Tension-Building Margins in Afghanistan Cricket: What Opponents and Supporters Say? – Hasht-e Subh Daily

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Tension-Building Margins in Afghanistan Cricket: What Opponents and Supporters Say?

Introduction

I became more acquainted with the world of sports during my youth. In the dark years of the first Taliban rule in the 1990s, the dusty streets provided a space for me and my peers to express our excitement. In those constrained times, we shortened our imaginative world to fit the harsh realities. Football was our best entertainment in central Kabul. We played football together in the alleys, creating memories. The football field back then was not just hot streets but also homes. I remember we made balls from socks and played football enthusiastically inside the rooms.

Moving forward, during the first Taliban era, Kabul’s stadium became a venue for football team displays. Local and national competitions were held there. It was a place where both overt and covert rivalries among players could be seen (a natural occurrence). At that time, Kabul Stadium had transformed into a refuge for weary and sidelined individuals. In the evenings, men gathered there, indulging in a heavily masculine world for recreation. Hence, football became everyone’s favorite game.

After the collapse of the first Taliban regime, my interest in football grew stronger. Whether at school, in recreational areas, or on the streets, football brought us together. Amidst all the hustle and excitement, we created countless memories and friendships through football. When something becomes a memory, it becomes unforgettable. Gradually, however, I distanced myself from sports as I entered the workforce and university, shifting my focus to headline news. Since then, I haven’t followed sports news, including football.

But it was in the 2010s that cricket suddenly emerged prominently. In earlier years, during my youth, cricket was colloquially referred to as “ball-throwing” in the literary language of the streets. This perception of cricket had permeated through many citizens, especially the youth of Kabul. Due to my strong inclination towards football in my youth, I never developed a sincere interest in cricket. As a result, I remain unfamiliar with cricket and how it is played. It has never intrigued me because I never participated in it nor created any memories associated with it (I respect my lack of interest in cricket as a personal state of mind).

Since then, however, cricket has gained significant fame and prominence. This sudden rise to fame has always intrigued me, until slowly, that fame turned into tension.

The Cricket Game

I lack expertise in analyzing the framework and specificities of cricket, but I do know that this sport originated in England. During its colonial era, England spread cricket alongside its influence around the world. Therefore, cricket thrives predominantly in countries with historical ties to the British Empire (Commonwealth of Nations). Although many countries have gained independence from British colonial rule, England’s legacy remains alive through cricket in cultural and sporting contexts among these former colonies. Thus, prominent figures in cricket often hail from these nations.

On the other hand, cricket generates less material (financial) content compared to football, which is why major global powers like the United States, France, Germany, and China are less involved in it. This fundamental reason contributes to cricket not having formidable competitors on a global scale, hence it remains primarily prominent in former British colonies.

One of these countries is Afghanistan. As previously mentioned, cricket arrived in Afghanistan during the 18th century with the presence of the British. Migration to Pakistan also contributed to increasing interest in cricket among our people, and with training and skill development, cricket became vibrant in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan are major contenders in international cricket, unlike in other sports such as football, where their growth has not been as pronounced.

However, due to its limited presence in only a few countries, cricket has yet to become a part of the Olympic Games. It operates solely within the framework of an international council. The complexity of its structure and lack of standardization are reasons why cricket has not been included in the Olympics. Nevertheless, the International Cricket Council has expressed that cricket could potentially be included in the Olympic Games around 2028 or 2032, which is promising news for cricket enthusiasts.

It is speculated that Afghanistan’s cricket team has achieved a prominent position among other international teams in this sport, given the absence of strong global rivals and the presence of standout players in this field. However, there are questions and concerns regarding cricket in Afghanistan: critics argue that cricket has become an ethnocentric club reflecting ethnic elements and has been contextualized into national values. Considering these realities, opposition to cricket is as visible as support and enthusiasm for the game.

Despite this, the efforts of the cricket team in Afghanistan are noteworthy. It is essential to recognize that the professional persona of the players differs from their ethnic and political identities. These two personas require different perspectives and should not be conflated during judgment. The professional persona of cricket players, who have succeeded with their technical skills, is due to their abilities and merits attention. Therefore, while there is concern that cricket is turning into a political and ethnic club, there should also be concern that the professional persona and capabilities of the players are not damaged. In other words, we should not allow the enthusiasm of a few professional athletes to become a plaything for a few dreamers.

However, there are questions raised about how the success of cricket clubs can be evaluated without the influence of powerful owners, ethnocentric zealots, and government subsidies. What is the sociocultural tension on the fringes of cricket? What about individuals’ right to personal preference? How are those who do not view cricket as a preferred sport judged? How can those disinterested in this game be deemed biased or spies for another country? Do some citizens view the victories of this team with narrow-mindedness? How does cricket relate to national and identity issues? Is creating sensitivity in this area beneficial?

In this note, I intend to analyze some aspects of these questions comparatively, assuming the legitimacy of both perspectives. I will also attempt to suspend my lack of interest in cricket while addressing these questions; as a sociology graduate, my focus should solely be on sociological analysis and not on making value judgments.

Cricket And Its Fans

There is no doubt that sports are accompanied by excitement, especially in games where players’ heroism satisfies historical grievances and humiliations, and the political realm is opened through sports display. However, this assumption is worth contemplating in the case of cricket. What has turned cricket and interest in it from a game into cricket fanaticism – complete with adversaries – among citizens?

The analysis of opponents suggests that the transformation of cricket into an arena for ethnocentric politicians has turned cricket from a sport into a field of competition. Consequently, cricket has separated from its sporting identity and become associated with an ethnopolitical identity. When the game is approached with such a mindset, it becomes a tool for power projection, and players become instruments of power display. Indeed, in this regard, from Afghan politicians to statesmen, efforts have been made to support cricket more than any other game in Afghanistan: merchants, politicians, parliamentarians, cultural elites, and now the Taliban utilize cricket to assert themselves. If not, how could the forefront of the most important events for the people be reduced to just a sport? Therefore, the Taliban now use cricket to divert attention from criticism and gain internal legitimacy.

In addition, from a sociological perspective, we have rarely seen in Afghanistan that the older generation has had a serious interest in sports, but cricket is different. Many elderly individuals have found an identity bond with cricket and embrace it. How has this generation diverged in choosing cricket over other sports, unlike their peers? Although it is less common to see older adults passionate about football, basketball, or wrestling.

However, proponents believe that the increasing victories of cricket among powerful cricketing nations have turned cricket from a sports interest into a national obsession. They believe that these victories have made everyone identify with it.

From an examination of the facts, it emerges that among current enthusiasts of cricket, there is an underlying motivation to separate from sporting enjoyment. Identity issues are likely significant. Thus, the hype around cricket has diverted people’s attention from important social and political struggles. For this reason, cricket victories, independent of its ethnic and political reality, are exploitative for governments, especially the Taliban. Alongside this hype and encouragement of the people, political action has ultimately alienated citizens who are the real forces within a society. A form of mass psychology has taken place within cricket that could promote the most dangerous form of ethnocentrism at the club level.

Cricket And The Ethnic Issue

It is claimed that cricket is a national game, but the claim of its ethnocentrism aspect has questioned its national identity. Therefore, this dichotomy is one of the fundamental reasons for tension in the discussion of Afghanistan’s cricket game.

Some proponents argue that cricket belongs to Afghanistan and anyone who does not believe in this cannot see the players’ achievements in this game or is biased. They believe that the hierarchy of players in this game belonging to a tribe has its roots in their ability and interest in cricket and that others have not entered this field, lacked interest, or did not have sufficient ability.

However, some opponents have a different belief regarding everyone’s participation in the excitement of this game: why should someone who is not interested in cricket welcome the victories of the cricket team on the field of powerful countries? They claim that in such a situation, labeling everyone as a sports enthusiast places this much accusation and bias under scrutiny. Someone who is not interested in this game cannot get excited about the victories of this team, so why should they be labeled biased? Perhaps such an individual does not have the capacity and ability to freely and maturely approach their preferred sport. The label of bias takes away individuals’ freedom of choice and comes from a system of dominance and censorship. Therefore, it seems that the assumption that everyone should get excited about the cricket team’s victory is a top-down directive that not only does not fit but also creates tension.

Secondly, the issue revolves around the ethnic composition of the cricket team. It is undeniable that all players in this team belong to one ethnic group. Those who criticize the national status of this team argue from this perspective. They argue that the cricket team, by revolving around one ethnic group, benefits from political backing and special governmental support, thus promoting an ethnic narrative. Therefore, they argue that it cannot be considered a national team, and it would be better to label it as an ethnic cricket team. In that case, when members of other ethnicities are not included in this team, it will be officially recognized by the people as a prominent ethnic team and ideally well-received by the public.

Furthermore, opponents of this claim that other ethnic groups lack interest or sufficient ability in cricket believe otherwise. They argue that interest develops when opportunities are equally available to everyone. Additionally, the argument against their capability among other citizens is logically refuted because a sport can’t be designed exclusively for certain genes or specific cultures.

Cricket And The Identity Issue

Sports in today’s world reflect both individual and collective identities of people. Sports can be a part of culture—a facet that not only ensures physical and mental health but also serves as a cultural symbol, intertwining political and social life. Cricket is one of the club sports that competes on behalf of Afghanistan beyond its borders. Given that there is a distinction between sports as personal entertainment and sports as a club activity, societal expectations from a sports club differ significantly from an individual’s expectations of physical training, for instance. It is this very challenge that from a sociological perspective, highlights the fundamental tensions surrounding cricket in Afghanistan concerning identity.

Opponents of cricket believe that the current sports environment, particularly cricket in Afghanistan, has become highly tense, populist, non-cultural, and even anti-cultural. They argue that this tension is the result of a decade of politicking by the cricket club. They claim that in such an atmosphere, how can cricket from within Afghanistan sell national identity from within an ethnic team when there is no member of other ethnicities in the team for anyone to see their identity represented?

Given the diverse voices in the discourse on identity, the claim is worth pondering. National elements that act as links among ethnic groups have collapsed in the country. The discourse on the terms “Afghan” and “Afghanistani” identities is as debatable as the types of political systems (parliamentary, presidential, federalism, emirate, etc.). Many still question why “Attan” should be considered a national dance but the “Qarsak” is banned. Aren’t both just a dance?

These voices suggest that in Afghanistan, there is no order, and everything is managed based on a religious-ethnic ideology. Therefore, in such an environment where national elements are still doubted, a sports-political team cannot represent all national and cultural realities within a country from a sociological perspective and assert a national identity.

Another subject of criticism by opponents is the analysis of power. They believe that the cultural realities of Afghanistan should not be seen through the lens of cricket, as this perspective has influenced policymakers to create a narrow worldview that reflects ethnic identity rather than inclusivity. Creating such a narrow world not only seems inappropriate but, in the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, can also evolve into a frightening idea. Opponents argue that this political maneuvering has allowed politicians to simply link cricket to the ethnic interests of the Pashtun people and use the excitement of the sport to establish an ethnic Pashtun identity instead of a national one. They argue that other sports have been sidelined due to excessive ethnocentric policies favoring cricket, as sports like wrestling, volleyball, taekwondo, and others do not offer favorable opportunities for ethnic focus to manifest as a national identity.

However, cricket enthusiasts and supporters believe that cricket is a popular sport supported by all citizens of Afghanistan and is a national pride. They argue that cricket is not only free from specific markers or manipulations but also exports the national identity of Afghan citizens through the team’s performances on international stages. Their argument resonates with the excitement felt by many citizens who unite in joy during the victories of the cricket team.

You can read the Persian version of this analysis here:

حاشیه‌‌های تنش‌‌زا در کریکت افغانستان؛ مخالفان و موافقان چه می‌‌گویند؟ | روزنامه ۸صبح 

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