f there is one team in the ongoing Cricket World Cup that has caught the imagination of the masses through their noteworthy performances on the field, that would be the one from Afghanistan.
The rise of Afghan cricket is no surprise, though — for years, many players of this team have been showing their potential in the T20 (or shortened game) format across premiere cricket leagues across the world. Then the Afghan players started to perform well as a team in the bilateral and multilateral international T20 contests. In the 2023 Cricket World Cup, this team saw itself in a position where it had a good chance to qualify for the World Cup semi-finals.
All these sound like elements of a fairy tale for a national team whose homeland has been in turmoil for decades. As expected, most of the cricket commentators and fans lauded the team’s success and rallied behind it.
Many of them also wanted the team to perform well especially in its last league game against South Africa on Nov. 10 at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. Now the question might arise: Why this specific reference to this particular match?
The answer is two-pronged. The first, of course, is that this match gave Afghanistan another chance to be in the World Cup semi-finals, which would be a historic feat for Afghan cricket if it made it. (It didn’t.)
The second reason is more interesting, and lies in the fact that Afghanistan played against South Africa. It also has little to do with on-field cricket, and all about the history of these two nations.
In 1970, the International Cricket Conference (ICC) expelled South Africa because of the apartheid policy of the then South African government. For decades prior, South Africa had gotten away with not playing against any non-white team, citing its apartheid policy. This had gone on without any serious steps taken by even the Imperial Cricket Council, the sport’s major governing body before the ICC.
Then the South African cricket board decided to object against the selection of a cricketer of non-white origin (Basil D’Oliveira) in the England cricket squad that was going up against its team. Interestingly, the player, Basil d’Oliveira, who was of Portuguese-Indian lineage, was actually from a South African “colored” community.
But South Africa’s action caught the ire of the British public, and as a result, South Africa got expelled from international cricket. It would take almost two decades until its team would be able to make a comeback to international competition, with its return taking place in 1991 at Eden Gardens against India.
So here is what we have: The ICC behaved in one way (and rightly so) in the case of South Africa years ago, but is now choosing to look the other way in the case of Afghanistan that is currently under the Taliban rule. If apartheid was inhumane because it terrorized and discriminated against non-whites, then by the same yardstick, are not the Taliban policies much worse? Isn’t allowing Afghanistan to continue as an international cricket-playing nation then ultimately legitimizing the Taliban rule in Afghanistan?
Or, should we see this policy of letting Afghanistan continue as an emerging cricket nation as an effort to extend an olive branch to the Taliban regime, in hopes that a cricket boom could somehow pacify the situation in the country? But who really thinks that the country gaining cricket fame would make the Taliban less ruthless?
Food for thought
If any nation wants to generate its goodwill in the international community, it needs a soft power to gain respect and legitimacy in the eyes of other nation-states. Today the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has precisely got this one and only major soft power: cricket. Elsewhere, it has essentially been shut out because it refuses to respect even the most basic of human rights.
When Quinton de Kock, the southpaw from South Africa, didn’t take the knee to support the Black Lives Matter in the 2021 T20 World Cup, a major hue and cry was witnessed (and again, rightly so). People said it was insensitive of him to refuse to do so. By the same account, is it not insensitive for the international cricket community to accept the Afghan national team that is under a regime that refuses to let its country’s female population go to school, among other things, and is too quick to execute anyone it deems to be defiant of its edicts?
Some may argue that terrorism is not the question. As many liberals might point out, sports and politics should be kept separate. But in cricket, there is that back story of the South African apartheid team. There is also the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the world’s richest and most powerful cricket body, which, after the 2008 Mumbai attacks (known locally as 26/11), decided to strip all its bilateral cricketing ties with Pakistan. Post the 26/11 attacks, the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in Pakistan, which prompted the ICC to suspend Pakistan as a venue for international cricket for almost a decade.
Former Pakistan Cricket Board chairperson Tauqir Zia said BCCI has never refused to play against Pakistan, attributing the controversy to a “government-to-government” problem. That is true at some level, but the fact remains that BCCI follows whatever the Indian government says. It is also the same BCCI that has helped to build Afghan cricket in many ways, like providing the team with cricket infrastructure, cricket facilities. and a home ground in Dehradun in Uttarakhand, India.
In the Indian Premiere League, the number of Afghan cricketers has seen a steady rise in the last decade, and there has been no attempt to oust any of them out of the league even after the Taliban takeover.
Chew on these for a moment: Pakistan is snubbed by India in cricket because of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Yet India helps out the team of a country ruled by a group that has been branded a terrorist organization and which makes no apologies over its repression of its own people.
Most people also cheer for the national team of this country where human rights practically no longer exist. Meanwhile, somewhere in the sport’s history, South Africa with its racist policy was allowed to participate for decades and was banned only when it refused to go up against a European country with a non-white player.
Surely at some point one would come to the realization that there seems to be two different policies on who gets to play. Clearly, any ban on countries or teams should be done by an equal yardstick. But it could well be that the powers that be think that the comparisons made here are like comparing oranges with apples. Perhaps they think there is no problem at all. Yet it is still the duty of governing bodies such as ICC and BCCI to openly lay down standards on who should be allowed on the cricket playing field. Otherwise, there will always be questions on whether or not it is level at all. ◉