T20 World Cup: Afghan cricket team hopes to put ‘smiles on faces’

Afghanistan cricket team will take the field on Monday in the T20 World Cup, its first outing since the Taliban takeover of the country.

Sport in Afghanistan faced an uncertain future following the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Afghanistan will take on Scotland in their opening game of cricket’s T20 World Cup 2021, the team’s first outing since the Taliban takeover of the country.

As the team prepared for the match, captain Mohammad Nabi played a straight bat on Sunday to the inevitable questions on politics.

“Everyone knows that back home in Afghanistan there’s a lot happening and everything from the last few months,” he acknowledged in the pre-match press conference ahead of the game in Sharjah on Monday.

“But, as a cricket point of view, everybody is ready for this World Cup and we prepared well. The fans are really waiting because the only happiness in Afghanistan is cricket.

“If you’re willing to do well in the tournament and we win the games, the fans are really happy and there will be a lot of smiles on faces.”

After the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August, the cricket team briefly faced the possibility of being banned from the tournament if the women’s team was dismantled.

Then, star spinner Rashid Khan stepped down as captain before visa issues placed yet another hurdle in the team’s path.

All-rounder Nabi was handed the captain’s arm band and the rest of the team trained in Qatar prior to their arrival in the United Arab Emirates.

“There was a little issue when we arrived in Dubai,” Nabi said, acknowledging that the last 10 days were not “ideal”.

Women in sport

Sport in Afghanistan faced an uncertain future following the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August.

Hundreds of athletes, especially female athletes, went into hiding or were evacuated from the country for fear of reprisals or being shunned by the new Taliban government.

Those outside the country feared the worst, having seen a complete ban on women’s sport when the armed group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 until the United States-led invasion in 2001.

A high-ranking Taliban official was recently quoted as saying that women will be banned from sport in the country (although officials later claimed the statement was not translated accurately from Pashto).

Past winners of the T20 World cup, 2007: India, 2009: Pakistan, 2010: England, 2014: Sri Lanka, and West Indies has won twice, 2012, and 2016.

Afghanistan Cricket Board’s recently appointed Chairman Azizullah Fazli told Al Jazeera that there is no ban on women’s sport as of yet.

“We have spoken to the top Taliban government officials and their stance is that there is officially no ban on women’s sport, especially women’s cricket. They have no problem with women taking part in sport,” he said while in Qatar’s capital Doha earlier this month.

“We’ve not been asked to stop women from playing cricket. We’ve had a women’s team for 18 years. But what we need to keep in mind is our religion and culture. If women adhere to that [attire] there is no problem in them taking part in sporting activities.

“Islam doesn’t allow women to wear shorts like the other teams do while playing football especially. That’s something we need to keep in mind.

“A Taliban official also recently said sport and politics will be kept separate and those who understand the game and are technically well-versed will be appointed into relevant positions. The government has told us it will support us in any way needed.”

Afghanistan’s success in T20 is built on their big-hitting batting and the spin bowling of their ‘Big Three’, Khan, Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.

In all, eight of their 15-man World Cup squad have experience playing professional T20 cricket in other countries.

“I think it’s for those cricketers playing cricket all over the world, especially five, six, seven players are playing different franchise cricket from last six months,” said Nabi, who played in the recently completed Indian Premier League season in the UAE.

“We are playing a lot of cricket in UAE and we know the conditions,” he said. “Everyone back home is thinking that Afghanistan have the best team in these conditions. And our team is confident,” he said, warning that “we already targeted most of the teams in our group.”

Additional reporting by Faras Ghani


Source: AFP, Al Jazeera