Taliban rule: Afghan cricket at crossroads

Rashid Khan of Afghanistan (2nd right) celebrates with his team mates after taking the wicket of Evin Lewis of West Indies during the Group Stage match of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 Photo: Getty

With the Taliban controlling Kabul once again, clouds of uncertainty shroud the future of Afghanistan’s cricket team 

After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, there have been serious doubts regarding the future of the Afghanistan cricket team, or for that matter all sporting activities there. Though the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) has made it clear that their national team will be taking part in the T20 World Cup to be hosted by India in Dubai, the team’s star players Rashid Khan, Mujeeb-ur-Rahman and Mohammad Nabi are worried about the well-being of their families back home.

All these players are currently participating in the “Hundred” tournament in the United Kingdom. While Rashid is representing Trent Rockets, Mujeeb is playing for Northern Superchargers and Nabi is representing London Spirits. Not to forget that Afghan cricketers are also part of some Indian Premier League teams.

Since acquiring full International Cricket Council (ICC) membership in 2017, the Afghanistan cricket team has become an integral part of the cricket community around the world. It can be judged by the fact that Afghanistan is currently ranked 7th in Twenty20 International (T20I) ahead of the likes of Sri Lanka, West Indies and Bangladesh.

A phone call to ICC regarding “how seriously they are watching the happenings in Kabul” hardly fetched any great fear in this regard. “We’re certainly concerned about what’s happening there in Afghanistan, but it’s too premature to comment on ‘what would happen’ just now. We’re surely hopeful that the Afghan team will participate in the upcoming T20 World Cup,” was how a senior ICC spokesperson responded.

However, former skipper Nabi and current captain Rashid have pleaded with the world leaders to save their country from the chaos after the Taliban continued their capture of Afghanistan. Both Afghan cricketers, who play for the Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL 2021, claimed that Afghans wanted peace and signalled their worries on social media.

Afghanistan cricket has been on the rise in the last couple of years. In a recent revamp, ACB roped in former South African all-rounder Lance Klusener as their head coach, while former Australia pacer Shaun Tait and former Ireland all-rounder John Mooney have been assisting him in bowling and fielding department respectively. 

India’s physio Prasanth Panchada and computer analyst Saurab Walkar are also helping Afghan cricketers. The ACB had also announced the 8th edition of the Shpageeza Cricket League 2021, scheduled for September. But with the changing political scenario, it would be difficult to predict whether or not this all-important domestic tournament will be staged in and around Kabul or not?

 

Lessons from the past

The ICC may not be as worried as we are here in India for the sheer reason that Talibans have been supportive of cricket even in the past. It is important to mention here that even before the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Talibans rulers were pushing their country to be one of the members of ICC. That’s why in January 2000, the Taliban urged the Afghanistan Cricket Federation to write to the Pakistan Cricket Board requesting support to join the ICC as an affiliate member. 

Remember, this was the time when Talibans saw cricket as a tool to gain acceptance around the world. Otherwise, there were no other reasons for them to promote only cricket at a time when even football was completely banned in Afghanistan. This despite the fact that football was played religiously in Wahabi-dominated Saudi Arabia, the major funder of Taliban govt. Yet the Taliban’s regime labelled this sport as a “curse”.

So, when the Afghan Cricket Federation was founded in 1995 under the aegis of Afghan Olympic Committee, no one had a doubt in their minds that this game would prosper under the rule of Talibans. The connection of Cricket also has a significant similarity with Afghan’s cultural heritage as it resembled the old Afghan game of top “danda”. In both games, a wooden bat hits a spherical object. And with no national women’s cricket team there back home, the dress code also suited to the philosophy of Taliban. 

Last but not the least, the “no direct physical contact between players” in cricket is also acceptable to all kind fundamentalists sitting there in the government. However, all six cricket stadiums in Afghanistan have either been under the control of new Taliban rule or are about to fall.

 

 

What’s next for the Afghan team? 

After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Afghanistan became the focus of the world and there was only cricket that offered some kind of comfort in the time of large-scale atrocities and casualties suffered by the civilian population there. In fact, the game of cricket flourished more in the areas controlled by Taliban or close to Pakistan border areas. 

The Taliban has instead tried to claim the success of the cricket side as their own. Most of the current crop of Afghan cricketers have played most of their cricket in and around Pakistan areas. This is the reason most of these players know Urdu and understand Hindi dialects. The Indian Cricket Board (BCCI) has been a great supporter to ACB and has provided stadiums and other facilities in Greater Noida and Dehradun since the 2017-18 season. 

Back home, the Taliban stronghold of Jalalabad is regarded as the home of Afghan cricket. And when the national side qualified for the 2015 World Cup, both the Afghan army commanders and the Talibans were shooting in the air to celebrate the success of the team. Jubilant celebrations then greeted the Afghan side who arrived at Kabul Airport and then travelled in a coach through the city.  That’s why despite the latest chaos, ACB has made it clear that the team will be ready for action when the 2021 T20 World Cup gets underway in Dubai.

But there is no specific word on IPL participation. The ACB media manager Hikmat Hassan is hopeful that the team will go ahead with a tri-series involving Australia and West Indies to help in preparations for T20 WC.

The ACB, with the help of ICC, has been looking for a venue for the tri-series and are in talks with Sri Lanka and Malaysia for the same. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s series with neighbouring Pakistan in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota is also likely to go as per schedule. But Hassan’s claim that all players are likely to assemble in Kabul over next few days seems to be only full of optimism and any player currently playing outside the country may not take this risk of coming back amidst the turmoil.

ACB’s CEO Hamid Shinwari is also hopeful that the Taliban are unlikely to interfere in the country’s cricketing matters. He said that they have always loved the sport and will continue to support the game’s development.

Coming back to the T20 World Cup, defending champions West Indies are in Group One along with England, Australia, and South Africa. Afghanistan is in Group Two with India, Pakistan, New Zealand and the other two qualifiers from Round One. 

The worry in the world cricketing community is in regard to the players trapped in Kabul and adjacent areas. Other than four or five players who are playing overseas, all other Afghan cricketers are in Kabul and reported to be safe till now. Afghanistan’s players have fought tough wars against much superior opponents on the cricket fields, one can only hope they succeed this time, too!

 

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Chander Shekhar Luthra
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