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Cricket, Afghanistan and India’s Diplomacy ; By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan

Image Courtesy: ESPN Cricinfo

Article No. 27/2019

In the midst of the Taliban talks on table at Doha, a squad of Afghani cricketers in England and Wales were close to create upsets to multiple Cricket World Cup winners including India. Even though they lost all their nine matches, the Afghanistan cricket team made a statement to the world of cricket that they are not minnows anymore showcasing that they fight till the end. Cricket, over the last decade, in Afghanistan is popular even in the Taliban occupied regions. Back in Qatar, the direct talks between Taliban and the United States of America (US) on withdrawal of US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops from Afghanistan are on the table. It is interesting that other regional players including India and China are trying to get well acquainted with the strategic landlocked country.

Taliban’s favourite sport

Interestingly, Afghanistan was very close in defeating all the three Asian cricketing giants- India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the ongoing Cricket World Cup in England but lack of experience and nervousness ended up them in the losing side. However, they showcased their talents and proved the world that they are competent to defeat the major nations in the future. Lately, their performances have brought Afghanistan into the limelight globally. The landlocked south Asian country maintains amicable relations with both- India and Pakistan, as latter provided asylum to the Afghan refugees and helped them develop the sport while the former offered infrastructural and developmental inputs for the overall development of the Afghanistan Cricket Team in the recent years.

Back in Afghanistan with the never ending conflict situation and the orthodox nature of the Taliban, the sporting culture in the nation faced various challenges. According to Hasti Gul, a former Afghan Cricketer, Taliban banned sports like cricket and football in their early years of their ascetic rule as they believed that these sports kept men away from prayers but in recent times they have become very tolerant. Interestingly, during non-fighting season, the cricket matches played in the region attract hundreds of spectators from the Taliban-controlled villages where the fighters are also fans of their national cricket team. Moreover, the Afghanis are familiar with Dandaclid– a similar game like cricket but it is played with sticks and small pieces of wood.

Even though the hard-lined Islamic regime had strong opposition to western sports such as football and cricket to be played in their territory, over the years it is observed that they have developed a softness towards the sport which could be an integrating factor especially in the Pashtun concentrated areas. One reason to be liberal towards cricket may be because the sport is played with fully covered jerseys whereas other sports like football and basketball are played in shorts. Another factor could be that it is also played by its neighbours and is one of the most popular sporting culture in south Asia.

Even though both India and Pakistan played their respective roles in nurturing the Afghan cricket team, the former is also closer with the landlocked nation in other sectors. Being an important player in the region, the Chinese has not yet contributed in soft power terms but is only interested in trade and investment but this gives India an edge over the former as the latter has goodwill among the people within the conflict-struck country.

India’s Diplomacy

Over the years, India has played a crucial role in the development of Afghanistan both on and off the field. Conflicts and internal strife has only made it difficult for development of sports especially cricket-  in Afghanistan with lack of infrastructure and funding. India’s gesture in providing a home ground for Afghanistan at Dehradun is commendable. Since 2015, the Afghan team is practicing at the Greater Noida Stadium as they are not having favourable conditions to host matches back home and also due to lack of training facilities. Additionally, India has also provided financial assistance to build a cricket stadium at Kandahar.

The Indo-Afghanistan Friendship Series which was held last year, witnessed a new era of ascension for Afghanistan who received the test playing status in 2017- in the highest level of Cricket, but more importantly the support from India in helping them play their historic test in June 2018 at Bengaluru, has only further improved the relationship between the two nations. Quoting India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Afghanistan’s first test match, “Today cricket is unifying force for the people of Afghanistan. India takes pride in being shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghanistan in this journey. These achievements have come about in challenging and difficult circumstances. This demonstrates the indomitable Afghan spirit to overcome all challenges and realize aspirations for a purposeful, stable, united and peaceful nation”.

In March 2019, Afghanistan hosted Ireland at Dehradun for their first ‘home’ series and ended up in the winning side. The Indian Premier League ( IPL) is very famous back at Kabul and self-styled Afghani players including Rashid Khan, Mujeeb-Ur-Rahman and Mohammad Nabi are part of the flamboyant tournament. However, it is disappointing that Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) declined the request of Afghanistan Cricket Board(ACB) to conduct the Afghanistan Premier League (APL) in India as it already conducts the IPL and various other tournaments within the country throughout the calendar year.

Apart from cricket, India provides developmental assistance since 2001 in building dams, schools and even reconstructed a hospital in the capital. Over the years, India’s contribution in infrastructural development in Afghanistan is relevant but not that commendable as it should also invest its resources in other sectors of their economy. India constructed roads since 2008 in Afghanistan as strategically the former could connect through Iran’s Chabahar port and bypassing Pakistan. It would also assist the south Asian giant to connect Central Asia. There are many challenges from the Taliban, however India is focusing more on the soft diplomacy tools. The influence of China in the infrastructural front in Afghanistan by joining them into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would reduce the latter’s deficit making them an ideal linkage for investment. However, India contributes towards the soft power tools including education, health, science and technology and sports facilities while China is slowly inducing investment in the infrastructural front only.

Lessons from Afghanistan Cricket and their growth over the years is crucial for the Chinese as it would help them to nourish the sport. Lately, both India and China have been playing international friendly football matches. Perhaps sports diplomacy can be an area of cooperation between India and China as the former could assist the latter in cricket and the latter in athletics highlighting the significance of sports as a soft power instrument between the neighbours in the near future.  However, the Afghan team ended their world cup campaign at the bottom of table in England; the talks between Taliban and US at Doha are showing positive signs. In the last decade, Cricket has played a crucial role as a unifier among the people of Afghanistan. Perhaps this sporting culture might be the link that the conflict struck country was looking for peaceful co-existence and this might also be the link for bettering relations in south Asia as a whole.

(Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan is a Research Assistant at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.)

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