Taliban sets sights on making Afghanistan a global power in cricket


The Washington Post

4 March 2024

KABUL — During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, its disdain for many sports meant that Kabul’s main stadium drew some of its biggest crowds on the days it was used for public executions.

But since seizing control in Kabul for a second time in 2021, the Taliban has turned to making Afghanistan into a global cricketing power, with ambitious plans for a state-of-the-art cricket stadium that could host international matches.

The men’s national team was already on the rise before the takeover but has continued to thrive under the new regime, defying expectations and scoring stunning upsets in international play. Privately funded cricket academies have seen a surge in the number of new players.

Cricket’s appeal to the Taliban may be partly rooted in the sport’s long-standing popularity in ethnic Pashtun communities, where the Taliban has traditionally drawn its strongest support. But as cricket’s reach expands across ethnic lines, the regime may also view the sport as useful.

“Cricket brings the country together,” said Abdul Ghafar Farooq, a spokesman for the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue.

The Taliban vowed to change Kabul. The city may be starting to change the Taliban.

Within days of the takeover in August 2021, Anas Haqqani, the influential younger brother of the Taliban’s interior minister, visited the Afghan cricket board to demonstrate the new government’s support for the sport.

Haqqani, a cricket fan who recently injured his foot while playing volleyball, said Taliban soldiers would have made excellent cricket stars. “If we hadn’t waged a war, many of us would be on the national team now,” he said in a rare interview. “The future of cricket here is very bright.”

Surprise victories

Taliban soldiers and other spectators closely followed the Cricket World Cup last fall in India, gathering to watch on large screens in parks, at wedding venues and in television shops. Cheering on their team as it delivered shocking victories against England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands, some Taliban soldiers fired celebratory shots into the sky.

“People don’t have anything to enjoy in Afghanistan, but cricket gives us happiness,” said Mohammad Gul Ahmadzai, 48, who used to watch soccer matches on the television in his travel agency in central Kabul until the broadcasts became less frequent.

Although global soccer is dominated by teams that are often awash in money, he said, the smaller number of serious international competitors in cricket gives Afghans a more realistic chance of winning.

Others say Afghanistan’s cricket frenzy is primarily fed by desperation. Farhard Amirzai, 17, said he and his friends have come to view a professional cricket career as the only path out of poverty.

After the Taliban took power, boys “lost interest in education,” said Amirzai, who spends much of his time practicing on a barren field in Kabul with a makeshift tape-covered cricket ball. “Young people think that even if they graduate from school or university, they won’t find a good job under the current government. So, they try their luck with cricket.”

Even though cricket academies have seen a spike in sign ups since the Taliban took over, most young Afghans, including Amirzai, cannot afford them.

Taliban soldier Abdul Mobin Mansor would love to join, too, but the 19-year-old said his job leaves him little time. He has wanted to become a national team player ever since he and his comrades — still waging the armed rebellion and hiding in caves at the time — started following the sport on battery-powered radios, he said.

And for Afghan women, there is no chance at all. One of the Taliban-run government’s first actions after the takeover was to ban women from playing sports, reintroducing the policy the movement had put in place when it previously held power and shattering female athletes’ dreams.

Slow to catch on

Believed to have been invented in England in the 16th century, cricket was one of the British Empire’s most popular cultural exports. By the early 20th century, the sport thrived in Australia, British India — which includes what is today India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — and other places in the region. But it was slow to catch on in Afghanistan, where the national sport remained buzkashi, an equestrian game in which horsemen try to score a goal with a carcass, traditionally that of a goat or calf but now almost always fake.

Cricket’s fortunes began to change here after the 1979 Soviet invasion forced millions to flee to Pakistan. The sport rapidly caught on in northwestern Pakistan’s Afghan refugee camps, which were primarily home to Pashtuns. The sport later found its way to Kabul when some Afghans returned in the late 1990s during the Taliban’s first time in power.

Among the first Afghan cricket players was Allah Dad Noori, then the national team’s captain. In an interview, Noori said he initially worried that the Taliban would not allow cricket. But his family’s ties to the regime may have helped convince the group. “My brother-in-law, who later spent time in Guantánamo, had already told the Taliban about me,” Noori recalled. “He said to them, ‘This man is the greatest cricketer, and if you capture Kabul you should approve cricket.’”

When British businessman Stuart Bentham arrived in Kabul a couple of years later, he became one of the first foreigners to attend an Afghan cricket match, held in the same Kabul stadium that the Taliban was using for executions.

At the time, the Taliban had soccer players’ heads shaved as punishment for wearing shorts. The long trousers of cricket players may have raised fewer religious concerns, Bentham said, but cricket’s popularity in neighboring Pakistan probably also played a role in the Taliban’s desire to promote the sport.

“Pakistan had a lot of influence over the Taliban at that time,” he said.

Plight of female athletes

The Afghan team’s importance to the Taliban has begun to prompt uncomfortable questions abroad. Australia’s national cricket team announced early last year that it would boycott matches against Afghanistan to protest the Taliban’s repression of girls and women. But during the Cricket World Cup, the Australians rescinded the boycott, disappointing many Afghan women and others.

Weeda Omari, 35, said she hopes no foreign team would agree to play in a Kabul stadium under the Taliban. Omari used to work as a women’s sports coordinator for Kabul’s municipality until her team of colleagues was disbanded within days of the takeover.

She has since fled the country, but 80 percent of the female athletes whom she supervised are still in Afghanistan. “Their families accuse them of having drawn the Taliban’s ire by becoming athletes, and now they’re being pushed to marry,” Omari said. “Many call me to cry.”

Even though the Taliban-run government remains internationally isolated and under heavy sanctions, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s cricket board said it was recently granted about $16 million from the Dubai-based International Cricket Council, with media reports suggesting that Afghan cricket can expect to receive similar annual contributions in coming years.

In a statement, the ICC said that it “will not penalise the [Afghanistan Cricket Board], or its players for abiding by the laws set by the government of their country,” but that it continues to advocate for women’s cricket in the country. The ICC does not release public details on member funding.

In an interview, Hamdullah Nomani, the Taliban’s minister of urban development, said plans to construct a major new cricket stadium in Kabul have been discussed at the highest levels of leadership. Although the idea for a new stadium originated under the previous government, the Taliban-run government appears intent on helping to finish the project with private funding.

The government’s primary concern is that the stadium might not be big enough. “There’s not enough land,” Nomani said.

Lutfullah Qasimyar and Mirwais Mohammadi contributed to this report.

Taliban sets sights on making Afghanistan a global power in cricket