Cricket and Afghanistan: remarkable but expected?

For those of you who follow cricket, you might be aware that the T20 World Cup is currently taking place. To the surprise, or lack thereof, of many, Afghanistan is also playing despite the country currently experiencing the aftermath of a Taliban takeover. The question of whether or not their presence is a surprise comes from an intertwined history of the rise of cricket and political turmoil in the country. And whether you are shocked or not, either feeling is likely to inspire an uneasiness about the short and long term state of this country, and the consistency of cricket in the midst of this.

While like the rest of the subcontinent, the presence of cricket in Afghanistan can be tracked to the colonial period (specifically the Anglo-Afghan Wars from 1839), unlike other countries no lasting legacy was left by the British. In the 1990s, cricket became popular amongst Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War and the rise of the Taliban, and the Afghan Cricket Federation was formed in 1995. 

Due to its roots in Pakistani refugee camps, many early players were mocked as “migrants” or “Pakistanis” for playing a “foreign” sport, but that did not stop its sudden surge. Cricket was initially banned by the Taliban, but its rapidly growing popularity forced the Taliban to make it an exception. 

This year, the newspaper headlines offer a mixed bag: some headlined exceptional expectations for the Afghan team with no mention of the Taliban, while others looked onto their presence with disbelief and awe. In one article inews stated, “Afghanistan are quietly confident about upsetting the odds in spite of huge off-field disruption.” The phrase “off-field disruption” couldn’t trivialise the reality any better, and since that is the writer’s obvious intention for the article, why is that so and why do we cyclically expect Afghanistan to be so exceptional?

As for the team, they more than anyone know what this sport and their victory means to fans at home. During a virtual press conference, captain Mohammad Nabi said, “The fans are really waiting for that camp because the only happiness in Afghanistan is cricket. If you’re willing to do well in the tournament and we win the games, the fans are really happy and there will be a lot of smiles on faces and insha’Allah everything will be changed of this work if we do well in the tournament.”

Likewise, Stanikzai, another teammate, stated, If we don’t qualify for the semi-finals of this World Cup, I would be cracking the wall with my head!”

The two contrasting, yet interwoven, statements both demonstrate how much cricket means to Afghans. To perfectly bring this altogether, Shafiqullah Stanikzai, former Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) CEO clearly asserts, “Cricket should be seen as a potential opportunity. We don’t represent any political party, we represent Afghanistan as a nation. We represent ‘if you give us an opportunity, we are capable of doing anything’.”

As for the women’s team, the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s rights, with many female athletes going into hiding, inspires little hope for Afghanistan to put one through; although there has been no official legislation on this. And while it is a condition of International Cricket Council (ICC) membership to also have a women’s team, the ICC have been hesitant to pull out the men’s team, possibly in full knowledge that having no cricket team would be devastating for the country’s moral.

There is no denying the weight that the men’s team have on their shoulders right now. In between the high expectations for the team to get to the semi-finals, and the contrasting reality of a Taliban crackdown at home, focusing on either one feels like either we are disregarding the skill of the team and focusing on the Taliban when often this sport is a form of escapism for many; or we are not acknowledging the horrendous circumstances in which they have to play which, according to history is also not the first time they have had to play in political instability. That feels humiliating to acknowledge from the standpoint of global responsibility.

It’s incredible that cricket can inspire so much hope, but that should not have to be the case. It should not substitute a welfare state. And in romanticising this sport we should not normalise the state of Afghanistan from which it developed, instead we should use cricket as a driving force to inspire both hope and change. 

Manvir Dobb, Arts and Culture Editor

Header image by one of our brilliant graphic designers Peggy Mitchell.