Yo say that sports can unite people and bring a nation together has become pro forma. But Afghanistan’s qualification for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 shows that it can still be a potent truth in a manner shorn of the crass parochialism that often permeates the cricket-viewing public and for that matter, the following of every major sport. The team’s victory over Kenya last week in the World Cricket League Championship has highlighted two things: the enduring power of sport and the shortsightedness of the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s 10 full members.
Unlike most other cricket-playing nations that inherited the game from their colonial masters, Afghanistan is not its natural home. When the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, millions of Afghan refugees ended up in Pakistan; their children grew up steeped in the culture of cricket.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, they returned, bringing the game with them. That context is what makes the Afghan team’s achievements so remarkable. In the space of a decade, they have gone from being a ragtag bunch of amateurs playing in the World Cricket League Division 5 — the bottom rung of ICC affiliate member tournaments — to qualifying for the sport’s biggest tournament and earning a seat at the table with its full members.
Concurrent with the team’s rise is the startling growth of the game’s popularity within Afghanistan.
This has ramifications that extend far beyond the cricket pitch. Politically, cricket is the equivalent of a safe zone in the chaos of Afghanistan’s internal struggle for power — a symbol around which every faction can rally. Before Afghanistan’s historic one-day international against Pakistan last year, for instance, a Taliban spokesman contacted the Afghanistan Cricket Board to wish the team while Afghan President Hamid Karzai called officials several times to be kept abreast of the scores. The Taliban has also explicitly stated that it will allow cricket to be played if it returns to power — and the game is also doing its bit to bridge ethnic divisions.
All of which makes the ICC full members’ actions all the more disappointing. If they had their way, the Afghanistan story would have turned out very differently; after the last World Cup in 2011, they had decided that the 2015 iteration would exclude all associate teams. This was a slap in the face to Ireland in particular — an associate team that had just produced some stunning cricket in the 2011 edition — and a massive step back for the sport in general. Only loud and widespread criticism made them reconsider.
This was, sadly, not a one-off; too often, the full members behave more like privileged members of an exclusive club determined to keep it that way, rather than as custodians of the sport. The Board of Control for Cricket in India is perhaps the worst offender by sheer dint of its outsize influence. Even given the imperatives of television rights and sponsorship deals, it would cost it little to fit in the occasional one-day international with Afghanistan to give the neophyte team exposure — or, as Pakistan has done, allow Afghan players access to domestic Indian leagues. It is time the BCCI showed that it can wield its financial clout not just to have its own way but to benefit the sport as well.