non-believer.

Years later Rahman would be announced dead again, and again he would rise to terrorise. Friends, family and colleagues of Archi's disappeared. Rahman was a shadow that brought death.

****

USAID helped build Kabul Cricket Stadium. They brought in cricket gear for schools and cricket clubs, constructed pitches throughout the country, helped with training, and supported the Salam Watander radio network's attempts to broadcast Afghan away games.

In a nation that has survived so much, and has so little to celebrate, their team, who play like 11 Shahid Afridis, brings joy to millions

According to reports, from 2010 until 2014 two USAID programmes spent about US$2.2 million on cricket. Hillary Clinton mentioned the Afghan team in her speeches. The Americans knew that cricket was important in gaining support in Afghanistan.

It wasn't just the Americans either, the Indian and German governments also invested in Afghan cricket.

The problem for Archi and his friends was that the money never made it to Marawara. Archi wanted to build a proper cricket ground. He started junior leagues, he brought prominent US army officials to the ground, he tried to convince the governor of Kunar to help out. But no one gave him any money for it.

Archi had once hoped cricket was his way out. But instead of receiving trophies, he handed them out to the next generation, hoping they would get their chance.

After three years with the 82nd Airborne, he was upgraded to the Marines. At times he also took up contracts with the Italian and Georgian armies. With all of this came a bigger wage.

He wasn't a gambler, he didn't smoke hashish, and as a devout Muslim he wasn't a drinker. Cricket was his only vice. Once he set aside enough to play cricket, help pay for equipment, tractor rental and ground costs, most of his money went to his family. Some went to Farman, but the bulk went to his parents.

US soldiers at the site of a Taliban suicide attack in Kandahar earlier in 2017

US soldiers at the site of a Taliban suicide attack in Kandahar earlier in 2017 © AFP / Getty Images

His parents used the money to build a new house. While his father was a good provider, the sort of money Archi was earning - about  $1000 a month - made them quite wealthy in their village, and they were able to build a house far better than they ever could on a normal Afghan wage. They were very proud of their new home and Archi was proud he could give it to them.

People had always said Archi would go far. But by just serving his country, as his father, uncles and grandfather had done, Archi had managed to make their lives slightly better.

However, being in the Marines also put him into the thick of trouble. Like in June of 2012, when he stood in smoke and dirt with blood in the air.

Archi is bleeding, but he can also see that his fellow soldier, a medic, is much worse. He drags him towards a building, knowing he only has a few seconds. The IED is only ever the start; the bullets quickly follow.

The medic is screaming in pain. Archi shoots back. He radios the squad to tell them that they are both okay, and for them to find whoever is shooting at them. He also calls the Afghan police to get them to bring their truck (the marines' RMV won't fit in the streets and there is nowhere for a chopper to land).

The police station is one mile away, but a deadly mile. When the police truck arrives Archi thinks about jumping in it with the medic, but instead he stays outside to fight with the rest of the squad, who have arrived by then. They survive.

The country and family he had fought for had betrayed him for the last time. Archi no longer wanted to live and die in his country. He didn't want to protect it, he wanted to leave it

Back at the station, Archi sits down, takes a breath and asks if he can go to the hospital now. He has broken his leg, and when they cut away his trousers, he can see bone. The medic loses a ear, and much of his eyesight.

When asked about the incident where Archi got severely injured by an IED, Nat Buesking, who served with Archi said, "Which one?" When he was asked about Archi as a man, he said: "He wasn't my translator, he was my soldier. He was my brother."

Archi wasn't quite like Buesking, though. There was no home to go to after this conflict for him, and because of that, he wanted to die. He couldn't kill himself - that was a coward's way out. He would die on the battlefield, like his ancestors before him, and he didn't care.

****

When Archi was asked to play cricket, he never said no. So when a new side asked him to play in an invitational friendly, he turned up in his blue Afghan Tigers kit and cap. The bowler told Archi to put a helmet on. Archi laughed at him.

The first ball came straight at his face. Archi's arrogance had made him slow, and at the last moment he fell over backwards, saving his face by less than an inch. The next ball, he slashed hard, in true Shahid Afridi style, and away.

The bowler was Mirwais Ashraf, the first Afghanistan cricketer to take a wicket in the World Cup. Archi believed he was as good as Ashraf, maybe better.

An American soldier plays cricket with local kids in Kunar province in 2009

An American soldier plays cricket with local kids in Kunar province in 2009 © Getty Images

Archi believes he did get close to selection. He claims he was asked to pay the selectors for a game. When he told them he didn't have much money, he says he was told to take it from the Americans. It was the same corruption he had always known. He never paid, he never played.

Maybe he was never good enough. Perhaps it was just arrogance to think he was good enough to play for the national team. Athletes are rarely the best judges of how far their talent can take them. On the other hand, perhaps he was. And it's possible that he could have played for Afghanistan and even made a career out of it.

When Afghanistan play cricket now, the whole country supports them. In a nation that has survived so much, and has so little to celebrate, their team (who play like 11 Shahid Afridis) brings joy to millions.

But Archi doesn't support them, because he never got a chance to play with them.

****

In July 2013, Archi came back home to Marawara for a few days. It was two days of travel, and that night he stayed up late at the house of a friend who was having a party.

Archi was exhausted and slept in the next morning. Farman arrived before school, waking Archi and asking for some pocket money. Archi gave it to him and then started drifting back to sleep.

Boom.

Here the only running he does is between the wickets. Here the only danger is when he is bowling, and here when something goes boom, it isn't a bomb but a thump off his blade

Archi knew instantly something had exploded. He thought, he hoped, the bomb had gone off at the house of his neighbour, the local policeman. Then he had that empty feeling come over him. He hadn't searched the house in the morning for IEDs. He hoped someone else had done. He raced to the front of the house.

There was a hole in it. A hole meant for him.

Archi staggered barefoot through the wreckage. The whole village ran over to where the smoke was still thick. He got down on his hands and knees, looking for something, anything. All he would find was a finger. There was nothing else left of Farman.

There were no tears from Archi - he was beyond them. He had been a solider with a death wish, and he was prepared to die. But he wasn't prepared for Farman to die because of him.

The funeral was two hours later. Usually it would take longer; they would announce it so that everyone could come and pay their respects. This time they decided not to. The deceased would usually be bathed and be placed on display, but there was nothing to wash or display of Farman. The box was virtually empty.

Still, people sat around it and chanted rhythmically. No one told Archi that it was his fault, but they all stared at him, and he knew.

The big ticket: locals watch the India-Pakistan game at the last World Cup in a Kabul shop

The big ticket: locals watch the India-Pakistan game at the last World Cup in a Kabul shop © AFP / Getty Images

In Marawara they have a special area in their cemetery for people who die under the age of 30. Since 2003, more than 80 people have been buried there.

****

Archi would never forget Farman - he even started a small cricket tournament in his name - but the Taliban weren't just killing his family, they were killing everyone's family.

He had some leave from his time with the Georgian army. He caught a bus from Farah province to Herat province, waited for a space to open up on a plane piloted by the Americans, flew to Kabul, and waited a day for a bus before finally getting back home to Marawara.

His mother and one of his sisters greeted him. He expected a warm hug, food and love. His mother slapped him.

She had never slapped him before. Or anyone. She had never raised a hand, or even her voice, before. She had, no matter what, always respected him, even when his father did not.

Now she screamed for him to leave, to get out of her house. Archi tried to talk rationally to her, but she wouldn't listen, and he left the house that he had helped pay for, and stayed with his sister.

In Pashtun culture your whole family walks with you for the first hundred metres when you leave on a long journey. Archi did the hundred metres alone

The next morning a friend called him.

"Where were you last night?"

"My sister's house."

"Man, you're lucky."

"Why?"

"The Taliban were at your house last night to pick you up".

Archi doesn't know the full details. He knows what people have told him: that his father had offered to give Archi to them. He knows that is probably why his mother slapped him - to save him.

Archi went back home to confront his father, but he could make no sense of what had happened. Why hadn't his father just told him to quit, to not come home, to do anything else? Why hadn't his father told him that Rahman had been calling him? How could his father just give up his son to die? He never got an answer. It was his last contact with his father.

The country and family he had fought for had betrayed him for the last time. Farman was dead. His father was dead to him. Archi no longer wanted to live and die in his country. He didn't want to protect it, he wanted to leave it.

He applied for his Special Immigrant Visa to the US. Vice reported in 2015 that thousands of such applicants are still waiting for their visas. Luckily for Archi, he only had to wait six months. He secretly came back to Marawara for what he told everyone would be one final week, to say goodbye. He stayed for a day, in his friend's house, and then left.

In Pashtun culture your whole family walks with you for the first hundred metres when you leave on a long journey. Archi did the hundred metres alone.

Edward Fox bowls on the cricket ground he built

Edward Fox bowls on the cricket ground he built © Edward Fox

The International Rescue Committee sponsored, and helped, Archi move from Kabul to Kansas. They took him to McDonald's. ("This is wonderful, I thought it was a special place.") Even a standard budget hotel was "so nice to me - I didn't understand things could be nice like this." It didn't even matter to Archi that due to an administrative mistake, he was now FNU (first name unknown).

Eventually he would get an apartment in Kansas and start lessons on how to fit into American society. At one of them, he said he liked cricket. Being that in Kansas that isn't all too common, he was quickly introduced to Edward Fox.

Fox asked him why he chose Kansas when he had also been offered New York. "The guys in my battalion told me it was a peaceful place, and I'm tired of being shot at and blown up." Fox liked Archi immediately. He wanted to help him. That he played cricket was just a bonus. He took Archi back to his home, his ground.

Fox's ground isn't one of the great cricket grounds of the world. It's a farm, with an okay surface, synthetic pitch, and a lovely changing room. To Archi, it could not have been more beautiful. "It was, wow, heaven, you know, just great." He was holding a proper cricket ball, standing on a green ground, and there were no rockets going overhead. There was no reason to have a death wish anymore; he had reached heaven.

Fox and his family embraced Archi like a son. They helped get him a job. They bought him a car. They bought him a suit. "Here I have a family, a father, a mom, a sister, brothers. On my birthday, and Christmas, I never had gifts, I never celebrated my birthday in my whole life, and they threw me a party with 40 or 50 people. These people are Christian, so they are different, but I never feel like that." Fox and his wife have even talked about adult adoption, and making Archi an official member of their family. Of Fox's daughter, Archi says, "She is my sister - we talk all the time, we have a better relationship than I had with my sisters."

Fox asked Archi why he chose Kansas when he had also been offered New York. "The guys in my battalion told me it was a peaceful place, and I'm tired of being shot at and blown up"

Fox gets angry when his friends post things on Facebook declaring all Muslims are terrorists, or that Muslim refugees shouldn't be allowed in America. He tries to set those people straight. In Middle America it can sometimes be a hard war to win.

Archi still thinks about home. He thought about travelling back recently. "Only two people in Afghanistan have my phone number, and those are the two I trust with my life. I had Facebook but I deleted it, because I didn't want to have a connection with those people."

He still sends money back to Marawara. He wants to make it big in America and build a cricket ground back home. Until then he and Fox take cricket around America, visiting schools and churches to spread the word. For his day job he works for the International Rescue Committee, finding jobs for people like him.

Kansas is flat; it is nothing like the Hindu Kush that defined Archi. There are some nights Archi still wakes up in a panic, including his first fourth of July. His mind is not trained to the difference between fireworks and rockets yet. When he closes his eyes, he still sees Rahman in the shadows, he still sees Farman's face, he is still back in Afghanistan, but when his eyes are open and he is on the field, Fox's green field, he has finally found peace.

This is not Archi's dream, this is Archi's reality. It is beyond his dreams; it is his first real home. There are no bombs on this field, only cricket and love. Here the only running he does is between the wickets. Here the only danger is when he is bowling, and here when something goes boom, it isn't a bomb but a thump off his blade. Now when he fights, he is a warrior with a bat, the Shahid Afridi of Kansas.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

 

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LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS

  • POSTED BY Loki Looki on | September 24, 2017, 10:24 GMT

    A great story narrated very well. Movie material if you ask me. Good luck to Mohebullah Archiwal, may the Afghans finally find peace.

  • POSTED BY vmural0514730 on | September 24, 2017, 5:24 GMT

    Very inspirational life journey.

  • POSTED BY Simon on | September 24, 2017, 2:05 GMT

    Top read, Jarrod. Archi is a legend and a role model.

  • POSTED BY Kashif on | September 21, 2017, 19:40 GMT

    Well done Jarrod !! I am a big fan of your writing but this is a masterpiece !! If Hollywood decides to make a movie from this article, it will be nominated for an Oscar !

  • POSTED BY daisyl4702928 on | September 19, 2017, 9:53 GMT

    Thank you Jarrod. I dont even know how to appreciate such a beautiful piece of art. I am sure this article must have given immense pleasure to the writer inside you.

  • POSTED BY mayank on | September 18, 2017, 11:31 GMT

    Wonderfully written. I had tears in my eyes at the end of it. Brilliant work sir.

  • POSTED BY sjiwa10585928 on | September 18, 2017, 4:59 GMT

    Cried while reading the part about Farman and how his mother slapped him so he would not stay. Thank you so much Kimber for writing this. The way you described Afridi's batting gave me goosebumps. Love you Jarrod <3

  • POSTED BY taqira9235820 on | September 15, 2017, 9:55 GMT

    Sensational piece of writing !!!

  • POSTED BY Sarath Chandra on | September 15, 2017, 8:23 GMT

    Just wanted to say 'Thank You'. Both to Kimber and Cricinfo. You are touching lives. Keep it up :-)

  • POSTED BY Pranay on | September 15, 2017, 1:18 GMT

    By the way Jarrod, did you feel that Archi looks so much like Mickey Arthur?

  • POSTED BY Pranay on | September 15, 2017, 0:34 GMT

    This story, oh my.... what a journey and what a beautiful way to describe it. The article envokes so many emotions, especially the part about Farman's unfortunate fate. Even though I knew there was no fairytale ending for Farman (due to gone too soon pic), I still couldn't read beyond that point and had to come back again just to finish reading the whole piece. Archie is really really lucky and good luck to him. But this story is as much about him as it is about kids like Farman who don't have many desires in life and just hope for three meals and a game of cricket and the world denies even that simple pleasure to them.

  • POSTED BY advait0855499 on | September 14, 2017, 16:59 GMT

    Sensational piece of writing Jarrod, a whole new writing style and narrative and it was beautiful!

  • POSTED BY Atif on | September 14, 2017, 15:56 GMT

    Holly molly, Jarrod Kimber, what are you? Was that a cricketing article or a movie plot in disguise. For the entire duration of reading this script, I briefly managed to remember that I was at work still and not in a movie theater. I was a fan before, a devotee now. And I say this almost never!

  • POSTED BY Radhesh on | September 14, 2017, 13:56 GMT

    Wow again Kimber :).. Brilliantly written and it touches chords. The only reason to login back to Cricinfo now after the terrible redesign is to read articles like this by writers like you. Even a beautiful experience like reading this article is marred by the stupid design of the page. Hope someday Cricinfo realises its folly and works on the page layout.

  • POSTED BY Vijay on | September 14, 2017, 13:33 GMT

    Awesome work Jarrod Kimber!!!! Loved reading the article! Keep telling us more such stories.

  • POSTED BY Gaurav Bhatnagar on | September 14, 2017, 12:43 GMT

    So much emotion and story in one article, my emotions changed with narrative... Amazing simply amazing writing and story of one soldier, cricketer and family man...

  • POSTED BY rk2u117431241 on | September 14, 2017, 8:32 GMT

    Kudos to Jarrod Kimber, never knew u wrote it. Such a touching description. Feeling me like Archi with my unfulfilled cricket ambitions, but the Archi's love for cricket in Afganistan with so much war, difficulties and his own people's betrayal, hats for u both. U made tears rolled on my cheeks.

  • POSTED BY Hashim on | September 14, 2017, 6:40 GMT

    I'm a regular reader of your pieces. I have to say that is one of the most touching ones I've come across - to the extent that it has compelled me to write a note of appreciation for you. Amazing!

  • POSTED BY Surjit on | September 14, 2017, 6:20 GMT

    Wonderful write up Jarrod. The reality is expressed as a wonderful story. Thank God, Archi is still alive when Farman is not!!! Hope world becomes a better place to live and let the almighty help and guide us in making it a better place.. Very nice article. Thank you for writing such a good one!!!

  • POSTED BY anilsn9902680 on | September 14, 2017, 5:27 GMT

    Lovely. Just that; no more words.

  • POSTED BY Ramachandran Subramanian on | September 14, 2017, 4:30 GMT

    its a longish post described in quite a dramatic fashion that bollywood scripts are written in....sans the songs and dance routines it was a gripping and interesting read. Jarrod has a way with words and the depiction.

  • POSTED BY khursh5806321 on | September 14, 2017, 4:29 GMT

    Amazing piece of writing Jarrod. Keep it going man.