Central Asia may lack an established cricket culture, but veteran coach Andy Moles reckons that the sport has serious potential for growth there. Central Asia is the name given collectively to the five ‘stans’ – the ex-Soviet Union republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Out of these five nations, Tajikistan has made impressive strides in developing cricket. It is already an Asian Cricket Council (ACC) member and with 4,000 participants playing the game, it is close to attaining associate status with the International Cricket Council (ICC). Meanwhile, Uzbekistan only established its cricket federation in December 2019; but has been moving quickly to grow the game from scratch.
Earlier this year, the Cricket Federation of Uzbekistan (CFU) officially invited Moles to run a Level 1 course in the country. In an intriguing interview on the Emerging Cricket podcast, he described his first impressions of cricket in the region and what needs to be done further to grow the game.
“They [CFU] asked me to come and help run a Level 1 coaching course, to teach the basics of the game to 15-16 coaches. I was there for 7-8 days, just before Christmas. They looked after me ever so well,” says Moles.
“From a cricketing perspective, they are so very passionate, but they are beyond their infancy. They are just literally starting the building blocks, they don’t even have a foundation for cricket culture yet.”
First Impressions and Challenges
The man at the helm of Uzbek cricket is Federation CEO Aziz Mihliev. He fell in love with cricket during his college years in India and wanted to transport some of that passion and love for the game to his native country. Moles speaks glowingly of Mihliev and his sincere dedication to the game’s growth that he witnessed firsthand.
“Aziz has put a lot of his own money into growing cricket and he is doing a great job. It will help more once they can join ACC as a member. Because, then they can receive additional financing to grow the game properly.”
Furthermore, growing cricket in a new market comes with its own unique set of challenges. One major barrier is a lack of cricket knowledge amongst most of the coaches hired by the Federation.
“I met with a group of 15-16 coaches upon my visit. The first thing I asked was ‘who here knows or has seen cricket? ’One guy put his hand to say that he has played the game in India, 2 have seen it on YouTube. The others don’t even know what cricket is! Now, I have to teach them how to bat, ball and field. Now you tell me If you think that’s an easy job?”, Moles asks.
“A year ago, I was coaching Test cricket. So, to go from that to working with people who were coaches in football, ice hockey, boxing, taekwondo was a stark contrast. Basically, I had to rewind everything I had planned on doing and keep it very simple. We did a lot of YouTube surfing, watching videos of red ball and white ball games. I also demonstrated basic bowling techniques,” he further adds.
Despite this setback, Moles stipulates that the organisation is learning and catching up fast.
“They have started to build 2 cricket grounds. They have got coaching going on in universities there, they have spoken to the ICC and they met with the ACC as well. So, they are moving very quickly.”
Future Growth Potential
Regarding the growth potential of cricket in the Central Asian region, Moles paints a very optimistic picture.
“I think that it will thrive. The players see it as an opportunity to uplift themselves socially. The countries are very competitive, and they want to emulate their neighbours like Afghanistan who are doing very well in world cricket. It’s the perfect storm, the passion’s there, they want to play. If the ICC want to grow the game, it needs to collaborate and work together with these federations.”
Because of its infancy, cricket faces an uphill fight to gain mainstream acceptance in the region. It will be competing against more established sports such as football, boxing, weightlifting, mixed martial arts and tennis. However according to Moles, it is not an unwinnable battle, especially due to the proximity of the cricket mad sub-continent.
“When I went to Uzbekistan for the week, I was contacted by a number of Afghanistan players who wanted to come and play there, coach there etc. I think that it’s a great opportunity for a decent standard of cricketer to come in and build the local cricket culture, teach the basics and help grow the game. There are hundreds of Afghan cricketers who won’t get the opportunity at a national level, so that could be a viable opportunity for them to earn some income elsewhere.”
Politics and Security
Despite the geographical proximity, the security situation in Uzbekistan (and Central Asia in general) is drastically different to that in Afghanistan. Islamic fundamentalism and groups like the Taliban are basically non-existent in Central Asia. The reasons for this are varied; from the legacy of Soviet communism which enforced atheist beliefs, to the present day Central Asian leaders promoting a moderate form of Islam by cracking down on extremism.
“From a security perspective, there is a massive difference between the two countries (Uzbekistan and Afghanistan). There are no soldiers on the streets. In the town centre, there are 5-6 lane roads on each side, pristine, no rubbish. The country is regimented with little trouble between the different religious groups when compared to their neighbours Afghanistan,” Moles remarks.
Recently, the withdrawal of US Troops has raised fears of a Taliban resurgence and a worsening security situation in Afghanistan. These events could once again drive a new wave of Afghan migrants outward to neighbouring countries; potentially taking the game of cricket with them across the border.
Afghanistan contains a significant minority population of Tajiks (27%) and Uzbeks (9%), who would have already been exposed to cricket on national television. While this diversity is not yet reflected in the national team, access to the game has improved substantially. The sport is now being played in 32 out of 34 provinces around the country.
Therefore, one wonders how much of a role these Afghan Tajiks and Afghan Uzbeks could potentially play in developing cricket, in their ancestral homelands of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. As Andy Moles stated on the podcast, the ingredients are all there. It just needs a bit of investment and resources from the ACC and ICC to grow the game. So, with a bit of help and lots of luck, Central Asia might just become cricket’s future thriving hotbed!