Winter 2010. Another hard winter. Locals say it isn't fair. It came early this year and played hell with the late crops.

They call it "No-Rules Cricket", but in jest. There are rules, of course, just as there are in any game of sandlot baseball in Hometown USA.

Here at Helipad Stadium, a ball into the first line of razor wire is an automatic two runs. An aerial ball past the pile of white rocks is six, and the wickets are a one-piece affair made of angle iron.

The uniforms are homemade, a hodgepodge of knock-off international team jerseys with names and self-selected numbers stenciled on the backs and sleeves with black rattlecan and chisel tip permanent markers. The bats are worn and rickety like deadfalls in Tunguska, and the balls look like the dog's been after them, but it doesn't matter. Rosters rebalance whenever one team beats the other three times in a row, and although the games are never called on account of rain, they are sometimes interrupted by enemy fire.

Deterred only by a scheduled airdrop or snow too deep to find the ball after a solid grounder, thirty or so young men who never had a childhood gather daily to play. There's more laughter in these afternoon games than I ever thought existed in the whole country.

They're mountain men, residents of the crooks and hollows of the many valleys within a day's walk. Soldiers, interpreters, cooks, and drivers, the spirit of the land shines in their eyes never more than between the innings when they can practice their bowling and dream of a time when their children will play cricket on a manicured pitch behind a proper schoolhouse.

They stuff their shoes with newspaper and foam while they talk about the teams best suited for the Twenty20 Cricket format. They debate the merits of the international bracketing system while squeezing me for information on the other pickup teams I've seen around the country.

Is there a team in Zabul? Is it true there are three full teams in Paktia? Do they ever take a break from football in Qandahar to play cricket? Do Americans play cricket? Do they even know what cricket is? Why is baseball so boring?

The Afghan national cricket team is a matter of great pride for these young men. One of the great grassroots success stories, to hear them tell it, it's more like a formula sports film than anything. Out of nowhere, the miserable underdogs find the spirit and the ability to rise to prominence, and then, having been denied victory after their intense struggle, they dust themselves off and realize they are still a beacon of hope for a country only recently celebrating its first ever Olympic medal.

One of them repeated some commentary he'd heard on Indian television some years ago about how surprising everyone else in the world found the whole thing.

The batsman, clacking his bat against the gravel in a show of between-the-innings impatience, waved his hand dismissively and said, "Of course Afghans are good at cricket. What else do we have to do?"

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