The Afghan cricketers live in fear of the Taliban

Tuba Jan Sangar was in her office at the Afghanistan Cricket Board last month when her manager called. “She said, ‘Where are you?’ “She just asked me to go home,” Sangar said. “Everyone was afraid the Taliban would kill us. I did not sleep for a week and I did not eat anything.”

For seven years, Sangar, 28, worked to develop women’s cricket in Afghanistan, from creating teams at the school level to finally awarding contracts last year to the national squad.

But Taliban fighters flocked to Kabul, sealing their conquest of the country, describing the potential end to women’s rights to study, work and play sports. Sangar and her colleagues, who had been fighting opposition from the entire Afghan community for years, were devastated.

Sangar is now in Canada with his family, one of dozens of female athletes and sports officials evacuated. Many others remain inside Afghanistan, fearing for their lives and the future of sports in the country, one of the country’s great success stories after 2001.

“Cricket is not just a game for Afghans. Everyone loves cricket,” Sangar said. “Now there is no hope. Our players, our staff, they are stuck in Kabul. They are just worried about their own lives. ”

The Taliban, who imposed restrictions on sports when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, have apparently made support for athletes a basis for their charm offensive. But it is still unclear whether women who were excluded from sports when they were last in power will be allowed to continue playing at all.

Men play cricket in Kabul on 16 September
Men play cricket in Kabul on 16 September © STRINGER / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

How the Taliban treat sports in Afghanistan will prove to be an important test of what kind of society they want to create, and whether their promises of moderation and reform will hold true. It is also unclear whether the international success that athletes like the men’s cricket team have had can continue under the Taliban. Australia has already threatened to cancel a test in November if women are not allowed to play.

Sharda Ugra, a sports writer in India, said the Taliban wanted to make sports their “Potemkin village”.

“Cricket is their great currency to handle the world. Their reaction to cricket will be absolutely crucial to whether they will engage with the rest of the world or not,” she said. “If they say, ‘We do not care what the world thinks of us,’ then everyone is doomed together.”

She added: “The scary thing is that they can do a lot of shit by playing sports right and getting away with others [things]. ”

When they first ruled Afghanistan, the Taliban banned games like chess and buzkashi, a traditional sport in which teams on horseback compete for control of a goat’s body. Others, such as football, were allowed to continue even though the Islamists used stadiums for public executions.

Cricket has gained momentum in popularity in recent decades, picked up by Afghan refugees in Pakistan such as Mohammad Nabi, a veteran of the national team, while superstar players such as Rashid Khan emerged in the post-Taliban era. Afghanistan achieved full membership of the International Cricket Council in 2017 and played a test against India a year later.

Women’s sport also grew, with the country sending athletes to the Olympics and forming international teams.

“Our players are activists… Women’s football has been very political in Afghanistan,” said Khalida Popal, the Danish former captain of the women’s national football team. who hated the participation of women. “

Former Afghanistan women's football captain Khalida Popal at Farum Park Stadium, Denmark

Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghan women’s football team, in Denmark © Ritzau Scanpix / AFP via Getty Ima

When the Taliban regained control last month, they quickly introduced themselves as patrons of sports, sending leaders to meet athletes and hosting everything from cricket matches to wrestling matches. The group appointed Naseebullah Haqqani, a master-educated Talib, as the managing director of the cricket board.

The Taliban’s efforts to present a more moderate picture have been repeatedly contradicted by evidence of revenge killings and public executions of alleged criminals.

Their approaches have been of little consolation to many athletes. Stars like Khan publicly expressed alarm and dismay over the Taliban’s takeover, while Zaki Anwari, a youth footballer, fell to his death after clinging to a US evacuation plane last month.

Popal and other organized mass evacuation efforts that helped get dozens of female athletes out of the country.

The Taliban have issued mixed messages about whether women will be allowed to continue playing sports. However, international bodies such as the ICC and Fifa have not commented on whether they will continue to allow men’s teams to play if women are excluded.

But since the Taliban have already excluded women from work and education, Afghan athletes are in no doubt about what to expect.

“Here, women can never go to sports. No and never, ”said a cricketer on the women’s team, who is still in the country but hopes to leave. “The men’s cricket team makes a lot of money, then [the Taliban] will promote it. “

“If they want us to wear long clothes and play, we will accept all that,” she added. “It hurts a lot when your dream breaks. I do not want my dream to remain unfulfilled. Not just mine. It is . . . my whole team’s dream of playing again. ”

Video: How the 20-year war changed Afghanistan | FT film

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