Now is the time for the ICC to act on Afghanistan


The recent news that the CEO of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, Hamid Shinwari, had been summarily dismissed by the Taliban and replaced by Najeebullah Khan, a member of the notorious Haqqani network, must surely increase the likelihood that the International Cricket Council (ICC) will be forced to impose some form of sanction upon one of its newest Full members.

There had already been a lively discussion about whether the international cricket community should take action after a Taliban spokesman had declared that women would not be permitted to play cricket or indeed any sport, under the new regime, although the ACB chairman, Azizullah Fazli, subsequently attempted to damp down any such calls by suggesting that the future of women’s cricket in Afghanistan remained an open question.

The reported action of Anas Haqqani, younger brother of the Taliban’s new Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, in turfing out the duly-appointed ACB CEO, however, raises the stakes substantially, since it could scarcely be more clearly in conflict with article 2.4(d) of the ICC’s Articles of Association, which imposes on all members an obligation to ‘manage its affairs autonomously and ensure that there is no government (or other public or quasi-public body) interference in its governance, regulation and/or administration of Cricket in its Cricket Playing Country (including in operational matters, in the selection and management of teams, and in the appointment of coaches or support personnel)’.

There is, of course, a great deal of hypocrisy in the ICC’s historic position on this requirement: successive chairmen of the ACB have been appointed by Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, an administrative coziness which mimicked the relationship between the Government of Pakistan and the PCB, something which has been winked at by the ICC for well over half a century.

While it has become quite usual for the Council to suspend or even expel Associate members for this and other breaches of its rules, only once has suspension been imposed on a Full member, on Zimbabwe in July 2019. But in this case the circumstances were unusual, in the sense that Zimbabwe Cricket was locked in a power struggle with the Government’s Sports and Recreation Commission and looked to the ICC for support.

Judging by the ACB’s tweet showing chairman Fazli welcoming Najeebullah as the new CEO, there is little likelihood of the Afghan board taking a similar stance – and given the Haqqani network’s reputation, who can blame them?

In his well-argued recent article about the Afghan situation, written before the latest developments, Nick Skinner cogently points out the inconsistencies in the ICC’s handling of such difficult constitutional issues, rightly blaming the fundamental flaws in its Board structure, and calls for an approach based on principled considerations rather than short-term self-interest.

Fans in Afghanistan celebrate their team’s qualification for the 2015 ICC World Cup (Photo: supplied)

That the ICC needs thorough-going reform based on the recommendations of the Woolf Report is beyond question. Nor can it be seriously argued that the 2017 elevation of Afghanistan and Ireland to Full membership was anything other than a disgraceful fudge, funded at the expense of the other Associates and at least as much about the demotion of Zimbabwe as it was about the promotion of Afghanistan and Ireland.

But while it is incontestable that the ICC’s performance in enforcing its own rules is little short of farcical, it is less obvious that the adoption of a full-on human rights approach to membership sanctions would be in the interests of the expanding the game, or even practicable.

Should China be suspended because of its treatment of the Uyghurs, or of political dissidents? Shouldn’t Myanmar be expelled because of its appalling human rights record? Should the USA be isolated until it stops conducting barbaric executions?

The trouble with this approach, as Skinner notes, is that the ICC’s membership list might be drastically reduced as a result; furthermore, it runs a severe risk of leading to the Cold War-induced Olympic boycotts of the 1980s, when the withdrawal of 66 countries from the Moscow Olympics of 1980, mostly because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was followed by a retaliatory, Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Games by 18 countries four years later.

If that is not the way forward, what might form the basis of a consistent, principled approach to sanctions for a global sport like cricket?

It’s hardly original, but the principle that the intrusion of politics into the organisation and management of the sport is a red line that cannot be crossed remains a good place to start – if only cricket’s governing bodies could be prevailed upon to apply it consistently.

Let’s go back to one of the most contentious issues to afflict world cricket: the response to apartheid in South Africa.

The initial withdrawal of South Africa from the ICC was more or less automatic, since the ICC’s then constitution required members to be members of the Commonwealth, from which South Africa withdrew in March 1961. But England, Australia and New Zealand refused to accept the consequences of this, and between them played no fewer than 30 Tests against South Africa between December 1961 and March 1970.

For those who opposed these and other sporting contacts with South Africa, the argument was not simply that apartheid was an abhorrent system, but that it impinged directly on sport, by requiring that South African representative teams consist only of white athletes, by maintaining racially separated governing bodies, and by denying non-white sportsmen and women access to adequate facilities.

While many politicians and sports administrators continued to insist that politics must be kept out of sport, the reply that it was the South African Government which was violating that principle was sufficient to convince many, and in the case of cricket the Basil d’Oliveira episode in 1968 ultimately proved decisive.

It is this principle which is enshrined in article 2.4(d) of the ICC constitution, and which the Taliban government in Afghanistan has blatantly violated with its summary dismissal of Hamid Shinwari.

While there may have been an argument, as I suggested on 15 September, for holding off on sanctions as long as the future of women’s cricket in Afghanistan remained at issue, that situation changed drastically when Anas Haqqani stepped into the ACB offices.

For the ICC to fail to act now, or even to keep stalling until the next scheduled Board meeting in November (conveniently after the World T20 Cup), would show unmistakably that article 2.4(d) is a dead letter and that the ICC itself is at best a paper tiger, at worst a shameless condoner of the ruthless politics of the Taliban and its Haqqani network.

The ICC needs to move swiftly and decisively, or run the risk of its much-vaunted Afghan venture dissolving into chaos.

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