On March 27th, Afghanistan secured a historic victory over West Indies, defeating them by 6 runs. In qualifying and mixing with giants such as England and South Africa, Afghanistan has achieved something scarcely believable for a nation with a backdrop of a bloody civil war, and where cricket ceased to exist as little as two decades ago.
The story of Afghan cricket began in the 19th century during the Anglo-Afghan war, where British soldiers played cricket in Kabul during the 1830s. These beginnings were, however, short-lived, and in the wake of colonialism, cricket was rejected by native Afghans resulting in cricket’s absence in Afghanistan until the 1990s.
The new dawn in Afghan cricket arose during a fractious period in the country’s history when following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan many natives sought refuge in Pakistan. When Pakistan was triumphant in the 1992 World Cup cricket, an already popular game became a Pakistani obsession, and quickly spread through Afghan refugee camps eventually reaching Taj Malik, now affectionately known as Afghan cricket’s founding father.
Malik became hooked by cricket and dreamt up an ambitious plan of an Afghan national cricket team. In the following years, he moved through refugee camps in Pakistan recruiting talent amongst Afghans representing Pakistani teams. However, the recruitment was not well received by all, with many parents taking an uncompromising stance on cricket. “When I started thinking about making a national team,” Malik stated, “I went to every Afghan player that I knew and encouraged them to come to Kabul. But their fathers came to our home and warned me not to do that. They told me that cricket kills the time of their sons.” This created a problem for Malik: how could he persuade young men, barely earning enough to feed their families, to uproot their lives and move to Kabul to pursue an ambitious career in cricket. Eventually, Malik found enough volunteers and in 1995 under the support of the Afghan Olympic Committee the Afghan Cricket Federation was founded, in spite of a strict Taliban government.
This Taliban Government initially blocked cricket’s development in Afghanistan, owing to their strict Sharia law, which prohibited all public sporting activities. Cricket was eventually accepted because of its non-contact nature and modest cricket whites, which accommodated both religious and cultural requirements, unlike football, whose skimpy kit was seen as the marking of heathens by the Taliban.
Cricket was also allowed because Taliban members themselves had inhabited Pakistani refugee camps, and, like Malik, inherited a love for the game. Ultimately, the Taliban saw a sport that fit with their hardline Islamic state, and a means to promote and legitimise their regime locally and globally. The Taliban took the example from Pakistan, one of only three nations to recognise them as the official Afghan government, a proud Muslim nation with cricket as its national obsession.
Twenty years on from these modest roots Afghan cricket has undergone a meteoric rise. After the team’s official acceptance as an ICC affiliate member, a result of Taliban pressure on the Afghanistan Cricket Federation to write to the Pakistan Cricket Board for support in their application, they began playing in the second tier of the Pakistani domestic league. Despite initially mixed results, Afghanistan began regular overseas tours, which provided an experience of cricket in different conditions and cultures. Such tours provided a platform to develop, and Afghanistan progressively moved through the ICC’s World Cricket League, eventually qualifying for the 2010 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean. Here their progress was tested by two cricketing powerhouses in South Africa and India. Despite successive defeats the tournament marked Afghanistan’s arrival on the world stage, and they were praised widely for their enthusiasm and exciting brand of cricket.
More recent success came in qualifying and participation in 2015 50 over World Cup 2015, where despite failing to qualify for the Quarter-Finals they recorded their first victory in a major tournament against Scotland and ran Sri Lanka exceptionally close. This success was followed by becoming the first associate nation to defeat a Test playing nation in bilateral ODI and T20 series with wins in Zimbabwe and at ‘home’ in the UAE, proving they were ready to mix with the larger cricket nations.
This brings us to the qualifying stage for the T20 World Cup this March. Here Afghanistan continued their astonishing upward trend by defeating Zimbabwe, Hong Kong and Scotland to qualify for the main stage of the T20 World Cup. Loses to Sri Lanka, South Africa and England means Afghanistan will not qualify for the Semi-Finals, but their spirit and verve for the game have made sure that in an era of super-professionalism in sport, there is room and appreciation for their more cavalier approach.
In Afghanistan, the team’s unheralded sporting success has impassioned and united a country torn apart by tribal warfare. This has resulted in increased professionalism, popularity and sponsorship in Afghan cricket. Amazingly, Afghanistan now has around 500 cricket clubs and successful domestic T20 and four-day competitions, which attracts millions of television audiences worldwide.
The increased professionalism can be seen with the appointments of former Pakistani Test captain Inzamam Ul Haq as head coach and former Indian all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar as a bowling coach. These appointments show clear intentions to iron out the occasional village cricket-like periods in Afghan cricket, a necessity required to become a serious threat to world cricket’s elite. The challenge of these motions towards professionalism will be maintaining the unpredictable and unorthodox nature of Afghan cricket which has made them so revered globally.
Despite the overwhelming positives, the transition to an elite team, potentially even a Test nation appears to be blocked by both the ICC and the Test playing nations. Outside major global tournaments, Afghanistan has not been able to showcase their talents against cricket’s top eight nations in over two years. This is a shameful indictment of the money grabbing nature of cricket’s biggest nations, who prefer to generate greater revenue through playing against themselves, rather than helping promote cricket globally through providing a platform for smaller nations such as Afghanistan. Soon even opportunities at global tournaments will be lost, with the ICC restricting its World Cups to ten teams. Combined, these two issues mean stories like Afghanistan in cricket will be lost, and smaller nations will effectively have a glass ceiling on their growth.
This represents a huge tragedy as Afghanistan is a shining example of cricket’s diplomatic utility. Cricket in Afghanistan has united a war-torn nation and given hope to a generation of youngsters who have known nothing but war. With the help of the ICC and the promise of higher quality games against Test opposition Afghanistan will only keep improving and bringing happiness to a nation which has so long been bereft of it.
Words by Harry Rice
Cover Photo by Jeremy Weate