A near-full house turned out to watch Afghanistan’s top cricketers play in a trial match in Kabul on Friday, with Taliban and Afghan flags waving side by side in what sports officials called a show of national unity.
It was the first match since the Taliban swept to power on August 15, leaving organisers of sports and cultural events wondering what is now acceptable under the Islamists’ rule.
The two sides — called Peace Defenders and Peace Heroes — featured many members of the Afghan national team, currently preparing for the Twenty20 World Cup to be played in UAE and Oman from October 17.
“It is great to be here and watch cricket,” a Taliban commander named Hamza told AFP at the stadium in Kabul, an American M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder.
He was in charge of a contingent of Taliban fighters keeping guard among the crowd — some watching the game more intently than the spectators. “I am a player myself,” said Hamza. “An all-rounder.”
The return of the Taliban has sparked widespread fear in Afghanistan and in the international community, reviving memories of their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
That regime banned most forms of entertainment — including many sports — and stadiums doubled as public execution venues.
Sports the Taliban did allow were strictly controlled and were only for men to play or watch.
Certainly there were no women among the crowd of around 4,000 on Friday, but there was plenty of enthusiasm as the teams played a Twenty20 match — the shortest version of the game — scheduled to finish in time for Friday prayers, the most important of the week.
Cricket was barely known in Afghanistan until the early 2000s, and its explosive rise in popularity is linked with conflict — the sport was picked up in Pakistan by Afghan refugees who then seeded it in their home country.
The national team has enjoyed a meteoric rise on the international scene since then, gaining coveted Test status in 2017 and now ranking among the top 10 sides in the world in the one-day and Twenty20 formats.
In the last 20 years, it has emerged as a powerful symbol of national unity in a country riven by civil war and ethnic conflict.
On Friday, fans waved Afghan and Taliban flags side by side, while “Baba cricket” — an elderly superfan dressed head to toe in national colours — was ushered to a prime spot in the stand.—AFP