ACB

Afghan-British Relations: Through the lens of Cricket

Author : Muhammad Noman Ashrafi

Background

Afghanistan is scheduled to face hosts England today in Old Trafford. The two sides may have faced each other on the Cricket field rarely in this century, however, their cricket has a rich background to it which reportedly dates back to mid-19th and early 20th century.  

England is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of the world’s second most popular sport and continues to have a strong voice in its affairs. The laws of the game are still under the supervision of the prestigious Marylbone Cricket Club (MCC) located in London’s Lord’s Cricket stadium which has always been touted as the home of cricket.

The sport was especially relevant in the British royalty during the days of the British raj in India and other British Empire territories across the globe. Its impact can still be felt as all the major cricket playing nations have been, at least at one point of time, under the umbrella of the British rule.

Afghanistan, however, has been an exception. It was one of the few sovereign states in the region that resisted the Raj through three hard-fought Anglo-Afghan wars which ultimately resulted in Afghanistan getting its total independence from the British influence in 1919 under Amir Amanullah Khan.

However, Afghanistan got its taste of the sport way before its perceived birth from the refugee camps of Peshawar, Pakistan during the civil war in the 80s and 90s.

It has been reported by various credible sources that Afghanistan was introduced to the sport when the British troops played it in Kabul in 1839. It is also evident from some records that the game received significant royal attention as indicated by the following sketch drawn by Samuel Begg In 1905, titled “ The English National Game: The Ruler and Princes of Afghanistan playing Cricket.”

It shows Amir of Afghanistan, most likely Amir Habibullah Khan, and young princes playing the sport in presumably Kabul’s Balahisar fort at the turn of the 20th century.

The mini inscription in the sketch reads as follows:

“Cricket and tennis are in high favour with the Amir. When his Highness is at the wicket it is neither etiquette nor good policy to bowl him balls that give him no chance of “slogging,” for he is an expert at boundary hits. An Afghan game called “Top-bazee” played with a wooden bat and ball, may be one cause of the popularity of cricket the Court of Kabul.”

It clearly implies that the game of cricket had already found considerable popularity within the royal court of Afghanistan. The game was perceived as a royal sport played by English noblemen and therefore was received well by the Afghan court.

The inscription also hints at the similarity between Cricket and an Afghan local batting game called, “Top bazee” which just like cricket, also involved a wooden bat and ball and is presumed as one of the causes for the game’s popularity at the court of Kabul.

As Afghanistan announced its total independence from the British influence in 1919, the game of cricket started to diminish in stature in the royal court of the country and faded slowly from the country’s sporting scene as well.

Present

Cricket is a popular sport in Afghanistan with the national team being one of the top- 10 teams in World Cricket. The growth of the game in the country at the turn of the century is considered one of the most inspiring stories in sports. Afghanistan played its first ODI in 2009 and by mid-2017, it had already managed to become the full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC). Afghanistan had already participated in ICC World T20 2010, ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 and ICC World T20 2016 before it was granted full membership in 2017.

During these tournaments, Afghanistan had faced England on three occasions where the English team emerged victorious in all matches.

In recent years, the sport has received attention on the diplomatic level from the governments of both countries. This can be observed in the ongoing ICC Cricket World Cup in England and Wales where the British government is taking a leverage as the host of the mega event to strengthen political ties with participating countries. Similarly, before their departure for the mega-event this year, Afghan national team was hosted by the British Embassy in Kabul for a gala dinner which gestured the cordial relations between both nations.

The cricketing relations under the umbrella of diplomatic ties between both countries will be further strengthened today as the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Patron in-chief of Afghanistan Cricket Board, H.E Mohammad Ashraf Ghani is scheduled to attend the World Cup match after meeting high ranking government officials including outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street.