Eighteen years ago, no Afghani might have thought that in 2018 they would play their first traditional form of Cricket [[i]] – the five day Test Cricket. In March 2019, they went on to host Ireland at Dehradun [[ii]] in Indian soil for their first home series. Even though they lost their first test match against India last year, they outclassed Ireland to win the series. This is a great gesture from India to assist Cricket in Afghanistan as they cannot host a match at their homeland due to internal strife and conflicts. India’s soft power diplomacy towards Afghanistan is displayed through various forms but indeed cricket is important to the context.
Taliban’s Cricket Interests
The Afghanistan Cricket Team consists of a talented pool of young , inspired and experienced players, in the form Rashid Khan, Mujeeb-ur-Rehman, Mohammed Nabi, who in the last two years have showed their charisma in the shorter formats of the sport[[iii]]. Even though International Cricket Council granted them Test status in 2017[[iv]], India hosted them in June 2018 and then Afghanistan hosted Ireland for their first ‘home’ series in India which turned out be a historic event. The never ending conflict in Afghanistan and orthodox nature of the Afghani Taliban had affected the sporting culture over the years. According to Hasti Gul, former Afghanistan Cricketer, Taliban had banned sports like cricket and football in their early years of their ascetic rule as they believed that these sports kept men away from prayers but in recent times they have become tolerant[[v]]. This is evident from the fact that during non-fighting season, the cricket matches played in the region attract hundreds of spectators from the Taliban-controlled villages where the fighters are also fans [[vi]] of their national team. It is not a strange game to them as they have a traditional game – Dandaclid[[vii]] similar to cricket but with sticks and a small piece of wood. Since 2001, the hard-lined Islamic regime had strong opposition to both football and cricket to be played in their controlled areas; but over the last decade or so a softness towards cricket [[viii]] is observed and the sport is predominatly focused in the Pashtun dominated area. Interestingly, the elder brother of the first head of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, which was founded in 1995, was a member of the Afghan Taliban [[ix]]. However, the orthodox regime’s liberal thought towards cricket might be because the sport is played with fully covered jerseys as other sports like football and basketball are played in shorts. Another important factor is that Cricket is played and dominated by Asian teams from South Asia.
With the changing domestic politics in Afghanistan along with the possible withdrawal of United States (US) troops [[x]] from the former, the probability of a Taliban controlled government is visible. Though Afghan Taliban is orthodox in nature, their perspective towards development is changing overtime. Quoting from an Interview given by a Taliban spokesperson to a media source, “Afghanistan wants good relations with all its neighbouring and regional countries. As the representatives of the people of Afghanistan, we want to see healthy and positive role of all countries in Afghanistan based on the needs of the people of our homeland. We value all economic projects and are committed to supporting and protecting all projects that are fruitful and positive for the prosperity and development of our country” [[xi]]. This is positive for India given the fact that it has been contributing towards Afghanistan’s development since 2001 in economic as well as social sectors. As a cricket stalwart, India’s contribution to the sport’s infrastructural development and promotion in Afghanistan is important for the both nations to further strengthen the relation.
The Indo-Afghanistan Friendship Series which was held last year, witnessed a new era of ascension for Afghanistan in the highest level of Cricket but more importantly the support from India in helping them play their historic test further strengthen the relationship between the two nations. Quoting the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on the series, “Today cricket is unifying force for the people of Afghanistan. India takes pride in being shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghanistan in this journey. These achievements have come about in challenging and difficult circumstances. This demonstrates the indomitable Afghan spirit to overcome all challenges and realize aspirations for a purposeful, stable, united and peaceful nation”[[xii]]. It is interesting to note that India has provided financial assistance for building a stadium at Kandahar which got opened last year. There have been attacks by extremist groups [[xiii]] on players and during club matches in the past two years. Due to this unfavourable environment to host matches in Afghanistan and lack of training facilities, the Afghan team has been practicing in the Greater Noida Stadium [[xiv]] since 2015. The hospitality shown by India is impressive as it would assist the India’s strategic motives in the region.
Over the years, India has been involved in infrastructural developments which includes building of the parliament [[xv]] and rebuilding of Habibia High School [[xvi]] in Kabul with grant in aids, construction of Salma Dam [[xvii]], reconstruction of Indira Gandhi Children’s hospital [[xviii]] at Kabul, cricket stadium [[xix]] at Kandahar and many other services. Apart from these, the Indian Premier League [[xx]] Cricket Tournament is also a hit in Afghanistan as three of the latter’s players are crucial to the franchises they are playing for. However, it is positive for the sport as well as for Afghanistan that Cricket is emerging as a ‘unifier’ and the only sport the Afghani Taliban [[xxi]] supports . Perhaps, Cricket and India’s position in the world of the sport can further assist in strengthening Indo-Afghanistan relations.
[[i]]Gupta, Swati. “ Afghanistan vs India: Historic Test Match”. CNN. 14 June 2018. Retrieved on 15 April 2019: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/14/sport/afghanistan-test-cricket-india-intl/index.html [[ii]] Associated Press. “Afghanistan set to "host" 1st home Test in India”. Sports24. 20 February 2019. Retrieved on 5 April 2019: https://www.sport24.co.za/Cricket/afghanistan-set-to-host-1st-home-test-in-india-20190220 [[iii]] ibid [[iv]] “The Rise of Afghanistan Cricket”. ICC. 12 October 2018. Retrieved on 5 April 2019:https://www.icc-cricket.com/news/877810 [[v]]Shalizi, Hamid. “Swapping Kalashnikovs for bat and pads: Afghan cricket, the Taliban and peace”. Reuters. 2 April 2019. Retrieved on 3 April 2019: https://in.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-taliban-cricket/swapping-kalashnikovs-for-bat-and-pads-afghan-cricket-the-taliban-and-peace-idINKCN1RE019 [[vi]] ibid [[vii]] Qazi, Abdulla. “ Dandaclid- Kids’ Game”. Afghanistan Online.20 January 2016.Retrieved on 18 April 2019: https://www.afghan-web.com/games/kids-games/ [[viii]] Morley, Gary & Murphy,Chris. “The Taliban’s favourite sport: Afghan cricket’s battle for acceptance”.CNN. 10 April 2013. Retrieved on 4 April 2019:https://edition.cnn.com/2013/04/03/sport/mohammad-nabi-afghanistan-cricket/index.html [[ix]] Wigmore, Tim. “How The Taliban Helped Cricket To Flourish in Afghanistan”. Sabotage Times. 27 February 2015. Retrieved on 5 April 2019:https://sabotagetimes.com/life/how-the-taliban-helped-cricket-to-flourish-in-afghanistan [[x]] Sinno, Abdulkader. “What will come after a US Withdrawal from Afghanistan?”. The Conversation. 5 March 2019. Retrieved on 4 April 2019: https://theconversation.com/what-will-come-after-a-us-withdrawal-from-afghanistan-111036 [[xi]]Sibal, Siddhant. “Will protect Chabahar; Hindu, Sikh rights guaranteed, says Taliban spokesman to WION”. Wion. 3 February 2019. Retrieved on 4 April 2019: https://www.wionews.com/south-asia/will-protect-chabahar-hindu-sikh-rights-guaranteed-says-taliban-spokesperson-to-wion-194747 [[xii]]Wyeth, Grant. “Afghanistan and India's Cricket Diplomacy”. The Diplomat. 20 June 2018. Retrieved on 4 April 2018: https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/afghanistan-and-indias-cricket-diplomacy/ [[xiii]]Heanue, Siobhan. “ Once Banned by Taliban, fledging Afghan Cricket Team ‘on the edge of history’ with First Test”. ABC News. 14 June 2018. Retrieved on 4 April 2019: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-14/hopes-rest-on-the-shoulders-of-fledging-afghan-cricket/9869246 [[xiv]] “Greater Noida stadium to be home ground for Afghanistan Cricket Team”. Hindustan Times. 11 December 2015. Retrieved on 4 April 2019: https://www.hindustantimes.com/cricket/greater-noida-stadium-to-be-home-ground-for-afghanistan-cricket-team/story-BdLrzzR2j1vWeN311dLO5L.html [[xv]] “ Modi inaugurates new Afghan Parliament built by India in Kabul”.Hindustan Times. 25 December 2015. Retrieved on 4 April 2019: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/modi-in-kabul-pm-meets-ghani-to-inaugurate-afghan-s-parl-building/story-wua2CtN8gj4IQsRnmNknHM.html [[xvi]] “India pledges $1 million for Habibia High School in Kabul”. The Khaama Press. 21 May 2016. Retrieved on 8 April 2019: https://www.khaama.com/india-pledges-1-million-for-habibia-high-school-in-kabul-01014/ [[xvii]] Swami, Praveen, “At Afghan Dam Inauguration, PM Promises: India will not forget you”. The Indian Express.5 June 2016. Retrieved on 5 April 2019: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/narendra-modi-afghanistan-salma-dam-inauguration-ashraf-ghani-2834106/ [[xviii]] Nikzad, Akhtar.M. “India Equips Emergency Diagnostic Wards of Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital”. Afghanistan Times. 17 September 2017. Retrieved on 5 April 2019: http://www.afghanistantimes.af/india-equips-emergency-diagnostic-wards-of-indira-gandhi-childrens-hospital/ [[xix]] “Cricket Stadium at Kandahar Opens”. Afghanistan Times. 2 April 2018. Retrieved on 5 April 2019: http://www.afghanistantimes.af/cricket-stadium-kandahar-opens/ [[xx]] “IPL 2019- Tinge of Afghan flavour in SRH’s Journey to the Top”.News18- Cricket Next. 5 April 2019. Retrieved on 5 April 2019: https://www.news18.com/cricketnext/news/ipl-2019-tinge-of-afghan-flavour-in-srhs-journey-to-the-top-2089601.html [[xxi]] Berry, Scyld. “Cricket is so popular in Afghanistan even the Taliban play it, but the national team need more than the World Cup”. The Telegraph. 16 February 2016. Retrieved on 5 April 2019: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/cricket/11415996/Cricket-so-popular-in-Afghanistan-even-the-Taliban-play-it-the-national-team-need-more-than-the-World-Cup-to-develop-their-skills.html