Thousands of spectators. Loud cheers. In Afghanistan, that can’t mean too many things these days – yes, cricket was back at the Kabul International Stadium, which is located not too far away from the city airport, where a suicide bombing last week killed over a hundred people who were doing their best to leave the country.
The cricket: it was the first dose of live action for locals since the Taliban took over the political reins in mid-August following the withdrawal of western troops.
Afghan and Taliban flags fluttered side by side up in the stands at the stadium as a number of international stars – including the likes of Gulbadin Naib, Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi – turned up to play for the Independence Trophy on Friday.
Apart from serving as a prep for the players ahead of the T20 World Cup, the match was also hosted for the people of Afghanistan, for whom it turned out to be a ‘big change’ amid the uncertainty of the last few weeks.
At the moment, the onus seems to be on cricket, at least according to the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), to be a beacon of hope and restore some calm among the people.
Outside the boundary line, the Taliban forces kept watch, their rifles in place. Inside, Peace Defenders took on Peace Heroes in the T20 fixture.
‘Maybe, the future set-up will be able to communicate better than I do. Currently, women cricketers and women cricket staff are in peril’ ‘This game can bring peace and prosperity and happiness to the nation.
It could significantly contribute to the country’s economy and household economy. So, why not invest in sport? We have got a huge mass of youth. Investing in youth means investing in the future.’
In many ways, cricket has been one of the few happy things in the war-ravaged nation in the last few years. The sport was picked up by Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the late 1990s and quickly became a rage in the country.
The Afghanistan Cricket Federation (as the ACB was earlier known) was formed in 1997, during the Taliban’s earlier regime, and the national body was soon inducted into the Asian Cricket Council.
Afghanistan have had an extraordinary rise as an international side in the last decade, from becoming a Full Member nation and gaining Test status in 2017 to ranking among the top-ten sides in the world in limited-overs cricket.
Just how much they have moved up can be gauged from the fact that at the next men’s T20 World Cup, starting next month, they are among the top-eight teams and are already in the main draw, while the likes of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ireland are in the qualifying round.
And that Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman are among the most sought-after players in the T20 league circuit is hardly new information.
It is perceived as a game-changer. It is my mission and aim to support and manage cricket development in the country,’ Shinwari said. ‘In a short time, we have got very good payoff in terms of Rashid, Nabi and many other players. They are bringing in revenue to the country and pride.
‘They are positive models for the country’s youth. Investing in this game will have the capacity to change the future of the country.’
If it’s a pointer of any sort, Rashid has started a campaign to raise funds for his country people amid the worsening political situation.
Shinwari explained that the bosses of the current regime are fans of the sport and the top players, and are interested in promoting cricket.