A cricket fairy tale is in danger of becoming a nightmare after the Taliban’s sudden takeover of Afghanistan prompted a plea from a former top official for the sport’s governing body to not “abandon” them.
The return of the hardline Islamists has created panic over the future of the country’s most popular sport with cricket in Afghanistan having been initially built in the 1990s by players returning home from refugee camps in Pakistan.
Afghanistan gained Affiliate membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001 just a year after the ban on the sport was lifted by the Taliban. Since then, Afghanistan rose up the ranks to be granted exclusive Full Member status and became a fan favorite worldwide due to their slew of effervescent players who offered hope and inspiration for the strife-torn nation.
These pioneers became much-loved and helped shake up the staid sport of cricket. Shapoor Zadran, the one with the long, unkempt hair who has a ludicrous run-up and Hamid Hassan – celebrator of wickets with cartwheels – became notable cult figures.
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The team helped transform Afghanistan’s image globally. They instilled pride and helped shed hackneyed stereotypes, which were always so unfair and hurtful for Aghans.
“I remember before when I travelled the world and introduced myself as an Afghan, people would be reluctant to interact with me,” former Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) chief executive Shafiq Stanikzai told me during a phone interview.
“But we gained momentum and respect through cricket…we are now proud to be from Afghanistan. We have Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi…role models on the global stage. We have talent.
“My biggest worry is that we lose our identity.”
I once spent some time with the Afghanistan team in Perth ahead of the 2015 World Cup, just months before they stole the show with a breakout performance that warmed the hearts of cricket fans.
Back then they were still slurred with the derogatory ‘minnows’ moniker but their players – while always humble and respectful – had an innate belief that it was their destiny to become a “great cricket nation”, as veteran all-rounder Samiullah Shenwari told me at the time.
Their determination manifested from collective hardships growing up. Shenwari told me of how he was too young to remember his family’s effort fleeing Afghanistan to seek safety in neighboring Pakistan during the final stages of the Soviet Union’s occupation.
“We were from Jalalabad but we had to move to Peshawar for safety because of the war,” Shenwari told me.
“My mom always reminded me of the obstacles we faced. She told me we had to walk to cross the border because there was no car or any other access.
“We had to cross the mountains to the Pakistani side. It took weeks. The dedication from my family is something that will always be part of me.”
Like many Afghan cricketers, Shenwari’s passion for cricket started at a refugee camp in Peshawar where he played with a taped tennis ball and did not use a hard cricket ball until aged 15.
These incredible back stories have instilled genuine heart into cricket, which is a sport too often smeared by corruption, elitism and dubious motivations from its power nations.
But all that goodwill over two decades of tireless development into Afghanistan cricket could be eroded with the Taliban back in control. The board has changed, international fixtures postponed and general anxiety has consumed the cricket community.
Stanikzai, who was involved in the ACB for 18 years including five as its top boss, however said the Taliban had dealt cordially with Afghanistan cricket previously.
“My experience with the Taliban is that they were supportive,” he said “They used to send us warm messages – they wished us well when I was team manager for our first ODIs.
“Cricket started in their reign and I think they will be supportive of cricket.”
Women’s cricket, however, is in a perilous state despite the Taliban promising Afghan women more freedom even though many aren’t buying that vow. It does not bode well for women’s cricket, which in contrast to the men’s meteoric rise, has always been much slower to develop amid conservative terrain.
“There was slow progression on the board in my time,” Stanikzai said. “Afghan society was not ready to accept women’s cricket. We had to teach society that they have to accept women’s cricket. That women can get out of the home and play cricket.
“A few provinces started playing women’s cricket.”
It led to 25 contracted female players but fears persist that women won’t be allowed to play cricket under the new regime.
If that ensues then Afghanistan would violate its ICC membership, where the establishment and development of women’s cricket is a key staple.
The ICC is monitoring the situation but uncertainty persists fuelling fears of a worse-case scenario of cricket’s biggest success story spiralling into oblivion if membership is revoked.
In a rallying cry, Stanikzai believes cricket in Afghanistan will always be embedded in its culture but hopes the sport’s gatekeepers don’t turn their backs.
“Cricket will never die in Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s our identity and in our blood. We don’t want to get back to the dark ages. I remain hopeful that the ICC will remain committed and not abandon Afghanistan.
“Without Afghanistan, cricket would not be the same. It is the charm of cricket, the darling of cricket.
“That magical story should continue.”