How The Taliban Helped Cricket To Flourish In Afghanistan

Fresh from beating Scotland at the Cricket World Cup, Tim Wigmore reveals how the game grew in Afghanistan.
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Fresh from beating Scotland at the Cricket World Cup, Tim Wigmore reveals how the game grew in Afghanistan.

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George Orwell’s oft-quoted definition of serious sport – ‘War minus the shooting’ – does not apply to cricket in Afghanistan. When the national side qualified for the 2015 World Cup, the guns were not put away.
‘One of the army commanders came to congratulate the team,’ Dr Noor Muhammad, the chief executive of the Afghan Cricket Board, explained. ‘He told me that it was the first time that both the Taliban side and our side were shooting, but not at each other. There was shooting in the air to celebrate the success of the Afghanistan national team.’

Jubilant celebrations greeted the Afghan side who arrived at Kabul Airport and then boarded a coach through the city. ‘Everywhere the fans are shooting and flying Afghan flags to say “well played” – they were very happy. Everyone was shooting into the air,’ remembered captain Mohammad Nabi. Chants of ‘Afghanistan, zindabad!’ filled the air. ‘The supporters came to the airport. Whole roads were blocked and they took big security, the government.’ He had previously admitted, ‘We were a little fearful of a bomb blast.’

Hillary Clinton is among those who have praised the Afghan side. ‘I might suggest that if we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team,’ she said in May 2010.

‘For those of you who don’t follow cricket, which is most of the Americans, suffice it to say that Afghanistan did not even have a cricket team a decade ago. And last month, the team made it to the World Twenty20 championships featuring the best teams in the world.’

Their success might not have been possible without one particular ally. ‘It is the favourite game of everyone in the country, including the Taliban,’ Dr Muhammad said. After Afghanistan qualified for the World Cup, the Taliban sent a message of congratulations to the players.

As the Taliban extended their grip over Afghanistan in the 1990s, sport was not immune from the consequences. The Taliban took a markedly more draconian line than other Islamic regimes; while football thrived in Wahabi-dominated Saudi Arabia, it was anathema in Afghanistan.

Yet the Taliban’s al-Qaeda-funded regime made an exception for one sport: cricket. The elder brother of the first head of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, founded in 1995, was a member of the Taliban. The Afghanistan Cricket Federation registered with the Afghan Olympic Committee as a national sport.

In January 2000 the Taliban urged the Afghanistan Cricket Federation to write to the Pakistan Cricket Board requesting support to join the International Cricket Council as an affiliate member. In cricket, the Taliban saw a sport that could both promote the regime at home and gain some acceptance abroad. The Taliban recognised cricket as a sport that could fit easily with a hardline Islamic state. After all, cricket was Pakistan’s national sport, and Pakistan was one of only three states to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government.

Cricket sat easily with Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The sport bears significant resemblances to the old Afghan game of top danda. Both games involve a wooden bat hitting a spherical object. Cricket’s dress code also proved amenable to the Taliban. Unlike football, where the kit marked out those who wore it out as heathens in the Taliban’s eyes, cricket kits accommodated religious and cultural requirements.

‘Cricket became one of the favourite games of the Taliban because of the clothing,’ Dr Muhammad reflected. ‘They were not allowing sports with half trousers (shorts). In Islam, your knees should be hidden in your trousers and that’s it. Your knees should be hidden because that will allow you to offer prayers.’ In contrast to other sports, there is no direct physical contact between players in cricket.

After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Afghanistan became the focus of President George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. As provinces have been fought over since, cricket has offered a rare source of stability. It is played and watched in all parts of Afghanistan.

Taliban insurgents from Pakistan often inhabit the areas where cricket is most popular. ‘Cricket is stronger in areas where the Taliban are stronger,’ Dr Muhammad noted.

The Taliban have latched on to the sport. It is a shrewd move and means that the success of the Afghan cricketing side cannot be used as proof of the virtues of a more Westernised life. The Taliban have instead tried to claim the success of the cricket side as their own: leading players are reputed to have received gifts from people associated with the Taliban.

The Taliban’s support for cricket is also significant in terms of outside financial investment. Cricketers are not loathed by the most reactionary segments of Afghan society, as footballers often are, meaning that financial donors are insulated from criticism of pushing Western values before the country is ready. It also means that investment in cricket is unlikely to be wasted: cricket pitches and players have not been targets for Taliban attacks.

While for most Afghans cricket exists as a game played with a tape ball wherever space can be found – from narrow streets to the promenade of the Darul Aman Palace on the edge of Kabul – the game is becoming increasingly structured. There are over 80 grounds in Afghanistan, including more than 50 turf wickets. The country has around 500 cricket clubs, including leagues in 32 of the 34 provinces.

The increased professionalism and popularity of Afghan cricket has lent it an entirely different character. Gone is the motley bunch who represented their country in the recent past, receiving only travel, accommodation and a very modest allowance in return. In their place are Afghan celebrities who are not shy of monetising their talents.

While Afghanistan’s players have become celebrated athletes in their own country, and the side has become increasingly consistent, Afghan cricket remains in a curious sort of limbo.

Much of this is the result of the country’s unique circumstances. ‘The biggest barrier to Afghanistan’s cricket will be Afghanistan the country,’ an ICC source told me. It could be many years before any country is happy to tour Afghanistan, for all the board’s protestations that it would be safe to do so. The ground in Kabul, where the national squad trains, is flanked by up to ten armed guards. But that is not the only complication.

‘The advice I am getting is that it’s not the Taliban wanting to shoot you, the danger around Kabul is kidnap,’ Afghanistan’s new coach, the Englishman Andy Moles, told The Telegraph. ‘There are armed guards at the hotel I am staying at and also at the bank next door. So you get used to seeing AK47s every day.’

Yet Afghanistan are also hindered by the lack of altruism and ambitious vision from the cartel that runs cricket. Their fixture list lacks coherence and structure, deterring sponsors. The cricketing world is always happy to share the credit for Afghanistan’s success but is rather less enthusiastic to help them.

Most critically, Afghanistan remain completely reliant on the goodwill of full members to get games outside of the World Cup and World Twenty20. Even these opportunities are being reduced. After 2015, the World Cup will be restricted to ten teams. The main World Twenty20 has also been scaled back to ten sides and will now take place every four years rather than every two. Unless the full members become more amenable to giving Afghanistan playing opportunities, it will impose a glass ceiling on cricket’s growth.

With cricket unique among sports in wishing to contract the size of its World Cup, Afghanistan’s tournament debut threatens to be their last appearance in spite of their on-field improvements. Administrators have no time for fairytales.

Yet Afghanistan’s qualification for the World Cup is a brilliant story – the greatest testimony to the vision of Bob Woolmer in pioneering the ICC’s development programme.

For all the uncertainties that lie ahead, cricket has been a powerful unifying force in the country. Afghanistan’s success in its national sport has projected a positive image of the country to the rest of the world – and enriched the game of cricket in the process. Afghanistan are no ragtag bunch of cricketers, but a serious international side. Cries of ‘Afghanistan, zindabad’ are now imbued with expectation.

This is an extract from Second XI: Cricket in it's Outposts - cricket’s journey in ten nations beyond the Test world - written by a dream team of respected cricketing authors, writers and commentators led by Tim Wigmore and Peter Miller.