Less than 10 days!
That’s all it took for the Taliban to overpower the so-called Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and capture Kabul.
Not only does the return of the Taliban herald an uncertain future for the people of Afghanistan, it also casts a dark shadow over the national sporting pastime of cricket.
‘I’m feeling good overall but anxious and uncertain,’ is how Shafiq Stanikzai describes this new reality.
In an engrossing interview on the Emerging Cricket Podcast, the ex-CEO of Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) outlined his personal journey as a cricketer and administrator. He also discussed Afghanistan’s ascension to an ICC Full Member and contemplated about the future of the sport under the new regime.
Cricket first emerged in Afghanistan when the Pashtun community brought the game back home with them from the refugee camps in Pakistan. Stanikzai was among those who had caught the bug and wanted to kickstart the cricket movement within his homeland.
‘I was in the first group of 12 cricketers who started playing the game in Kabul. It was very hard at first to sell cricket to Afghans. People saw it as a Pakistani game; they would abuse us. The police would even beat us if they saw us playing cricket.’
Despite the early societal pushback, cricket prevailed and slowly built up a larger following. The breakthrough occurred in 2010, when Afghanistan won the ACC Trophy in Kuwait. It heralded a monumental shift in Afghan attitudes. What was previously an unloved “Pakistani” sport quickly became a source of national pride.
‘Our 2010 ACC Trophy win was the turning point. Around 3,000 to 4,000 people came to the ground to support us. Pictures were taken, it made the social media feeds. That’s when we caught the eyes of the Government. I remember when we came back from Kuwait, there were people lining the streets for up to 6 kilometres, to welcome us back,’ he says.
‘President Hamid Karzai nominated the Finance Minister to become the ACB chairman. We got sponsorships, the funds arrived, each player received a salary of USD $700 per month. We got a proper structure and office. Cricket started booming in Afghanistan from then on,’ he continues.
From plucky amateurs to professionals
In 2010, Stanikzai also took over the reins as national team manager, replacing the charismatic Taj Malik.
‘During my stint from 2010 to 2014, I brought in many changes. I travelled all over the world and copied the best things from all cricket boards elsewhere. The ICC’s High-Performance Programme was a tremendous help too.’
Stanikzai’s meteoric rise continued with his promotion to the role of ACB Chief Executive in Feb 2015, appointed by President Karzai himself. One of the first things Stanikzai did was bring in some much-needed professionalism. The cricketers were transitioned away from consuming KFC, McDonald’s and Pepsi for lunch to taking nutrition, hydration and fitness extremely seriously. Any breaches were punished by the meting out of USD $500 fines.
ACB also diversified its revenue streams, becoming more self-sufficient.
‘When I took over as CEO, we were solely reliant on ICC funds and whatever was coming from the Government. In my first 2 months, I obtained an annual sponsorship worth USD $1.3 million, which allowed us to invest heavily into our domestic cricket structures. I made the Shpageeza Cricket League commercial and franchised. The 2017 edition had 6 franchises with international players hailing from West Indies, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Oman,’ Stanikzai states.
2017 was also the year when Afghanistan achieved ICC Full Membership alongside Ireland. It was a historic occasion for Afghan cricket, capping off a remarkable rise from the lower leagues of world cricket all the way into the elite club of ICC members.
Stanikzai beams when he recalls that fateful day in June 2017.
‘I always knew that we had the potential to become a Test nation. We possessed the talent to beat any side in the world on a given day, just needed the platform and exposure.’
Full Membership did not come easy for the Afghans. They had to engage in intense and often furious lobbying behind the scenes, whilst navigating the cutthroat politics within ICC member circles.
‘I first started lobbying amongst the 90 plus associate members for Afghanistan cricket. Credit also goes to Cricket Ireland CEO Warren Deutrom, their chairman and to the ICC Chief Executive Committee. Together, we formally submitted a letter to ICC requesting the establishment of a clear pathway for Associate nations to become Full Members.’
‘I studied the previous criteria that Bangladesh had used to obtain Full Membership in 2002. The only thing that was missing was the performance criteria. We needed to beat some Full Members. I started knocking on the doors of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies and managed to convince them to play with us,’ he explains further.
The ensuing fixtures saw the Afghans notch up some crucial wins. They beat Zimbabwe home and away in bilateral games. They also beat Bangladesh in Bangladesh, which was instrumental in fulfilling the performance criteria. These results came at the perfect time, with then ICC Chairman Shashank Manohar also implementing constitutional changes at the ICC governance level, thus paving the way for Ireland and Afghanistan’s ascension to Full Membership.
Life under Taliban
The ex-ACB CEO turns pensive when the discussion turns to life under Taliban. Despite being well aware of the harsh realities of life in Afghanistan, Stanikzai admits that he was still surprised at the speed of the Taliban takeover.
‘To be honest, whatever happened for us as Afghans, the only surprising factor was that we were not expecting this to happen so soon and so dramatically. We were all in tears to see the hard work that Afghans have put in destroyed.’
He has two main questions to ask of the new regime and the world at large.
‘Yes, the previous government was very corrupt. The biggest question that we have right now is if the world is willing to accept Taliban leadership or will they abandon us?’
‘Almost 5-10% of the population of Afghanistan are leaving out of fear for the new regime. We need these people. They are talented individuals who the country has invested in for the past 20 years. Now that the fight is over, Taliban need to start meeting the expectations of 36 million people. They need to provide the system, the government structure, public health care, communications, security, economy, sports, education, everything comes into that. Are they capable of delivering?’
Cricket under Taliban
Stanikzai is less concerned about fate of men’s cricket in this new era. After all, the sport started under the first Taliban regime, who were supportive of it.
‘I remember when I was national team manager and it was our first every one-day international game against Pakistan. The Taliban spokesman called me and wished me and the entire team good luck. Players like Mujeeb, [Ramanullah] Gurbaz, Ashraf, Hamza Tahir have emerged from areas where Taliban were in power, as the previous Government did not have control of the entire country.’
On the other hand, women’s cricket is under active threat of disappearing altogether.
‘I don’t know where women’s cricket stands now under the Taliban. As CEO I had allocated a specific fund for women’s cricket development. And that fund was giving us good results. I had a chat with the current chairman of ACB and I specifically asked him about women cricket. He says that Taliban is open to women’s cricket, but I am not sure.’
‘To be honest, women in sports is always a sensitive subject in Afghanistan. Forget about the Government or their approaches to this; the society is not ready to accept women playing cricket. It presented a huge challenge for me as an administrator. We did make some progress, in 2-3 provinces women had to started to play cricket in schools,’ Stanikzai states.
Currently working as a cricket consultant outside of the country, the ex-ACB CEO confirms that he is open to returning home and working with the Afghan cricket board.
‘Afghanistan is my first love. I have sacrificed my love towards my family, my kids and prioritised Afghanistan all the time. I would love to work for my people again and lead a purposeful life.’
Message to ICC
To finish off, Stanikzai has one final message for the ICC, that he wishes to convey. ‘I want to say to ICC that cricket in Afghanistan will never die. It has become an identity for every Afghan across the globe. We have succeeded in making our national cricket team the global darlings of world cricket,’ he says passionately.
‘In my personal opinion, any ICC event would be incomplete without our presence. So the ICC have a major role to play in this, regardless of what happens in the global political arena. They need to stand firm in support of Afghanistan cricket. They invested in us, we made full justice to their investment. So the responsibility lies with ICC to not abandon us.’
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