The year 1996 was an important one for the Indian subcontinent. Celebration, amid the recurrent hullabaloo, was the underlying theme in many countries. India was celebrating, for the land was graced by the 'King of Pop,' Michael Jackson.
About 2,500 km away from the jam-packed Andheri Sports Complex, where Jackson was performing in front of 66,000 fortunate fans, Sri Lanka also celebrated. Earlier that year, the island nation took the cricketing world by surprise, winning the 1996 Cricket World Cup.
Arjuna Ranatunga's indomitable boys did the unthinkable – they defeated the mighty Aussies, the very team that had the likes of the Waugh brothers, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Michael Bevan, and many other stalwarts.
Another Asian country was also in the headlines in 1996, albeit the tonality of the reporting was not celebratory – far from it, rather. Afghanistan faced a raging war, the conclusion of which saw the Taliban taking control of the nation, forming the First Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Barring that, Afghanistan also witnessed the formation of another phenomenon. On soil that was enamored with the aroma of gunpowder, on land where blossom meant that of armament, stumps were installed, as a courageous lot came to a unanimous conclusion – Afghanistan can, and will, play cricket.
Twenty-six years later, Afghanistan met Sri Lanka in the opening match of Asia Cup 2022. The team that conquered the world in 1996 suffered a defeat against the team that was merely formed in the same year, thereby testifying to the complete makeover that the world of cricket has gone through over the years.
Yet, amid a rapid transformation of all aspects on the ground, a characteristic déjà vu lingered on the political backdrop. After being toppled in 2001, the Taliban once again regained control of the land two decades later.
Cricket in the Times of Taliban
Images of hundreds flocking to the airport in a desperate attempt to flee the nation made rounds on the internet, and the cricketers were also provided with residency visas in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Yet, a year since the takeover, only two Afghan players remain in UAE – Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi. Ibrahim Zadran, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, and other stars of Asia Cup 2022 are back in their homeland. They find themselves playing the role of a different breed of freedom fighters, with cricket being the only source of escape for many.
As cricket thrives amid political turbulence, one is bound to question the relationship of the regime with cricket. For a clearer comprehension, The Quint reached out to Afghan journalists.
Ibrahim Momand, a sports journalist who previously worked as the media manager of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, believes that before any attempt at estrangement of the regime from the macrocosmic perspective, we need to look at the microcosmic relations.
"We ask about the relationship with the Taliban, but first, we need to be clear on what we are encompassing in that word. Many of whom we now call Taliban grew up on the same soil, perhaps as neighbours of our cricket stars, playing on the same field. The turns in the path of life were drastically different, but it does not necessarily have an impact on interpersonal relationships," says Momand.
Those living in the nation claim that the current situation in Afghanistan is way better than it was at the same time last year. "Almost the entire squad, including Hazratullah Zazai, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Fazalhaq Farooqi, and Fareed Ahmed, reside in Afghanistan, though because of the lack of facilities, the national team's training camps are held in the UAE. Cricketers are treated like heroes, both by the locals and by those in power," Momand adds.
Despite the positive outlook on cricket, two of Afghanistan's most popular cricketers, Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, chose not to return to the country. One could force a relationship between their decisions and the current regime, but we are told it is because of travelling convenience and ease of business operations.
Rashid and Nabi are among the most sought-after players in T20 cricket, and hence, they represent a plethora of franchises all over the globe. With a residency in the UAE facilitating both visa-related work and logistical compliances, their decision of not moving back to Afghanistan sounds justifiable.
"Nabi is in the UAE with his family, while Rashid has half of his family back in Afghanistan. Of course, the Afghans would love to see the heroes of the soil back here, but we respect their decision of living abroad, with all the various countries they are playing in," Momand says.
Despite relocating to the UAE with his family, Nabi returned to Kabul only a few months ago to play in Afghanistan's T20 League, known as the Shpageeza Cricket League. Rashid had also enrolled initially, before pulling out ahead of the competition.
The leg-spinner's last visit to his motherland was during the funeral of his mother, back in 2020. Since the Taliban takeover in 2021, he has not stepped foot in the country, sparking speculation of underlying political tension.
The speculations intensified when the 23-year-old abruptly relinquished captaincy duties ahead of the ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2021, but he soon confirmed the reason – dissatisfaction with the squad selection.
"Rashid was terribly unhappy with how the squad was selected for the last T20 World Cup. The captain of the team was not asked for his opinion on the squad, and the selection was predominantly done by someone whose only experience in international cricket was at the under-19 level. The decision of relinquishing captaincy was purely cricketing, with no political undertone," the sports journalist says.
Since reclaiming power, there has been a Taliban-led reformation of the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB). Former bowler Mirwais Ashraf, who represented his nation 71 times, was appointed as the new chairman of the board back in November 2021.
Being a successful cricketer in his era, Ashraf's appointment was gladly accepted by the Afghan cricket loyalists, though another appointment did raise a few eyebrows. The ACB found a new CEO in Naseeb Khan, who according to our sources, has strong links with the Taliban and is not a former professional cricketer.
However, Khan himself has vowed to work diligently for the progress of Afghanistan cricket ever since his appointment, and on being asked about it, we were informed by sources, "He does not have prior experience in this field, but he is a guy willing to learn. It is still too early to pass judgement on him. The Afghan cricket fans will rather wait for a bit longer before delivering the verdict on him."
The Money and the Misery
Though the political climate of the nation might have an undeniable resemblance to 1996, cricket has seen ineffable growth in some aspects since then. The game is not solely restricted to the realms of a victory and a defeat, as beyond that, there's marketing, cash flow, and revenue generation.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) could be used as a prime example, as it recently sparked an insane bidding war among media giants for the broadcasting rights of the Indian Premier League (IPL). The ACB, despite their efforts to amend the wrongs, are lagging miles behind in the financial aspect, mainly for three reasons.
With the Taliban rising to power, their banks were disconnected from the global payment system known as SWIFT. As a result, the International Cricket Council (ICC) is finding it significantly difficult, if not impossible, to transfer the ACB's share of the generated revenue. The hawala transactions and the Western Union are still active, but we are told that they do not allow transactions of big amounts.
To bypass the ban on Afghan banks, the ACB is reportedly setting up accounts abroad, including in the UAE. Be it for the regime or otherwise, some sponsors also walked away from existing contracts. At one point, the team was left without a kit sponsor before Mohammad Nabi's company, MN7, extended help. In the Asia Cup 2022, however, Afghanistan sported kits made by Indian company TYKA.
Barring these two aspects, a lack of comprehension of marketing ideals and sponsorship deals has existed in Afghanistan cricket for a long time. Indian dairy cooperative society, Amul, became the principal sponsor of the team during the 2019 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup for $150,000 – much lesser than the rates received by the majority of the teams.
Emirati telecommunications company Etisalat was also roped in as a sponsor, but that deal did not last long owing to the board's difficulties in providing proper documents.
There has not been any improvement on this front, as the ACB found a principal sponsor in Marhaba Cars Auction just days before the Asia Cup, while associate sponsor PikaShow was roped in while the competition was ongoing.
Besides the infrastructural challenges, which are aplenty, it is imperative for the ACB to learn and implement better strategies in their marketing department, especially with the banking restrictions.
Contrasting Scenario in Women's Cricket
'Cricketers are our heroes,' is a very common phrase in Afghanistan, but replacing heroes with heroines will make it the rarest of rare statements. The Taliban have always stated they will do all they can to improve men's cricket, but women's cricket is a grey area across the nation.
There have been multiple protests organised by teenage girls this month, demanding their right to attend educational institutions. The women cricketers, however, could not demand much, as the majority of them have fled the nation.
The Afghanistan women's cricket team was formed in 2010, but could withstand external pressure for only four years. In 2020, the ACB opted to restart the team, giving out contracts to 25 female cricketers.
Yet, knowing well that women's cricket is not something the current regime will entertain, the players left the country during the early days of the insurgency, with some even claiming they had received threats from the Taliban.
The developments led to calls of suspending Afghanistan from ICC events, but some fear that a non-smokescreen women's team in Afghanistan will be difficult.
"The women's team we had was installed to fulfil membership obligations more than anything else. The players would only come to the training camp for a day or two a week, and train for about an hour. Unfortunately, even that has stopped now. Almost all of those players have left Afghanistan, and even the director of the women's team relocated to Canada. The department ACB had to look after women's cricket, comprising of 3-4 people, has been scrapped. A women's cricket team in Afghanistan will be difficult, and even if we are to have one, it will most likely be a showpiece team like the previous one, with no serious ambitions," Momand tells us.
"For women's cricket to prosper, there needs to be a cultural reform. Now, our girls are fighting for their right to education. It is a gradual process, first, they fight to go to school, then they fight for their right to play. But certainly, the chances are slim," says Wesal Khan, an Afghan sports journalist currently living in the United Kingdom.
Cricket as a National Escape
Amid the gloom and uncertainty, cricket traverses the realms of the game to become an exception in the lifestyle. As Sri Lanka lifted the Asia Cup 2022 trophy, a wave of ecstasy travelled across Afghanistan, with fans dancing and singing on the roads.
The visuals will seem very common for a cricket fan from the other participating nations in the tournament, but to put things into perspective, dancing and singing are not encouraged by the regime in Afghanistan.
Yet, anything and everything is allowed when it comes to cricket, or rather, the male version of it. Be it for a day, be it an ephemeral deviation from a seemingly perennial mundane, the scenes are alleviating.
"The visuals will tell you that cricket is a social status for us, not just a game. It is a tool to match gaze with the more developed nations, and let them know that in this particular field, we are no pushovers. It is an escape, put it that way. An escape."
(In collaboration with: Ibrahim Momand, Afghan sports journalist from Kabul, and Wesal Khan, Afghan sports journalist, England).
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