Pune, India – As Afghanistan trained and prepared for their World Cup campaign, their coach repeatedly hammered an idea into their collective consciousness: You are not in India to make up the numbers, you’re here to beat other teams, no matter their reputation.
Jonathan Trott’s mantra for his squad may seem simple but Afghanistan’s progress in the tournament, winning four matches after losing their first two games against Bangladesh and India, is as much a product of the players internalising that belief as it is a reflection of their cricketing skills.
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Now, with victories over England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands ticked off, Afghanistan are in the hunt for a semifinal berth and, on Tuesday in Mumbai, face an Australian side with a confidence that would previously have seemed fanciful.
“Obviously, Australia will be favourites and Afghanistan, until they’ve been more consistent and won a lot more bilateral series, will always be underdogs and that’s fine,” Trott told Al Jazeera.
“I think the players actually prefer that but they quietly have a sort of inner steeliness about them recently. That’s exciting. They now have confidence, like, we’ve beaten England. We’ve beaten Pakistan. We’ve beaten Sri Lanka. They’ve won World Cups before. Why can’t we beat Australia who have won it the most times?”
But there is an underlying political conundrum surrounding Afghanistan’s match against Australia, whose governing body has cancelled bilateral fixtures between the men’s side twice in the past two years, citing the Taliban government’s policies on women.
A one-off Test to be staged in Hobart was postponed indefinitely in 2021, soon after the Taliban seized power, and earlier this year, Cricket Australia (CA) withdrew from a three-match ODI series scheduled to be played in the United Arab Emirates.
On both occasions, CA consulted with the Australian government before making the decision to withdraw.
CA also consulted several female Afghanistan cricketers who fled to Australia after the Taliban takeover before making the decision to withdraw. CA stress the situation is complex for those players, balancing pride in the men’s team’s achievements with their own hopes and ambitions.
While bilateral series do not have any bearing on qualification for world tournaments, World Cup matches have obvious consequences and Australia has not taken the same stance when playing Afghanistan in ICC tournaments.
The two sides met in Adelaide during last year’s T20 World Cup, where Australia scraped a narrow victory, and Tuesday’s match will be their fourth World Cup fixture. They have played just one bilateral match, in 2012, which Australia won by 66 runs.
“There is a distinction between playing bilateral series against Afghanistan which falls directly under CA control as compared to playing in a World Cup tournament which is an ICC event and subject to their regulations,” a CA spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“CA made the decision not to proceed with the three match ODI series against Afghanistan in March following the announcement by the Taliban of further restrictions on women’s rights including education and employment opportunities and the access to parks and gymnasiums.
“This decision was taken after widespread consultation and made independently of the ICC and other cricket playing nations.”
The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) joined the ICC as an affiliate member in 2001 and was awarded full membership in 2017 alongside Ireland, giving the men’s team greater funding and the opportunity to play Test cricket.
But the Taliban’s policies on women have created a delicate and difficult challenge for the international governing body, which is quick to trumpet the growth of professionalism in the women’s game.
When Afghanistan received full membership, there were no timeframes for the ACB to form a women’s national team or pathway and the targets were somewhat vague, based on unspecified “circumstances”.
“At that time, the social, religious and cultural challenges of developing women’s cricket were acknowledged and accepted, along with a commitment from the ACB that it would develop women’s cricket as circumstances allowed,” an ICC spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“The ACB was in the process of developing a women’s cricket programme, and although the national team had not competed in bilateral cricket or participated in any ICC events, the ACB had announced a list of female players that were to be offered contracts.
“The new regime that came into power in 2021 introduced laws that prohibited women from playing sport meaning the women’s cricket programme was discontinued.
“The ICC Board has discussed the situation in Afghanistan on several occasions, and the ICC position, like that of other major sporting organisations, is that it continues to support its Member (the ACB) in its endeavours to promote cricket in the country and does not believe that it is appropriate to sanction the ACB for obeying the laws of its country.”
Ambassadors for the game
The story of cricket in Afghanistan has captured imaginations and attracted fans around the cricket world.
The game’s popularity rose exponentially when it was brought back to Afghanistan by refugees who had learned to play in refugee camps in Pakistan. It is the first and only country to have organically embraced cricket as the national sport without the historic influence of British colonialism.
At a time when the sport is looking to expand beyond its traditional markets, through such mechanisms as inclusion in the Olympics and the emergence of the Major League Cricket T20 tournament in the United States, Afghanistan’s story has significant symbolic value.
But without clear targets or timelines in place to reinstate a women’s programme, it is difficult to see how progress can be made, unless the Taliban softens its policies or there is a change in government.
The most drastic course of action would involve suspension of the kind imposed on South Africa from 1970 to 1991 for its government’s apartheid policies but there appears to be little support for such a measure.
The ICC has temporarily suspended membership of boards when it has found undue influence from governments or serious financial mismanagement. As recently as 2022, the ICC suspended funds to USA Cricket following concerns over its finances.
Another option is for the ICC to withhold and ring-fence a portion of Afghanistan’s funding for women’s cricket in the future. Some say there is a clear double standard in Ireland and Afghanistan receiving a similar amount of money to run both men’s and women’s cricket when, unlike Ireland, the ACB does not have a women’s national team or a domestic competition in place.
The ICC and CA stress that discussions over Afghanistan’s situation are ongoing but finding a solution that advances the status of women’s cricket without penalising the men’s team is not simple.
And, in the current state of flux, the match at Wankhede stadium and any that follow in upcoming ICC tournaments will likely be the only times Afghanistan and Australia meet on the field of play.
Trott said he did not want to comment on the politics or beliefs behind Australia’s decisions.
“But, what I would say is that our guys have got on extremely well with every team that we’ve played against and we respect every opposition. We respect the game of cricket,” he said.
“It’s our job to be good ambassadors for the game and for the country. And our players certainly bring a lot of smiles to a lot of people in Afghanistan and around the world and, here in India, the support for Afghanistan has been amazing.”