Cricket

Afghanistan: cricket must show moral leadership, not hollow posturing

There has been much consternation in the cricket world since Taliban spokesman Ahmadullah Wasiq told Australian broadcaster SBS last week that the militants, who seized power in Afghanistan when they overran Kabul last month, intended to ban women’s sport in the country in accordance with their hardline interpretation of Islam.

Cricket Australia (CA) responded to the news by announcing that they would cancel their scheduled men’s Test match ‘if recent media reports that women’s cricket will not be supported in Afghanistan are substantiated.’

Men’s Test captain Tim Paine went even further with comments of his own casting doubts over Australia’s willingness to play Afghanistan at the upcoming T20 World Cup. The ICC has declared itself to be ‘concerned’ about the development. There have also been calls in the media for Afghanistan’s expulsion from Test cricket, with comparisons drawn to South Africa’s isolation during apartheid.

To be clear, there is no doubt that the Taliban is instituting a repressive regime that severely curtails the freedom of all Afghan citizens, and especially women. Amnesty International has issued numerous warnings about existing human rights violations by the Taliban, and the looming threat of more. However, for the cricket community to act as if the non-existence of Afghan women’s cricket is a new development shows a credulity that frankly beggars belief, and no small amount of hypocrisy at an administrative level.

The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) disbanded its women’s team (only initiated in 2010) in late 2014, citing mounting pressure from Taliban threats as well as other cultural difficulties in the deeply conservative nation. When Afghanistan were promoted to Full Membership in 2017, the ACB was granted an exemption from the ICC’s development criteria pertaining to women’s cricket. This exemption was knowingly approved by all of the then-FM boards, including Cricket Australia. And given the ICC and its Full Members all explicitly gave the ACB permission to continue without a women’s team, it becomes faintly absurd to see them now using the non-existence of a women’s team as a justification for punishing the ACB.

If CA were serious about its claims of commitment to the women’s game, why not use their considerable leverage at the ICC boardroom to resist the exemption? And why then subsequently schedule a men’s Test against a nation they knew full well had no women’s team? The fact that they are only taking action now smacks of hypocrisy and a PR team seeking an easy win, rather than a principled stand.

Yes, the ACB gave assurances that they were working on restarting their women’s team when promoted. But with potentially $US40m in ICC funding on the line, and no enforcement mechanism, it would be stunningly naive to take such promises at face value. Everyone involved can be reasonably assumed to have known it was a fudge. There was of course the much-circulated press release from 2019 announcing plans to form a squad, but given they never played a match, and never even released a team list, it is hard to believe they were taking that project seriously. It is also worth noting that the only organised women’s matches in the country since 2014 were played outside the ACB’s auspices.

And with current ACB Chairman Hamid Shinwari now openly stating that the current situation is ‘not substantially different’ to the environment under the Western-backed Karzai and Ghani governments, it seems increasingly clear that the Taliban’s mistake was not in banning a non-existent team, but in dropping the pretence of having that team. If that is the red line for cricket, it’s a morally vacuous one.

What to do? It is true that merely pointing out hypocrisy is not, in itself, productive. And there is indeed a reasonable case to be made in favour of cancelling the Test in the immediate short term. But what next? The rampant double-standards should give us pause to think more broadly about cricket’s approach beyond this specific situation.

While there are no easy answers, it would be too convenient to simply ban a poor, isolated nation with little geopolitical influence and move on. Principles applied only when it’s politically convenient are not truly principles, and the difficult stands that are not taken drain moral authority from the easy stand that is. If we in the cricketing community wish to raise our voices for human rights, we should take this opportunity to look carefully at the situation and consider how to push for meaningful and wide-reaching change. There are several practical, though increasingly difficult, steps that could be taken.

First, the boards who granted Afghanistan Full Membership without fulfilling their women’s requirements could honestly admit the mistake rather than obfuscating their complicity with talk of ‘assurances’ they almost certainly knew to be meaningless. And in order to prevent that mistake from being repeated in the future, they could also push to remove the ‘cultural and religious reasons’ exemption that is currently written into the ICC membership criteria, and which allowed Afghanistan to go two decades as an official cricketing nation whilst undertaking minimal effort to develop women’s cricket. Because it makes no sense to decry ‘recent media reports that women’s cricket will not be supported in Afghanistan’, when that has been the status quo for almost all of their existence as an ICC member (indeed, they were first admitted to the ICC when the Taliban were still in power in 2001). The ACB has merely gone from not supporting women’s cricket due to their own deliberate inaction, to not supporting women’s cricket due to a government edict.

Secondly, there must be a coherent approach to boycotts and bans. If Afghanistan faces the boot for lacking a women’s programme, how are Saudi Arabia still an ICC member in good standing? More generally, if the problem is that they fall foul of the ICC’s membership rules, what measures are in place to ensure compliance? If, for example, the rules around government interference in cricket were stringently applied, would any boards even remain? Inconsistencies abound, and it seems the only enforcement mechanism is for the FM boards to vote against themselves.

If, on the other hand, Afghanistan are banned for off-field reasons (that is, because of an unwillingness to legitimise the Taliban), what level of human rights violations will the ICC tolerate?

This is not intended as an exercise in whataboutism, but to highlight the need for cricket to produce a clear set of standards that it wishes to uphold, along with an independent mechanism for verifying and enforcing them. For instance, if authoritarianism and curtailed political freedoms merit sanction, the ICC could collaborate with the UN’s human rights agency or other independent observers such as Freedom House to analyse civil rights. If outright violent oppression is the red line, perhaps it could work off Amnesty International reports. Implementing a system around this premise would be difficult, devilishly so, as it would ask hard questions of many existing ICC members. But if we’re serious about cricket upholding human rights, we ought to find the moral imagination to explore ways of making the game a leader in the field. The alternative is to continue muddling along on a case-by-case basis where the only time action is taken is when it aligns with the self-interest of FM boards.

This of course leads to the third area in which Full Members could campaign for reform if they’re serious about accountability for nations who do the wrong thing – independent governance. Ultimately any proposal to sanction a member will always fall flat unless a majority of the ICC board votes to approve it. This board, while now containing at least a few outside voices, is still dominated by the representatives of Full Members (who make up 12/17 of the seats).

So unless we trust the turkeys to always take a principled stand in favour of Christmas, we need an ICC empowered to make tough decisions. There is already a model for this – the Woolf Report, which recommended wholesale structural reform of the ICC, including more independence from the interests of powerful FMs. Despite being commissioned by the ICC almost a decade ago, many of its observations remain relevant to cricket’s governance: ‘The ICC Board is currently dominated by Full Members which has the effect that representation on the Board is primarily from Test playing countries. As a result of this “decisions are perceived to be taken in the interests of the 10 and not of the 95.”’ Though there are now 12 Full Members, the dynamic remains the same.

So as the ICC gathers for its next board meeting in November, there will be many thorny questions to answer regarding Afghanistan’s position in the cricketing community. There is a real chance that October’s T20 World Cup will be the last time their men’s national team takes the field for the foreseeable future. But as Afghan society stands on the brink, the cricket community ought not settle for a self-aggrandising PR victory – instead, it should use the situation as a catalyst for genuine reform that can help push human rights forward in all its members.

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