Saturday’s Asia Cup 2022 opener between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka at the Dubai International Stadium will be a crisscross of torment and catharsis for both teams.
The fall of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July, which followed months of protests, was greeted with joy by many in Sri Lanka. However, now, even as the country tries to retain a semblance of normalcy, the remnants of an unprecedented economic crisis continue to linger.
Meanwhile, it’s been more than a year since the Taliban entered Kabul unchallenged and took control of Afghanistan, which has now endured more than four decades of war.
So, there is perhaps no denying the fact that cricket will be a great distractor for both teams over the next week.
Afghanistan’s rise as a cricketing nation has been one of the most genuine feelgood stories of the sport. The one big positive for it is that it no longer has to go into tournaments like the Asia Cup through the qualifying rounds. Afghanistan’s cricket has improved to the extent where it is directly seeded in the main event.
At the last T20 World Cup (2021), also played in the UAE, Afghanistan qualified directly by being in the top eight of the T20I rankings at the cut-off date. This marks a real departure for a team that has, in recent years, evolved from an associate nation to an embodiment of what can be achieved when ambition meets skill in sport.
It helps that their fans are also likable. Like 32-year-old Kaleem Khan, a cab driver from Afghanistan, who has a poignant take on the state of affairs back home and why cricket is important.
“I laugh when people say that sport and politics do not mix. Look at us, Afghans, and our struggles. We promote brotherhood and build relationships through playing. Aren’t these political goals as well? Sports and politics were never apart.”
Speaking of politics, Afghanistan’s opponent on Saturday, Sri Lanka, is grappling with a crisis of its own. But cricket proved to be a solace. Recently, Australia’s tour of Sri Lanka took place under the shadow of a crippling economic upheaval. On day two of the second Test, large protests broke out on the fort overlooking the ground, and at the central intersection at Galle.
“We’ve got protests around the ground, it really hits home how lucky we are to be travelling the world but also in some ways it’s more than just being here to play cricket, you can see the impact it can have. It hasn’t been lost on our group, something we speak about quite a bit,” Australia’s Test captain Pat Cummins had said.
During the fifth ODI of the white-ball leg, the Sri Lankan fans wore yellow jerseys to thank the Australian team for touring the country. The gesture once again highlighted the beauty of sport and the power it wields.
Sri Lanka has won the Asia Cup five times — 1986, 1997, 2004, 2008, 2014 — in the ODI format and the official host of this year’s Asia Cup will be eager to add to its tally. Afghanistan, on the other hand, will aim to give fans, reared on generations of heartache, a slice of unbridled joy and pride.