Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a renowned and respected former cricketer, met with the Afghan National Cricket Team during his visit to Afghanistan in November 2020. As a token of appreciation and sportsmanship, the Afghan team presented a signed cricket bat to PM Imran Khan. This moment is emblematic of cricket diplomacy as an instrument to bring the two nations together.
Cricket is one of the most popular sports in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Therefore Cricket Diplomacy is not a new concept for them either. Cricket Diplomacy is a great tool to increase the people-to-people contact between two states. From England-Australia to Pakistan-India, many states have used this instrument to increase cooperation and dialogue. The question is how Pakistan and Afghanistan utilize this channel of Diplomacy to cater to their differences. Similarly, how can cricket diplomacy act as a liaison between both states?
Pakistan’s Role in the Flourishment of Cricket in Afghanistan
Pakistani and Afghans have been enjoying cricket since British Raj in the Sub-Continent. Following England’s tour to Pakistan in 1986, an Afghan refugee Taj Malik founded Afghan Cricket Club in the Kacha Gari Camp in Peshawar. This small club gave Afghanistan many prominent players like Karim Sadiq and Nawroz Mangal. Later, Taj Malik with Allah Dad Noori invested their blood and sweat to flourish the cricket in Afghanistan. They then became pioneers of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now Afghanistan Cricket Board).
During the webinar Pak-Afghan Sports Diplomacy, Pakistani journalist Asif Khan discussed how “Pakistan has taken Afghanistan and helped them in representing themselves in front of the Asian Cricket Board and the International Cricket Council”.
Afghanistan’s first coach with international experience was a Pakistani cricketer Kabir Khan. He helped the Afghan team to qualify for three T20 World Cups. After him, Pakistani Cricketers Rashid Latif and Inzamam-ul-Haq also acted as the head coaches of the Afghan team. Inzamam led the Afghan national team to their first win in the international series with Zimbabwe and later with the UAE.
“Pakistan has taken Afghanistan and helped them in representing themselves in front of the Asian Cricket Board and the International Cricket Council”-Asif Khan
The NCA Welcomes the Afghan Team
When Afghanistan had difficulty keep training in Sharjah due to heavy costs, Pakistan welcomed the Afghan team to its National Cricket Academy (NCA) Lahore for a four-week training in 2013. The same year, Pakistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Afghanistan to allow the training of the Afghan Cricket Team in the NCA Lahore. Ahead of the Under-19 Asia Cup 2014, the Afghan Under-19 Cricket Team also got training in Pakistan’s NCA.
In 2013, Afghanistan national team held a series with the A-Team of Pakistan following their four-week training period. Pakistan and Afghanistan have also faced each other during the Asia Cup, ICC World Cup, and the T20 World Cup. In 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan invited the Afghan cricket team to tour Pakistan. He assured the media that the cricket boards on both sides will work together to open a window for the tour in 2021 or 2022.
Pakistan as a Second Home to Afghan Cricketers
“We were refugees in Peshawar from 1994-96 during the Civil War. All of us started going to school there. We played our cricket there because everyone was playing cricket in school and on the streets. That’s how I fell in love with cricket.” – Mohammad Nabi
Fleeing from the wars after the Soviet invasion and US invasion, the joy of children of refugees was in playing cricket with their Pakistani brothers in the streets of Peshawar after their school. Many players in the Afghanistan cricket team have either lived or trained in Pakistan.
Among such players, the national cricket hero and current Captain of Afghanistan Rashid Khan started playing cricket in the streets of Pakistan. Rashid Khan’s family took refuge in Peshawar after the US invasion of Afghanistan. He holds the Identity Card of Pakistan and has played for Quetta Gladiators and Lahore Qalandars in the PSL. Rashid Khan has expressed Shahid Afridi’s modus operandi as his role model on numerous occasions.
Mohammad Nabi, also an Afghan refugee, started playing cricket at the age of 10 in the streets of Peshawar. He made his cricket debut in the Cornelius Trophy of Pakistan in 2003. Nabi went on to become one of the most skillful spinners in cricket. He has also played in various Tournaments in Pakistan including in the Karachi Kings franchise of PSL.
Opportunities for Pak-Afghan Cricket Diplomacy
Pakistan and Afghanistan share a similar culture, traditions, religion, and history. There are many grounds where these two states can work together. Sports are a source of joy and comfort for them. During the webinar Pak-Afghan Sports Diplomacy, the Director-General of the Afghan Olympic Committee Dr. Yonus Popalzai stressed that good relations and cooperation between the athletes of two sides can bring positivity and can help politicians to connect people across the border.
National Cricketer Karim Sadiq also discussed how sports specifically cricket can bring Pakistan and Afghanistan closer to each other. As both states share similar weather, he stressed that there can be several friendly competitions between the international teams as well as between the cricket clubs on both sides.
“We love Pakistani cricket, and it is a matter of national pride for us that our boys have been selected for PSL and I know they are really looking forward to it.” – Karim Sadiq
Women’s Cricket Teams
There are fewer opportunities for Women’s Cricket Teams on both sides. Pakistan and Afghanistan can also cooperate on providing equal opportunities to their female teams. Cricket tournaments, tours, joint training camps, and exchange programs are few ways to streamline women’s cricket. During the webinar Pak Afghan Women Youth Jirga, Pakistani National Cricketer Javeria Khan expressed her desire to work with the Afghan Women’s Team to give a boost to women’s cricket in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“It would be nice if we (Pakistan and Afghanistan) have bilateral series. Whether they (Afghan Women’s Team) come to Pakistan or we (Pakistani Women’s Team) go to Afghanistan, this way, women empowerment will increase.” – Javeria Khan
Such matches between the cricket teams will open a way for the families to connect. Retired Pakistani Footballer Gohar Khan has expressed how sports can bring families together. When one team visits another state, many fans travel to watch such events. As cricket is famous in both countries, Pakistanis and Afghans will have a chance to visit each other during cricket matches and tournaments. This will help tourism as well as the politicians to increase people-to-people contact. In a nutshell, according to many experts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sports especially cricket can act as a booster to cooperation and good relations.
Pak Afghan Sports Corridor
For the more effective use of Cricket Diplomacy, cricket boards on both sides should arrange series between the national cricket teams of both men and women. There can be tournaments between different cricket clubs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both sides can also arrange cross-border matches in the adjacent areas of their shared borders. These will encompass different age groups and genders.
For the implementation of all these suggestions, both sides should establish a Pak Afghan Sports Corridor. Pak Afghan Youth Forum is a good platform to launch such a corridor. The Director-General of PAYF Salman Javed has introduced and invited Pak-Afghan officials and sports experts to take this initiative on numerous occasions. Sports Corridor can help to connect the relevant sports institutions on both sides including the cricket boards. This corridor will facilitate Cricket Diplomacy which will in return facilitate the Pak-Afghan relations.