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Afghan cricket falls prey to politics

By Sayed Niyam Alami

The Afghanistan national cricket team, being relatively nascent, has been through many ups and downs throughout its 18-year modern history. The team secured official test status in June 2017 after playing a decade and a half of top-class international cricket. Afghanistan is now the 12th test-cricket-playing Full Member nation. Cricket has been played in Afghanistan since the mid-19th century, but it is only in recent years that the national team has become successful. The Afghanistan Cricket Board was formed in 1995 and became an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001 and a member of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) in 2003. Afghanistan currently ranks as seventh in T20I format and 10th in ODI, as per the ICC world rankings. Afghan team is now in England for the ODI World Cup 2019.

For Afghan cricket, the biggest victory of all came by winning the maiden test match against Ireland in March this year. However, recent happenings within ACB and the team are quite worrisome and considerable.

Political patronage makes its way into Afghan cricket

Despite being a fast achiever, there are several issues hindering the team’s performance now. Already losing to three countries in the current World Cup, Afghan team is now under deep pressure – all because of the recent tensions – and needs the nation’s support to help increase their morale. To put it frankly, this sport is also on its way of indulging in its fair share of political patronage. Nepotism is a potent force if used politically, for which Afghanistan is notorious. But unfortunately, now it has entered into the field of sports as well.

The recent developments and sweeping changes in ACB and team squad portray this perspective well. Not going so far back, the so-called reforms initiated with the appointment of Azizullah Fazli in September 2018, which came in the wake of rifts between players and former ACB head Atif Mashal over the Afghanistan Premier League. Noor Ali Zadran, Shapoor Zadran and several other cricketers, who were not sold in the APL, complained against Mashal and as a result, he was replaced through a presidential decree.

Soon after Fazli’s takeover, Dawlat Khan Ahmadzai was appointed as the chief selector for leading the three-member independent selection committee, replacing Nawroz Mangal. ACB chairman Fazli announced these changes roughly one month after taking power in October, 2018.

Subsequently, Asghar Afghan, constantly slated for his performance but praised for captaincy skills by the Afghan nation, was removed in April this year as captain of Afghanistan national cricket team just over a month before the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019. This abrupt change came as Asghar, who replaced Mohammad Nabi as captain in 2015, had a highly successful stint in the role. Under his leadership, Afghanistan became a Full Member of the ICC, and in March, they secured a historic maiden Test victory against Ireland in Dehradun, India. Surprisingly, there are unrevealed happenings behind Asghar’s dismissal. There are rumors on social media that Asghar during his captaincy once joked around with his team fellows about soon replacing Fazli. But when this talk leaked out and reached the chairman, he set out on conspiring to dispose of Asghar as captain.

By replacing Asghar, Afghanistan have, instead, opted for split captaincy, with Gulbadin Naib instated at the helm in one-day internationals and Rashid Khan and Rahmat Shah are captains for T20I and Test formats, respectively. Naib captains the side at the World Cup. This act right before the World Cup was widely condemned and provoked various reactions from Afghans.

Much to the chagrin of Afghans, these changes or reforms were taken to another level when Asghar Afghan wasn’t picked up in the first three games due to his reported months-old shoulder injury. However, he is included in the squad – after stern public outcry – against South Africa and the Saturday’s encounter is crucial for the team as Afghanistan is looking to escape from the last place. South Africa – similarly having lost three matches so far – is also eyeing turnaround. Meanwhile, Afghanistan wicketkeeper, Mohammad Shahzad, has been ruled out of the World Cup due to an alleged knee injury and replaced by 18-year-old Ikram Alikhel in the team.

However, Shahzad insists he’s fully fit and slams ACB’s decision. He says I am fully fit and that his underperformance in the first two matches in the World Cup couldn’t be a justified reason for his removal because he had good performance prior to that against Scotland and Ireland.

“If they don’t want me to play, I will quit cricket,” an emotional Shahzad was reported to have told local media after returning to Kabul. A picture of Shahzad’s weeping face going viral on social media aroused mixed reactions – when he was sent back to Kabul to rest. Shahzad says that there are some accusations against him such as that he doesn’t play honestly against Pakistan and that he is in the team working for someone else. He alleges that there is a conspiracy going on and other set and in shape players are also not being given chance. For instance, Asghar Afghan, who Shahzad says is fully fit.

Interestingly, further to these unexpected changes, it wasn’t long after Shahzad’s dismissal and harsh criticism by people that four new board members for the high board of cricket were introduced in accordance with a presidential decree. Gulalai Noor Safi, Ahmad Jawad Paikar, Ziaulhaq Amarkhail, and Shukrullah Atif Mashal are the newly appointed members of the ACB.  The former chairman of the ACB and the incumbent Afghanistan ambassador to Pakistan, Atif Mashal, has been re-appointed as a key board member in the ACB. Mashal was dismissed during disputes with Afghan players but nonetheless, he is back in a new capacity. Earlier, Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Sayed Mansoor Naderi, Eklil Hakimi, and Ahmad Shah Sangdel were the high members of the ACB.

Now this situation worries people. Everyone trying to drag own kin and relatives into the cricket sphere and these power struggles and favoritism don’t bode well for the future of cricket. Shahzad makes an analogy of Afghanistan with Kenya and threatens that Afghanistan cricket, if continued this way, would face the fate of Kenya – from being an ICC full-membership country into nothing due to internal quarrels.

As for Kenya’s case, there were on-field and off-field setbacks that concluded in its failure and Afghanistan could be partly compared to it – given the recent occurrences – except for the match-fixing practice which might as well get its way around in Afghan cricket, if not paid heed.

The Kenyan team’s captain was banned for match-fixing in August 2004, and a series of strikes by players led to a weakened Kenyan side and by the end of the dispute in 2005, Kenyan cricket had no sponsors and was in virtual international isolation. At that stage, its governing body had dissolved internally and Kenyan cricket opportunities were limited and international cricket for them had virtually ceased.

Considering the grave situation and so-called hasty changes and reforms, one can conclude that they aren’t proving effective and useful for the team and Afghan cricket. These disputes and division of team players aren’t a good omen for Afghanistan. Otherwise, it would be a shame if players rise and strike, eventually leading to chaos.

Cricket is the only sport in Afghanistan which brings sheer joy for people and it shouldn’t be politicized like that. I strongly suggest that the government stoutly look into these issues and it shouldn’t let cricket plunge into the dark politics of nepotism and favoritism. If there are plots being made by players or ACB, they should be independently investigated and the system of merit be ensured in the team in order it remains the source of Afghans’ pride and joy.

The author of this article is a freelance Afghan journalist and writer. He has previously worked at Pajhwok Afghan News (PAN). Alami is pursuing his bachelor’s degree at the American University of Afghanistan. He can be reached at niyaams@gmail.com.

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