The moment the Taliban rolled into the streets of Kabul and US forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the international cricket community has grappled to find the best way to respond.
Cricket is enormously popular in Afghanistan and its growth over the past two decades, from refugee camps in Pakistan to full members of the International Cricket Council has undoubtedly been one of the sport’s great feel-good stories, with each successful step widely celebrated.
The Taliban’s takeover has clouded the future of cricket in Afghanistan, particularly for the fledgling women’s game, and the ICC and national administrations around the world face a complex set of situations over the coming months.
Cricket’s soaring popularity in Afghanistan
While cricket was played in Afghanistan during the era of British colonialism in the 19th century, the modern game largely took root in the refugee camps of Peshawar in northern Pakistan. In the past two decades the game has flourished to point where it is now the most popular sport in Afghanistan.
The ICC has encouraged cricket’s growth in Afghanistan and the progression of the men’s team has been one of the sport’s greatest feel-good stories in the modern era.
In 2001, the ICC made Afghanistan an Affiliate Member, meaning the men’s team could compete in T20 International matches (the shortest form of the international game, in which each side bats for an innings of up to 20 overs, each made up of six balls bowled, similar to a baseball pitch), which opened up a pathway to compete in T20 World Cups.
Twelve years later, Afghanistan became an Associate Member, allowing the national side to play One-Day Internationals (in which each team bats for an innings of up to 50 overs) and in 2015 they made their first appearance in that format’s World Cup, held in Australia and New Zealand.
The team’s growing success led to its elevation to Full Member status in 2017. There are only 12 Full Member nations in the ICC and this highly coveted position allows them to take part in influential board meetings and play Test cricket, the longest and most traditional format of the game. It is essentially international cricket’s most exclusive club.
Some Afghanistan cricketers have become genuine international stars in recent years. Players such as Rashid Khan and Mohammed Nabi are highly sought after in lucrative domestic T20 tournaments around the world, including the Indian Premier League, Australia’s Big Bash League and the Caribbean Premier League.
What the Taliban’s takeover means for men’s cricket in Afghanistan
Initially, there was uncertainty surrounding the Taliban’s attitude towards cricket.
In an interview with Australia’s SBS , the deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission Ahmadullah Wasiq said that cricket would “continue without interruption, and [the Afghan team] can play with other international teams “.
“In the future, we want good relations with all countries,” he said.
But there was a significant caveat to Mr. Wasiq’s statement; that any sport “should be conducted in a manner that is not ‘un-Islamic’ and against Afghan cultural values”.
It is so far unclear what would be considered ‘un-Islamic’ in relation to men’s cricket.
What about women’s cricket?
The progress of women’s cricket in Afghanistan has been challenging because of religious and cultural attitudes towards women playing sport. The first national women’s team was formed in 2010 but subsequently disbanded in 2014.
The ICC made an exception to its own rules on gender equality when it awarded Afghanistan Full Membership in 2017. To become a Test playing nation, boards usually have to include a national women’s team in their set up as well as a structural pathway for female players, but Afghanistan did not have a women’s team in 2017. However special exceptions are allowed in the ICC’s constitution.
There were no conditions placed on the Afghanistan Cricket Board to initiate a women’s team, nor was a timetable implemented to guarantee a women’s structure by any fixed date.
It was, however, noted that the ACB’s submission included a commitment to form a national team and pathway and work had commenced in this area.
In November 2020, the ACB awarded 25 contracts to female players but they have not played any matches, although they were reportedly due to play Oman this year.
But early indications are that the Taliban will not allow women to play cricket at any level, because their faces and bodies may be exposed
Wasiq told SBS news that it is “unnecessary” for women to play cricket. “In cricket, they might face a situation where their face and body will not be covered. Islam does not allow women to be seen like this,” said Wasiq.
“It is the media era, and there will be photos and videos, and then people watch it. Islam and the Islamic Emirate do not allow women to play cricket or play the kind of sports where they get exposed.”
The fate of the women and girls contracted by the ACB remains clouded. At least some players have left Afghanistan.
Afghanistan player Roya Samim and her two sisters, also part of the national team, are currently in Canada and Samim told The Guardian she was fearful for her teammates that are still in the country.
“They are sad, they ask people to please help us. Emotionally and physically, they are not good,” Samim said.
The BBC has reported that members of the Taliban have threatened female cricketers, quoting a player using the pseudonym Asel, who is still in Kabul.
“Every woman playing cricket or other sports is not safe right now,” ‘Asel’ told the BBC . “The situation is very bad in Kabul.
“We have a group on WhatsApp and every night we are talking about our problems and sharing plans about what we should do. We are all hopeless.”
“The village where they play cricket, some people who knew them are working with the Taliban. When the Taliban came here and took Kabul they threatened them, saying, ‘We may come and kill you if you try to play cricket again.’”
The response outside of Afghanistan
Australia was scheduled to host Afghanistan for a one-off Test match in November.
This highly-anticipated match, already delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, was to be the first Test between the two countries.
But, following Wasiq’s statement that women would not be allowed to play cricket, Cricket Australia all but cancelled the match, pending confirmation of the Taliban’s policy.
“Driving the growth of women’s cricket globally is incredibly important to Cricket Australia,” Cricket Australia said in a statement.
“Our vision for cricket is that it is a sport for all and we support the game unequivocally for women at every level.
“If recent media reports that women’s cricket will not be supported in Afghanistan are substantiated, Cricket Australia would have no alternative but to not host Afghanistan for the proposed Test Match due to be played in Hobart.
Hamid Shinwari, the CEO of the ACB, has publicly urged CA to reconsider a position that would isolate Afghanistan while also pointing to the slow progress of women’s cricket in other countries.
“If the CA decides to cancel the test match and isolate the Afghan men’s national team, it will have no impact upon those cultural and religious values as they stand. The spokesman for the government has unequivocally stated this,” said Shinwari.
“ICC has been aware of our cultural and religious environment and it has taken a balanced, diplomatic, sensitive and considerate approach as we have worked to develop every aspect of the game of cricket in our country despite the situations we have faced.
“We believe that the ICC has had the forethought to recognise and accept that we have been doing all we can to grow cricket in the traditional cultural, religious and changing political environments of our country
“The alternative to cancellation of the test match would be for CA to take the same approach as the ICC. A considered, balanced, ‘cricket diplomacy’ would be far more productive for Afghanistan and for cricket than a sudden ‘knee jerk’ reaction,” he added.
The ICC’s response
While individual boards such as CA have control over bilateral series, the ICC is in charge of World Cups and can ban countries for a range of reasons.
Afghanistan is one of 16 teams taking part in the Men’s T20 World Cup to be played in the UAE and Oman in October and November.
So far the ICC has taken a cautious approach, saying it is closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan.
“The ICC is committed to the long-term growth of women’s cricket and despite the cultural and religious challenges in Afghanistan, steady progress had been made in this area since Afghanistan’s admission as a Full Member in 2017,” said an ICC spokesperson. The ICC has been monitoring the changing situation in Afghanistan and is concerned to note recent media reports that women will no longer be allowed to play cricket.
“This and the impact it will have on the continued development of the game will be discussed by the ICC Board at its next meeting.”
The next board meeting is scheduled for early November during the latter half of the T20 World Cup, but Australia’s decision to cancel the Test may lead to an emergency board meeting being called as early as next week to vote on Afghanistan’s inclusion in the upcoming tournament.
The ICC has a number of anti-discrimination policies which Full members sign up to. One of the major suggestions for Boards is to “develop an Anti-Discrimination Policy, protocol, mission statement or similar so that such lack of tolerance is made clear to all employees, officials, commercial partners and other participants and stakeholders.”
More broadly, the journey towards gender parity has progressed at vastly different rates among cricket-playing countries.
As recently as 2020, thanks to a decision by CA, the Australian women’s team became the first in the sport’s history to receive the same prize money as their male counterparts when they won the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup while, in most countries, the sport remains – at best – semi-professional for women.
The ICC only has control over its own tournaments, which now largely have equal conditions for male and female participants, but it has pushed for more gender parity around the world while recognising the cultural and religious environments that may affect the pace of change.
It remains to be seen, however, what action it will take in dealing with a regime that has been particularly brutal to women in the past and has indicated its intentions to ban them from playing in the future.
What happens next?
The situation is extremely complex, fluid and delicate and decisions made now could have long term effects on both men’s and women’s cricket in Afghanistan, not to mention the serious ramifications for individual players.
Other countries may follow Australia’s lead, declining to play Afghanistan in bilateral series, effectively isolating the ACB.
The ICC may conclude that retaining the ACB as a Full Member and including Afghanistan in the T20 World Cup will leave the door open for cricket to remain an influential sport and, in the future, once again played by women.
Conversely, the ICC could suspend the ACB altogether. There are numerous precedents for this; countries such as Nepal, Zimbabwe and the US have all been suspended in recent years.
When Nepal’s cricket board was suspended in 2016 for political interference by the country’s government and a lack of free and fair elections, the national teams were still able to play, as did the US teams when the governing body, USACA, was expelled in 2017 over ongoing disputes about the game’s administration.
A situation could arise in which the men’s team is effectively one in exile, playing for Afghanistan but not representing the ACB or the Taliban, in a similar fashion to Russian athletes competing under the ROC banner at the Tokyo Olympics.
But there appears to be no path for women to play at any level in the foreseeable future.
Whatever decisions are made by the global cricket community, the plight of those who play Afghanistan’s most popular sport, especially women, appears grim, with concerns of personal safety and the welfare of family far outweighing the merits of any particular match or tournament.
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