News Analysis

Human rights question hangs over success story of Afghanistan's men

The oppression of women in the country has raised tough questions for ICC

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
20-Jun-2024
Fazalhaq Farooqi celebrates a wicket with his team-mates, Afghanistan vs PNG, T20 World Cup, Group C, Trinidad, June 13, 2024

The Afghanistan men's team continues to make significant strides  •  ICC via Getty Images

If you go to some of the T20 World Cup 2024 venues early on a match day or a day earlier, before everything gets drowned out in the crowd, you can hear this message in the rehearsals. I have not paid attention to the accompanying video but the audio is clear: a voiceover from a girl saying on the field, we are all the same; that the field should be a safe place for girls because cricket empowers girls.
The ICC has partnered with UNICEF to help empower girls through cricket. It spends a lot of money on women's cricket, which remains a long-term investment rather than an immediate return on the business bottom line. In a lovely video on the UNICEF website, among girls from different backgrounds playing cricket, one with a headscarf in Afghan national colours (not the Taliban ones) is unmissable.
That's where the ICC must be finding itself in a helpless state. The Afghanistan men's team is an unqualified success story, not just of their own human spirit but the support they have received through ICC's developmental programmes and the will to expand the sport. That their progress into the Super Eight this World Cup is being seen as a mild surprise and not a big upset is testament to how far they have come.
Not that Afghanistan was a beacon of female power before, but ever since the Taliban takeover three years ago, the country has been bleaker than ever for its women. Forget having a women's cricket team or infrastructure, Afghanistan is denying basic human rights like access to education and healthcare to the women.
Allowing men's cricket is a classic oppressors' ploy: deny them to such an extent that they be thankful for one small piece of joy, not a right but a benevolence that can be snatched away any time, so you better behave. The ICC has probably thought about it a million times: does it want to ban Afghanistan for not following its charter and take away from the country that one small relief? Penalise the men who have fought unimaginable odds to make it this far? That is probably why the action has not been swift and unequivocal as it was with the government interference in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
That the Taliban even allows cricket is not because someone there appreciates the legbreak bowled with a wrong'un release, but because the sport is popular among Pakhtun men, a source of their power. To the Taliban, cricket is just a pawn in the public image game. Letting them play is nothing short of sportwashing, not so much in the eyes of the world as inside Afghanistan.
It also says that the Taliban cares about how it is perceived, if only a little bit. That it is cynical to think cricket embargos won't make any difference. They may not succeed in forcing the Taliban to let women play or go to university but it will not be nothing. That if cricket turns its back on the Afghanistan men's team, it is not penalising Rashid Khan but the Taliban. He and his team-mates are a significant collateral damage but not as big as the one being caused to half of their population.
Many a potential South African great was denied an international cricket career not because they were individually deemed to be racist but because Apartheid was evil. Most of them continued to play county cricket. Now whether cricket played a significant role in the fall of Apartheid is debatable, but it is undeniable that it played a part in piling on the pressure on the government.
Now South Africa is a country that can enforce transformation targets on its sports teams, once upon a time the bastion of the powerful white minority. Not that it doesn't create tensions of its own. CSA now games the system by playing more players of colour in series of less significance so as to maintain the average requirement. In this World Cup, they have only one black African player in their squad. They are still contenders but not quite the South Africa we have come to know. The rainbow is a little less colourful.
Those who want to see sport free of politics will not be happy to know that even a response to this Afghanistan situation can merely be political. Even if the ICC does decide to give up the soft diplomacy it is undertaking right now, which has its merits, and decides to take firmer action, it might not get full support of its own members because Afghanistan is now a vote on the table.
These are uncomfortable thoughts at the start of the Super Eight of ICC's latest attempt at globalising the sport, but we can't look away; we mustn't look away. If anything, as consumers of the sport, we can inform the direction the governing bodies take.

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo

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