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Afghanistan in T20 World Cup semifinal: A real fairy tale?

June 25, 2024

Wins against Australia and Bangladesh have secured Afghanistan a first men's cricket World Cup semifinal berth. It is a remarkable achievement, but for many observers, it's also troubling.

Rashid Khan celebrates with wicketkeeper Mohammad Ishaq during the T20 World Cup
Rashid Khan has led his side to their first ever semifinalImage: RANDY BROOKS/AFP

How did Afghanistan reach the semifinals?

Afghanistan's men's side have enjoyed a dramatic rise since first qualifying for a cricket World Cup less than a decade ago. Captain Rashid Khan, long regarded as one of the world's best bowlers, is an example of what many of the players have overcome to get to the semifinal of the 2024 Twenty20 tournament, where they will face South Africa.

"It's unbelievable, I don't have any words to describe my feelings," said Khan after his side qualified for the semifinals. "Back home everyone is so, so happy for this big achievement."

While victories over Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh are impressive feats, that Khan has built such a career after he and family were forced to flee from the war in his homeland, sparked by the emergence of the Taliban, in the early part of this century is perhaps even more so. His story is not unusual in a side who play their home matches in the United Arab Emirates and have had to deal with the Taliban seizing back control of the country in 2021.

So this is a positive story, right?

In terms of the men's side, yes. But while the Taliban are happy to allow them to compete on the international stage, despite a general intolerance of sport, the same is not true for the women's team. From the ashes of the previous Taliban regime, a women's side had started to emerge in a nation whose interest in cricket has risen sharply in the last couple of decades. But all that came to an end in 2021, with women now largely stripped of their rights in the country.

Back in 2021, when the regime changed, Tuba Sangar, the former director of women's cricket in Afghanistan told DW that "there is no hope for the future. They will not allow us to play. When Taliban won't allow girls outside for their basic needs, how will they allow them to play cricket?"

The situation hasn't changed since then. Scenes of mass celebrations on social media have been notable — not just for their fervor, but for their lack of women.

How have the ICC reacted?

This situation has caused a significant issue for cricket's governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), who also run the T20 and 50-Over World Cups. The presence of Afghanistan as ICC members appears to breach their own laws. Firstly, these state that members must "provide a process for free and democratic elections and appointments from amongst its members." This political neutrality seems unlikely, given the control the Taliban demand and that players from the men's team have posed for photos with leading regime figures on numerous occasions.

Furthermore, ICC regulations state that members must "have satisfactory women's pathway structures in place" and "have a sustained and sufficient pool of players to support strong and consistent national level selection across the senior men's, U19 and women's teams." This is plainly not the case in Afghanistan. Indeed, their own working group reported a "total lack of women's cricket activity" in the country last year.

Afghanistan: Girls still banned from secondary school

At the moment, the ICC's position is that it does not accept the Taliban as the legitimate ruling authority of Afghanistan. Therefore, they argue, they don't currently need to apply their own rules when it comes to Afghanistan. 

What about the other countries?

Most sides have followed the ICC and continued to play Afghanistan without qualms, though they rarely play the major nations outside of tournaments. Australia are the exception. They have canceled proposed series against Afghanistan because of the issue of women's rights under the Taliban.

"Over the past 12 months [Cricket Australia] has continued to consult with the Australian government on the situation in Afghanistan," Cricket Australia said in March. "The government's advice is that conditions for women and girls in Afghanistan are getting worse."

This position has led to tension among players who often play together in franchise leagues around the world.

Khan said recently he was "hurt" by CA's call.

"You don't want to play with my colleagues and you want to play with me. So what's the difference? It means I'm putting my colleagues down as well. My country down as well," he said.

"Cricket is the only source back home in Afghanistan which gives people happiness. And if you are taking that happiness [away] from the people as well, you are hurting more people as well back home."

It is a fine line to walk. Most critics accept the men's team have also endured difficulties to get where they are, and have a right to be there. But what Afghanistan's presence on the world stage represents is less palatable.

How has cricket dealt with politics before?

The ICC have been in this sort of situation before. Most recently, they banned Sri Lanka for breaching those laws on government interference, before reinstating them a few weeks later. Zimbabwe faced a similar situation in 2019.

Perhaps, most famously, the ICC, like many other sporting governance bodies, banned South Africa from competing during the apartheid era of racial segregation from 1970 to 1991.

"I wanted my people to know that I became president sooner because of the sacrifices made by our athletes during the years of the boycott," the late Nelson Mandela once said of the impact these decisions made.

Edited by: Chuck Penfold