Rumours are spilling out, like flood water, from the cricket stadium in Kabul where Afghans congregate to watch world cup cricket matches on a big screen. The story, as heard by Javed Hamim Kakar, a senior editor at ‘Pajhwok Afghan’ newspaper, is about the former captain Asghar Afghan who was sacked days before the tournament. The rumour is this: That Asghar had joked with his team-mates that one day he would replace Azizullah Fazil, who had taken over as chairman of Afghanistan cricket board in September 2018. The boast reached Fazil’s ears and he set upon the agenda to pull the rug from under Asghar’s feet. We will probably never know the truth of this, though Phil Simmons, Afghanistan’s coach, has indicated that he would be coming clean on all the palace intrigues after the World Cup. Let’s see.
Kakar is in Kabul, watching the match between England and Sri Lanka along with his sons at his home on the national television. He spent years at a refugee camp in Pakistan before returning home with a love for cricket and for news. “I can’t even begin to tell you what cricket means to our people. World Cup is everywhere here. Not just our team, but we watch every game that is going on. At markets, at homes, at offices — all the talk is around this.”
More rumours are floating out of Kabul stadium. The anti-Pakistani sentiment, prevalent in the country, is perhaps influencing the selection and other policies in cricket too. That those who have had links with Pakistan cricket are in some ways being sidelined. Kakar says he doesn’t have evidence of it — all he has heard is rumours. “I have even heard that Pakistan cricket administration too is influencing a sense of discontent in the team but they are just rumours — perhaps the anger of people that comes out like this. In our part of the world, subcontinent, isn’t all this normal? This kind of speculations and conspiracy theories?”
That’s true but in some ways the broken shards of those conspiracy theories and rumours reflect the state of Afghanistan cricket right now. The drastic fall from hope (when the team was picked the chairman spoke about possible semi-final spot) to the current tatters. It shows in the scramble at the Manchester restaurant where the owners told the newspapers that the people who tried to take photographs of Afghan cricketers apparently threatened them that they would release the pictures to social media and claim that the team was partying ahead of the England game. You tell that to Kakar and he laughs down the Skype line. No surprise, no shock — just an all-knowing laughter. “I have heard that too here on the streets.” Huh, news does flow rather quickly to Kabul.
Why did Asghar Stanikzai change his name to Asghar Afghan and what does it have to do with cricket? Is there a conspiracy story there? “Stanikzai is a Pashtun tribe name,” says Kakar. “It was felt that our national captain should have a name that represents the country – and not just a tribe.” The name changes is a thorny issue in the country. Last year, the government started electronic identity cards (called E-Tazkera) that has divided the civil society. The debate has raged on whether the new ID should mention the person’s ethnicity and nationality using the term ‘Afghan’ and whether ‘Afghan and Pashtun’ are synonymous or not.
Pushing for the move, the Kandahar police chief, General Abdul Raziq, had said last year that “No one has the right to take political benefit from the process. Those who do not count themselves as Afghans should leave the country.” Afghanistan Analytics Network, an independent research outfit, summarised the issue thus: “As has been seen throughout the decades in Afghanistan, in both peace and some phases of the war, ethnicity has been used to form political parties and military factions, to organise people and vote in elections, to rally support and identify ‘the enemy’. It is always a potentially dangerous issue as it is essentially a sort of primordial kinship that gains its social and political powers from its fixed and predetermined feature — ie, being born into a certain ethnic group.”
It’s in this light that Asghar Stanikzai became Asghar Afghan. To give himself a pan-country image. He isn’t just the only one but Kabul cricket watchers have a theory. Zai are Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Perhaps, its an attempt to erase that doubt that lineage has – there is a definite anti-Pakistan sentiment in the country,” says an Afghan journalist who doesn’t want to be named. “But it isn’t just limited to Asghar – lot of normal citizens are changing the name to Afghan. It’s the mood in the country.”
“Cricket also is now affected by what’s happening in the country,” Kakar says. “Political patronage and nepotism is driving it.” As soon as Fazli took over as chairman last September, he appointed a Dawlat Khan Ahmadzai as chief selector (the one that Phil Simmons is warring with). Soon, Asghar Afghan was removed as the captain. Under Asghar’s captaincy, Afghanistan became a full member of ICC and in March, achieved their historic maiden Test win against Ireland in Dehradun. A month before the tournament, Afghanistan opted for split captaincy: Gulbadin Naib for ODIs, Rashid Khan for T20s, and Rahmat Shah for Tests – and Kabul cricket followers raged. In fact, it went one step further, as Asghar Afghan was not picked for the first three games and only after a public outcry back home , he was included in the game against South Africa.
Then there was that brouhaha over Ahmad Shahzad, who vented tearfully after his ouster from the world cup. The authorities said he was unfit, a theory that he ruled out. “If they don’t want me to play, I will quit cricket, “ Shahzad told the Afghanistan media in Kabul.
Afghanistan Times, the newspaper, reported Shahzad saying that there are accusations against him that he doesn’t play honestly against Pakistan and that he is in the team working for someone. He alleged a conspiracy and also said that Asghar wasn’t played despite being fully fit.
The president got involved after that. A presidential decree was issued and four people – Gulalai Noor Safi, Ahmad Jawad Paikar, Ziaulhaq Amarkhail, and Shukurullah Atif Mashal — were newly appointed as board members. Of the lot, Mashal’s name is interesting. Last September, he was the chairman of ACB but was replaced after a few Afghan players complained that he was the reason they didn’t get sold in the Afghanistan Premier League. Now not only is he back, but has become a key board member. The Kabul cricket watchers fear that the players might revolt with a strike or the administrators crack the whip so hard that more chaos would result.
Sarah Fane, called the “mother of Afghan cricket” for her work in using cricket as a tool to bring kids together in schools doesn’t want to get into the debate. All she is hoping that the people in power realise the importance and pride of place that cricket has in every Afghan’s lives. “It’s their joy, cricketers are the main heroes. This country needs cricket.”
It’s in this context that Indians face Afghanistan in Southampton. The Titanic left the shores here before it sunk. Could Afghanistan find a way to make their cricket-crazy countrymen remember Southampton as the place where their cricket stayed afloat? Else, more rumours would spill out from Kabul’s stadiums that are already more leaky than that famous ship.