Afghanistan women’s cricket future again rests with wrangling of men

<span>Young Afghan cricketer Ekil Latifi, pictured at Lord’s earlier this year, who had to flee Kabul for the UK in 2021.</span><span>Photograph: James Bailey</span>
Young Afghan cricketer Ekil Latifi, pictured at Lord’s earlier this year, who had to flee Kabul for the UK in 2021.Photograph: James Bailey

The stop-start– or start-stop – story of the Afghanistan women’s cricket team has been sitting in the ICC’s to-do tray since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. It isn’t a straightforward issue, but no one can say that it has been at the top of the pile, with the governing body largely relying on procedure to explain its sloth-like movement.

A brief history: the Taliban’s takeover violently, and instantly, scrubbed out the development of the nascent women’s team – players had only been given contracts in November 2020 and were yet to play a competitive match. The players and their families faced immediate intimidation – with many going home and burning and hiding their equipment for fear of being discovered. They fled over the border to Pakistan and 22 of the 25 were given emergency Australian visas (with two others going to Canada and another to the UK).

Related: The Spin | Afghanistan cricket exile Ekil Latifi: ‘We were scared they were going to kill us’

From there, the majority settled in Melbourne, where they had to start their lives again on minimum funds – studying, learning English, finding work and, when there was time, playing cricket for local clubs. They felt forgotten. In November 2022, they wrote to the ICC asking for clarification of their status: “Could you please advise what the official stance is on our national playing contracts and future playing opportunities, noting that we are no longer living in Afghanistan?” But nothing moved on.

So, almost three years after fleeing, and with the Afghanistan men’s team in the limelight after progressing triumphantly through to the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup, they wrote again, on 29 June. This time, an open letter to the ICC chair Greg Barclay, asking that the ICC supports the establishment of a refugee team in exile in Australia, to be administered by the East Asian Cricket Office based in Cricket Australia’s HQ. The letter congratulated Rashid Khan’s team on its successes, before continuing:

A profound sadness remains that we, as women, cannot represent our country like the male cricketers. Creating a team of Afghan refugees can give us a chance to play, coach and administer a cricket team without borders. The creation of this team will allow all Afghan women who want to represent their country come together under one banner. Our goals in having a refugee team are to develop and showcase our talent, give hope to the women remaining in Afghanistan, and to draw attention to the challenges the women of Afghanistan face. Like the Afghanistan men’s team are afforded, we aim to compete at the highest levels. We want to recruit and train girls and women who love cricket, to show the world the talent of Afghan women and to demonstrate the great victories they can achieve if given a chance through the leadership and financial structure of the ICC.”

Again, the women have received no reply, though it is believed that the issue will be discussed at the next ICC meeting later this month. And Barclay hinted at the MCC’s World Cricket Connect conference (as reported by Isabelle Westbury) that things might move if Cricket Australia came to them with a proposal.

Alison Mitchell is the journalist who has had her ear closest to the ground on this story, keeping in contact with some of the players when in Melbourne and interviewing them for 7Cricket. She also had a rare opportunity to quiz the ICC on the issue in November 2023 when she spoke to the organisation’s chief executive, Geoff Allardice, for the BBC’s World Service programme Stumped.

“Geoff said that ‘the ICC’s remit is that we don’t start engaging with the players of any country without the blessing of the board in that territory’,” Mitchell says. “But the women are no long contracted to the Afghanistan Cricket Board, they are no longer recognised by them or in contact with them. They don’t live in Afghanistan. There is no reason for the ICC not to engage on the back of this letter asking to form a refugee team. An unprecedented situation requires an unprecedented solution.”

The International Olympic Committee’s answer for the forthcoming Olympics in Paris has been to invite a team of three male and three female Afghan athletes to the Olympics (the Taliban only recognises the three male athletes), who will compete under the red, green and black Afghanistan flag of the previous western-backed government.

The request for a refugee team gives the ICC some wriggle room. ICC full membership criteria states that, amongst other things, countries should have “a sustained and sufficient pool of players to support strong and consistent national level selection across the senior men’s, U19 men’s and women’s teams,” and “have either (a) participated in at least one (1) ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup or ICC Women’s T20 World Cup over the previous four (4) years or (b) currently feature on the ICC’s official women’s ODI rankings table”. Afghanistan does not tick any of those boxes, yet remains a full member and gets full funding. A refugee team would ensure Afghanistan women’s cricket had a beating heart, and could justly be given a proportion of their central funding (though Barclay has suggested that this is unlikely).

When the ICC does discuss the women’s plight in Colombo at their annual conference, a representative from the Afghanistan Cricket Board will be around the table with the other delegates.

The men’s Afghan set-up has received considerable help from cricket’s premier power, the BCCI, over the years. The Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik sports complex in Greater Noida was the team’s first temporary home ground in 2015 and they have also played games at Lucknow’s Ekana Stadium. The BCCI provided a $1m grant towards the building of the stadium in Kandahar, and hosted Afghanistan’s first Test match in 2018, while the IPL has been a theatre for a pipeline of young talented Afghan players.

“We are thankful for India’s continuous help in capacity building of the Afghan cricket team. We really appreciate that,” the Taliban’s head of the political office, Suhail Shaheen, told World In One News (WION) after Afghanistan qualified for the semi-finals. The BCCI has also, if belatedly, thrown its weight behind the creation of the hugely successful WPL.

With the BCCI secretary Jay Shah interested in running for the ICC chairmanship – elections are due to be held in November – and Cricbuzz reporting that he would be elected unopposed if he decided to stand, the future of the Afghanistan women’s team seems to once again rest in political will and geopolitical wrangling from the men in boardrooms. And all the while, the clock ticks on.

• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.