@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
Ben Gardner examines Cricket Australia’s decision to pull out of an ODI series against Afghanistan, in protest of the Taliban.
On December 20, 2022, the Taliban ordered an indefinite ban on university education for women in Afghanistan, and Rashid Khan led the way among his fellow cricketers in condemning the decision. #LetAfghanGirlsLearn was how he ended his social media posts protesting the move, with Mohammad Nabi, Gulbadin Naib, Fazalhaq Farooqi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman among the other Afghanistan players to speak out.
Today, Cricket Australia announced they would be pulling out of Australia’s three-match ODI series against Afghanistan in the UAE in March, citing the Taliban’s recent announcements. The move was condemned with similar unanimity by Afghanistan’s cricketers. Several, including Rashid, the de-facto face of the Adelaide Strikers, have threatened to pull out of the Big Bash League. The Afghanistan cricket team stand opposed to the Taliban, but also to an act that is supposed to weaken them. The response from within Australia has been broadly positive, taken as a sign that its cricket board – and its government – will stand up for women’s rights around the world.
There’s plenty going on here. It shouldn’t need saying that restricting women and girls’ right to learn is abhorrent and deserves condemning in the strongest terms. It’s also true that Afghanistan was far from a feminist panacea before the Taliban took over, and this extended to women’s cricket. While there were flickers of movement pre-2021, Asad Ullah, a former ACB official, has told ESPNcricinfo that there has never been an organised women’s cricket match in the country. A fully functioning women’s team is supposed to be a pre-requisite for Full Member status, conveniently ignored by the ICC to allow Afghanistan’s ascension in 2017. This allowed the story of their men’s side, cricket’s most heartwarming modern tale, to reach a new chapter, with Tests since played against India and West Indies among others. But it is a decision that looks, in hindsight, like an error, and weakens any attempted moralising now.
Australia also have a poor track record of fulfilling fixtures against cricket’s supposedly ‘lesser’ nations, with their cancellation of a visit by Bangladesh in 2018 a recent example. They have refused to play Afghanistan before, cancelling a one-off Test between the sides in 2021, again citing the Taliban. But in between, the two sides faced off in the T20 World Cup in Australia. Granted, conceding a T20 World Cup fixture could have had significant on-field consequences – though Australia failed to make the semi-finals despite victory in any case – and the announcement of the education ban has come since that game. But given Australia pulled out of a Test match before the World Cup, citing the Taliban, and have now pulled out of an ODI series following the World Cup, citing the Taliban, are we to take their lack of a World Cup forfeit as a tacit endorsement, at that point of time? Or is it just that CA will take a stand only when it is expedient for them to do so? Neither answer reflects well.
But really the question should be, is this action likely to lead to any change? Comparisons are made to South Africa’s exclusion from international sport, when a lengthy boycott helped bring an end to Apartheid. But the South African government valued its place in the global ecosystem, and its people had a say in its democracy. The South African Council on Sports contributed to the boycott from within the country, with their slogan reading ‘No normal sport in an abnormal society’. Neither seems true of the Taliban. It is not recognised as a legitimate government. International relations have largely ceased. They swept to power in a military offensive in which it’s reported that thousands of Afghans were killed. They are not seeking acceptance on the world stage. Sport and politics can never be separated, but a nation’s cricket team is not its government, and in this case, that is especially true.
What this does do is deprive Afghanistan’s cricketers of the platform from which they can speak out. Their cricket team is their greatest cultural export, and it’s not a stretch to describe Rashid as the face of the country to the outside world. Following the Taliban’s rise, he took the field in The Hundred for Trent Rockets with a black, red and green Afghanistan flag painted on his face, in contrast to the Taliban’s black Shahada on a white background. “Don’t leave us in chaos. Stop killing Afghans and destroying Afghanistan,” reads a to-the-point social media post from Rashid at the time. These are acts of extraordinary bravery against a brutal regime, not dissimilar to Iran’s footballers refusing to sing the anthem at the 2022 Football World Cup. It’s hard not to feel that Rashid should be at the centre of cricket’s response to the Taliban, rather than blindsided by it.
It’s this that strikes most jarringly about CA’s move, that it has been made unilaterally, with the focus inward on their own public’s perception than with any thought to how or why it will affect change. CA say they will “continue to engage with the ACB in anticipation of improved conditions for women and girls in the country”. The ACB’s response, branding CA’s move as “pathetic”, suggests that dialogue is, at best, one way.
Cricket now faces a choice over whether to exclude Afghanistan or work with its cricketers. With this first offering, CA may have made themselves feel better, but it’s hard to see how it will do much more.