As Afghanistan settles tentatively into its new political reality, the Taliban will be faced with a number of questions as to what the nature of their new regime will be. Already there have been assurances that there will be no return to the brutal Islamic theocracy of the previous Taliban government of the 1990s – but as armed fighters stroll the streets of Kabul, with the faces of women on shops painted out and girls sent home from school, their assurances to the Afghan people and international community look very thin indeed.
As the group adjusts from a wartime footing to the cold hard light of government, perhaps as shocked by their own rapid advance as the rest of the world, one of the surprising first policy decisions to confront them has been cricket – namely, whether their national team would play in their first bilateral series against Pakistan in Sri Lanka, due to take place in September 2021. Cricket is by far the most played sport in Afghanistan and its national team has some popular following, but for a group that has traditionally banned all sports as un-Islamic this may be a crucial litmus test for how willing the Taliban are to liberalise in certain areas.
The rise of Afghanistan as a cricketing nation seemed a powerful endorsement of the stabilising influence of the Western-backed republican government and the growth of the kind of civic patriotism around sport that might finally bind the disparate tribal structure of the country together. Unlike most cricketing countries the sport is not a colonial legacy – although the British played matches in the cantonments and hillforts of the nineteenth century, fierce campaigns and short occupations meant the game had no chance to catch on. It instead came to the country from the refugee camps in Pakistan that many fled to during the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war, where Afghans came across the Pakistani national sport whilst in exile. The Afghanistan Cricket Board was founded in Pakistan in 1995 and the team enjoyed a period of meteoric success in the 2010s, earning ODI status in 2011 and beating teams such as Bangladesh, Scotland, Ireland and Zimbabwe. When they qualified for the World Cup in 2015 there was much popular enthusiasm and celebration, and in 2017 the team was awarded full membership of the International Cricket Council and became a full Test cricket-playing nation. As a popular national institution, the cricket team seemed a perfect flag-carrier abroad for the democratic, international government in Kabul and for a country ready to take its place on the international stage.
With the Taliban victory in August all this has changed. After a period of uncertainty, it appears that the regime will allow the men’s team to continue to play – but this did not stop Taliban fighters accompanied by ex-cricketer Abdullah Mazari posing armed in the offices of the Afghanistan Cricket Board. Particularly cruel for the players is the disbandment of the female cricket team, who like all women under the Taliban would not be allowed to play sport of any kind – the group considers this incompatible with their interpretation of Islam. Unlike the large numbers of athletes who were airlifted out of the country by Coalition countries, including over fifty evacuated by Australia, many of Afghanistan’s women cricketers remained in the country. Some have been critical of the ICC, accusing them of failing the women’s team: Roya Samim, who fled with her family to Canada, said her emails went unanswered. Although Samim has expressed a desire to keep representing Afghanistan abroad as part of a female team, the future for women’s cricket as with other sports seems bleak.
Now the male national team playing in Pakistan may bizarrely become one of the new regime’s first international and diplomatic appearances. It raises a number of thorny questions – will the team play under the white jihadist banner of the group, displacing the flag and symbols of the old republican government which the team had previously used? Will the stars of Afghan cricket such as Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi want to return to a team playing under the auspices of the Taliban, and will the country face the same issues as many Eastern Bloc nations during the Cold War as athletes defect and seek asylum? But what better way could the Taliban demonstrate continuity to Afghans, and normalcy and legitimacy to the international community, than a sports team touring abroad under their banner and because of their apparent tolerance. If the team continues to tour, and win, abroad, it could potentially do much to normalise the Taliban’s rule over the country.
Sport often tracks the wider political fortunes of a state – think of the power of the international ban on playing apartheid South Africa, or the sad decline of the Zimbabwean cricket team as the country sank into economic chaos. How Afghanistan’s only major sports team will perform, or if it will, may become a crucial indicator of how the new regime is accepted on the world stage and how liberal the Taliban really intend to be. The uncertain future of cricket in Afghanistan mirrors the uncertainty many Afghans, who had lived for twenty years under the collapsed Kabul government, feel towards the policies of the new regime. For now, it appears the team will keep touring under the sufferance of the Taliban. What happens next, as for all public life in Afghanistan, remains undecided.