Afghanistan: Cricket has a second chance at genuine reform

Cricket Australia has announced their withdrawal from an upcoming fixture against Afghanistan, citing the Taliban’s appalling treatment of women. The ICC has expressed concern at the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s failure to develop women’s cricket. A wave of consternation and comment has crashed over the cricketing world. Sound familiar?

If Thursday’s decision from CA to pull out of their March Super League series against Afghanistan feels like a rerun, that’s because it largely is. In the second half of 2021 they cancelled a planned Test against Afghanistan in Hobart over the then-recent prohibition of women’s sports, triggering a round of discussion around the place of politics and human rights in cricket. And while the subsequent months have confirmed the brutality and repression of the Taliban regime, it has also highlighted cricket’s inability to face tough problems in any coherent manner, with the ICC’s response characterised by tepid half-measures and procrastination. Now that CA has brought the issue back into the spotlight, and with the ICC’s March board meeting rapidly approaching, cricket is presented with a potential circuit-breaker, a chance to address some of the administrative dysfunction that lies behind this messy situation.

First though, it is worth addressing Australia’s so-called principled stand. To seasoned observers of the Australian board, it’s hardly surprising to see them back out of matches against low-ranked opposition. They fobbed off Bangladesh in 2018 and then in 2020, for instance, and never did get around to playing that Test they dangled in front of Ireland two years ago. So it does seem rather convenient for Australia to invoke high-minded ideals like “supporting growing the game for women and men around the world” to justify pulling out of two fixtures they likely had little interest in anyway (and, in the case of the Super League, was a dead rubber with both Afghanistan and Australia safely qualified for the 2023 World Cup); the stand is further cheapened by the fact that they didn’t boycott a T20 World Cup match against Afghanistan last year when competition points were on the line. If CA are only willing to take action when it costs them nothing on the field (and aligns with their pre-existing self-interest), it’s hard to read their behaviour as anything but cynical PR. It’s also very disappointing to see the board, which has otherwise demonstrated admirable commitment to the women’s game, stoop to using female participation as a rhetorical cudgel against a men’s team they simply couldn’t be bothered to play.

CA’s hypocrisy extends further than just dodging their touring commitments however, and points to the deeper systematic problems within cricket’s decision-making process that leave it incapable of presenting a coherent response in the face of moral challenges. Firstly, CA voted in favour of the 2017 decision to award Afghanistan Full Member status with an exemption from women’s development requirements. The decision came three years after the ACB had disbanded its women’s programme, so was obviously taken with full knowledge of the dismal state of affairs in Afghanistan. This coupled with the fact that the Full Members simultaneously quashed any oversight of their own actions (and thus prospect of accountability for Afghanistan), really puts the lie to any moral grandstanding over the absence of a women’s team that has never existed in Afghanistan’s 21 years as part of the ICC.

Now it is certainly true that changing course to correct a bad decision is generally worthwhile, even if it comes disappointingly late. And if cricket’s powerbrokers are serious about human rights or administration standards, the upcoming board meeting in March is the time for action. Afghanistan’s dire situation presents the opportunity to build consensus around reforms which could enact systems-level guardrails against future abuses and turn cricket into a credible voice of morality in sports. To that end, the ICC Full Members must ensure that any (well-deserved) punishment meted out to the ACB is not merely a symbolic scalp to distract from their own inadequacies, but a catalyst for genuine change.

In a previous article on this topic here at Emerging Cricket, several suggestions were made in how the game’s failure on Afghanistan could be remedied: honesty from FMs about their mistakes; a clear set of standards for human rights in member nations; and independent governance to ensure consistent enforcement. And since the ICC has failed to engage on any of those fronts, these proposals are reiterated. That said, given it is Afghanistan specifically who will be in the spotlight at the March meeting, it is also productive to think through the ways in which these ideas should flow naturally from any decision about the ACB’s future.

First, and most obviously, if the ACB is sanctioned for its lack of a women’s programme, the boards who originally voted to endorse that state of affairs ought to apologise for their fudge (as they knew full well that any vague promises of improvement were both meaningless and unenforceable), and amend the ICC’s membership criteria to remove the “cultural and religious” exemption that allowed Afghanistan to ignore its responsibilities.

If, on the other hand, the ACB is sanctioned due to the broader human rights situation in Afghanistan, ICC members need to think through a consistent set of principles that they can all agree to uphold. This will be challenging for members (both Full and Associate), given the poor human rights record of many nations within the ICC. It will also precipitate some tricky questions for the institution itself – the ICC is headquartered in one repressive autocracy (the UAE), recently hosted T20 World Cup matches in another (Oman), and accepts major financial sponsorship from a third (Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, Aramco). Working through these challenges will be messy, and may require some ugly compromises. But the Taliban is by any metric among the absolute worst governments in the world (and, pragmatically speaking, lacking almost any geopolitical allies), so it presents a unique opening for cricket to set some floor of human rights below which it will not stoop. Coming together, in consultation with human rights agencies, to agree on a set of shared values would be a boon to cricket’s global reputation and establish the sport as a genuine voice of moral credibility.

Finally, if the ACB is sanctioned for government interference in the organisation, the ICC board would be risible in its hypocrisy without serious change to enforcement. Armed gunmen forcing out administrators may be as blatant as government interference gets, but at least half of the current Full Members would have a case to answer if this provision were generally taken seriously. And if the rules currently aren’t taken seriously (because of the obvious self-preservation instinct), there must be a truly independent enforcement mechanism to uphold them. The Woolf Report’s model of independent governance remains, even a decade later, the gold standard of structural reform, and this publication once more calls for its adoption. Failing that though, a more modest change exists, which may stand more chance of passing – the ICC’s 2017 oversight mechanism, which provides for an independent review of FMs’ adherence to membership criteria every five years. Perhaps if Cricket Australia is serious about its change of heart on Afghanistan, it could start by applying some of its considerable boardroom leverage to lobby for that.

Ultimately, if the history of ICC boardroom politics is any indication, none of these three suggestions are likely to even be seriously considered, let alone get past the short-term self-interest of a vote. And in the year-and-a-half that has elapsed since the Taliban seized power, cricket’s leaders have squandered the opportunity to show genuine moral leadership. But as Afghanistan’s position seemingly becomes untenable even for the ICC, and with Australia forcing the issue back into the limelight, the March board meeting presents a second chance at tackling systemic problems within the game’s administration.

Anything less, and action to punish Afghanistan would be little more than a transparent PR stunt marked by hypocrisy and double-standards.

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