Cricket in Afghanistan — a source of inspiration and a platform to dream

It has been a meteoric rise for the Afghanistan national team, which has gone on to earn the Test status and featured in World Cups, and its performances have not only boosted the confidence of the Afghan population, the cricketers have given the nation an opportunity to dream. And all of this has happened in just two decades.

All’s well: Afghanistan’s newly appointed ODI and Test captain, Hashmatullah Shahidi (seen celebrating with Rashid Khan during a match), is optimistic about the future of cricket under Taliban rule, post his meeting with Anas Haqqani, a top leader in the Islamic Emirates of Taliban. “From the lower to the top leadership of Taliban, they love cricket and are in the favour of this sport and there will be no problem for cricket under the Taliban rule,” Shahidi says.   -  AP

From being an associate member to becoming one of the Test-playing nations — cricket, surely, has come a long way in war-torn Afghanistan. Over the years, the country witnessed trillions of dollars being spent on various development and military projects; however, the biggest success story of Afghanistan has been cricket — which certainly has changed the image of the country in the international arena and it is now the new identity of Afghanistan.

It has been a meteoric rise for the national team, which has gone on to earn the Test status and featured in World Cups, and its performances have not only boosted the confidence of the Afghan population, the cricketers have given the nation an opportunity to dream. While the likes of Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi have emerged as superstars, several cricket franchises across the world have tapped young, rookie talents from Afghanistan and have shaped them into match-winners. And all of this has happened in just two decades.

READ: Azizullah Fazli named acting chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board

Now, with the Islamic Emirates of Taliban back at the helm, there are apprehensions, fear among the cricketing world and obviously the big question — what awaits Afghanistan cricket under Taliban rule?

Hikmat Hassan, who is the head of media of Afghanistan Cricket Board, is optimistic that cricket will not suffer under the new regime. “Taliban has never had a problem with cricket in the past, they have always interacted well with the cricketers,” Hassan told Sportstar.

“We had a productive meeting with the cultural and sports commission of the Islamic Emirates and they assured us that they are in favour of cricket and will support Afghanistan Cricket Board to follow its plans for the development of the game in the country,” Hassan said.

Soon after the Taliban regained power, there was a change in regime at the ACB, too, with Azizullah Fazli returning as the president, replacing Farhan Yousafzai. Over the last few weeks, several Taliban leaders have interacted with a few national cricketers and have even visited the Board headquarters in Kabul indicating that the game would not hit a roadblock, at least for now.

“We have good relations with the International Cricket Council and are looking forward to participating in the upcoming T20I World Cup and arrange more bilateral series other than the current FTP fixtures as well,” Hassan added.

However, there have been disruptions. With the Kabul airport out of bounds, the Afghanistan team could not travel to Sri Lanka for its limited-overs series against Pakistan and there was postponement. The team has not played an international fixture since March-April this year, and the road ahead, too, does not appear to be too bright. But then, the players are not losing hope. In fact, they have gradually started training in Kabul, keeping the T20 World Cup in mind.

Afghanistan’s newly appointed ODI and Test captain, Hashmatullah Shahidi, is optimistic about the future of cricket under Taliban rule, post his meeting with Anas Haqqani, a top leader in the Islamic Emirates of Taliban.

“From the lower to the top leadership of Taliban, they love cricket and are in the favour of this sport and there will be no problem for cricket under the Taliban rule,” Shahidi told Sportstar.

According to him, the Taliban in-charge for Kabul, Haqqani, has played cricket himself and has given a positive vibe for the continuation of the game.

Will the stars continue?

Men who matter: There are speculations on whether Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan — the two superstars of Afghanistan cricket — will continue with the national side in the current scenario. While they remain tight-lipped, several sources indicate that they will continue being the mainstays of the team and will be available for future assignments.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

 

However, there are speculations on whether Nabi and Rashid — the two superstars of Afghanistan cricket — will continue with the national side in the current scenario. While they remain tight-lipped, several sources indicate that they will continue being the mainstays of the team and will be available for future assignments.

A true patriot, Rashid recently was seen sporting Afghanistan’s national flag on both his cheeks during the eliminator of The Hundred, and urged the rulers not to change the national flag.

The duo is expected to play the Indian Premier League and then join the national side for the T20 World Cup.

Apart from Rashid, Nabi, Naveen-ul Haq and Mujeeb Zadran — who are currently featuring in franchise leagues — most top players are living in Afghanistan and are training in private academies in Nangarhar, Kabul and Khost.

In fact, quite a few players — including national cricketers Munir Kakar and Dastagir Shpageeza — are also featuring in a three-match one-day series between Kandahar and Helmand at the Kandahar Stadium and the players are excited to be back in action.

A few weeks ago, the national team had three stages of national camps in Kabul, under the watchful eyes of head coach Lance Kluesner. The camp got over just before the Eid holidays, and now, most of the senior team players are training under local assistant coaches — Nawroz Mangal, Javid Noori, Rozi Khan Zurmati and Sayed Rahman.

Recently, 350 professional cricketers were up for the drafts at the country’s premier T20 tournament, the Shpageeza Cricket League, and it was on that day that several blasts rocked the capital city of Kabul, which took the lives of over 100 Afghans.

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With the tournament set to begin in September, the local players have already started individual training at various centres and will soon assemble in Kabul to start preparing for the Shpageeza League — which will see participation of eight teams this time.

Players and coaches have told this publication that so far, there have been no obstacles for them to reach the ground and train. One, however, can’t predict what lies ahead.

Direct link

Senior cricket journalist and TV presenter Faridullah Mohammadi, however, is linking the future of Afghanistan cricket with the international recognition and legitimacy of the Islamic Emirates.“The future of Afghanistan cricket depends on the government, whether they will be recognised by the international community or not,” Mohammadi said. The senior journalist believes that Afghanistan’s full membership with the ICC is also conditional on the promotion of cricket for women in the country, and if the Islamic Emirates imposes a ban on women’s cricket and continues its political and military interference in the Afghanistan Cricket Board, it could lead to some actions from the world body.

And that, surely, could jeopardise Afghanistan’s 20-years of achievements in the sport and the infrastructure could be hit badly as India has been one of the leading funding countries in Afghanistan cricket infrastructure.

Now, considering the Islamic Emirates’ past relations with India, there are apprehensions on that front, too.

While the ICC says it is monitoring the situation and is in touch with the Afghanistan Cricket Board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) maintains that it will continue sharing a professional relationship with the Afghan board. However, it is certain that the dynamics would change as the political situation sways.

Over the last few years, the BCCI has backed Afghanistan Board in every possible way — be it allotting home grounds in Greater Noida, Dehradun or Lucknow or agreeing to play the first Test against Afghanistan in Bengaluru in 2018. “The Board has taken every possible way to help Afghanistan’s cricket, and one would hope that similar camaraderie would continue in the future as well. However, the directives and the political situation could have an impact,” a former Board official, who played a pivotal role in improving the equations between the two boards, said.

In favour: Afghan national cricket team players during a training session at the Kabul International Cricket Ground on August 21. Hikmat Hassan, the head of media of Afghanistan Cricket Board, is optimistic that cricket will not suffer under the new regime. “Taliban has never had a problem with cricket in the past, they have always interacted well with the cricketers. We had a productive meeting with the cultural and sports commission of the Islamic Emirates and they assured us that they are in favour of cricket and will support Afghanistan Cricket Board to follow its plans for the development of the game in the country,” Hassan says.   -  AFP

 

Is there hope?

A few years ago, the BCCI had stated that every overseas side touring India will play a warm-up side game against Afghanistan’s youth side. Even though that did not materialise, the players have benefited immensely from India. While several players have been roped in by the IPL franchises in various roles, the teams have repeatedly travelled to different parts of India for pre-season training and rehabilitation programmes. And coming close to the Indian cricketers and superstars have given the youngsters hope to make things count.

Farhad Momand, one of the emerging fast bowlers in Afghanistan, has already performed consistently in the domestic tournaments. Last year, he featured in the Shpageeza League for Band e Amir Dragons under the captaincy of Asghar Afghan. The former captain was impressed with Momand’s performance and promised to include him in the setup of national team camps as well in Afghanistan A tours.

“I will continue training as usual with even more energy. Cricket was established under the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s and they have already declared their support to cricket and sports in Afghanistan and I feel my future is secured here,” Momand said, hoping that the political situation will not affect the game much.

Future tense for women’s cricket

What’s in store for women’s cricket: The founder of the Afghanistan national women’s team, Diana Barakzai. Many in the cricketing circles believe that if women’s cricket is not promoted, it could have a negative impact on the country’s cricket prospects. And after achieving so much, that could be a huge blow.   -  REUTERS

 

While there is hope in the cricketing community that there won’t be any disruptions in the development of the game, the same cannot be said about women’s cricket. According to Afghanistan women’s national cricket team’s first-ever captain and coach Diana Barakzai, the country has over 3,700 female cricketers. Barakzai created and captained Afghanistan women’s cricket in 2009 but the Afghanistan Cricket Board officially established women’s cricket in 2010. Barakzai resigned in 2014 accusing the ACB of not supporting the promotion of women’s cricket.

Although the women’s cricket team had more support from the international donors instead of the ACB, it never played an international match. However, in 2012, it participated in a local six-team tournament in Tajikistan and eventually won the tournament. There was gradual growth ever since, with several women taking up the sport seriously. The ACB recently awarded central contracts to 25 female cricketers and the team was scheduled to visit a Muslim country, under the coaching of a foreign women’s international.

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However, that did not happen, and given the current scenario, the stakeholders, too, are tight-lipped. Many in the cricketing circles believe that if women’s cricket is not promoted, it could have a negative impact on the country’s cricket prospects. And after achieving so much, that could be a huge blow.

The story of rise and fall

In 1995, it was Allah Dad Noori — the president and a player himself — who assembled Afghanistan’s first national team post the initial trial, which then went to play in Pakistan’s Grade-2 domestic competition. In 2001, Afghanistan became an ICC member, and eventually joined the Asian Cricket Council as a member in 2003.

Afghanistan’s first ever international win registered against Bahrain in 2004 followed by its triumph in the ACC T20 championship in 2007, which was its first major title, was a big boost for the game in the country. And there was no looking back since. Afghanistan won Division five in Jersey, Division four in Tanzania, both in 2008, and was ultimately awarded with the ODI status during the Division one tournament in South Africa before obtaining associate membership.

On June 2, 2009, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai changed the status of Afghanistan cricket with a decree from federation to Afghanistan Cricket Board. This was to ensure that it was on a par with prevalent practices in other countries, which led Afghanistan cricket to adopt good governance and a notable increase in its budget both from the government, from the ICC and ACC. And the results were showing.

Afghanistan registered the first-ever ODI win against Scotland in 2009 in South Africa and then went on to win the ICC T20I global qualifier, unbeaten, to book its place in the first-ever mega event — the 2010 T20I World Cup in the Caribbean.

With this phenomenal rise of the Afghanistan national team, cricket propelled and flourished dramatically with the infrastructures coming up at the Kabul International Stadium along with cricket grounds in Nangarhar, Khost, Kandahar, Kunar and Kunduz provinces, which eased the way for the junior level cricket to achieve reputable positions in the international cricket tournaments around the globe.

Several high-profile coaches — including Kabir Khan, Rashid Latif, Peter Anderson, Andy Moles, Inzamam-ul Haq, Lalchand Rajput, Phil Simmons and Lance Klusener — have coached the Afghanistan national cricket team, and their presence has helped the players grow. Recently, the ACB has also roped in Shaun Tait as the bowling coach, while Avishka Gunawardane has joined as the batting coach.

Over the last few years, the ACB has also been able to spread the game across regions and tap several young talents. Even though there have been claims of corruption, mismanagement, time and again repeated changes in the leadership, the game has never really suffered. In addition, even now, after the Taliban takeover, the facilities in the provinces are slowly opening up for the game to resume.

There are uncertainties, desperation and fear of survival, but for a country which has lived through the war for decades, cricket remains a source of inspiration — and a platform to dream.

People, who follow Afghanistan cricket closely, admit that there is something to look forward to, even though the going could get tougher with the lack of corporate support and sponsorship.

There are not too many industrial groups or corporate backers in the country to help the game financially, so a lot will depend on the current government, and how it maintains international relations.

We are walking on thin ice, with prayers and hope.

(The writer is a senior sports journalist and commentator, based in Kabul)

With inputs from Shayan Acharya

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