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Australia, Afghanistan, Women, and Cricket: What is the Correct Response and Timing to Taliban Policies on Women?

11 Nov 2021
By Dr John Nauright and Steve Georgakis 
Australia vs. India Test match, 2014. Source: Rae Allen

After the arrival of the Taliban, and the associated negative women’s sporting messaging that took place, Cricket Australia took a strong stand. However, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has adopted a wait-and-see approach.

Australia has a long history of taking a moral high ground in international sport. Among the leading nations of the Commonwealth, Australia had the toughest policy on sanctions and sport sanctions against South Africa in combating apartheid. For decades, Australia has also claimed a leadership role in anti-doping campaigns in global sport. It is clear that, when necessary, Australian sporting organisations and governments are willing to use soft-power techniques to influence other nations and governing bodies. Thus, the recent decision to threaten a cricket boycott of Afghanistan due to the Taliban’s policies toward women, is in line with the past fifty years of Australian history.

In August 2021, Australia ended its involvement in Afghanistan after it followed the US in there in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks. Across the current diametrically opposed Australian political system, one of the unifying perspectives was that Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan ended in a dismal failure. These failures have been widely documented, although one notable success was securing more rights and freedoms for women. The Afghan women hadn’t “burnt their bras,” but there were significant gains in girls’ education and other areas such as sport. Afghan women had made inroads into international sporting competitions such as boxing, martial arts, and soccer (see for example: Awista Ayub’s, Kabul Girls Soccer Club).

Cricket was another example where women made significant gains. When the new Taliban government returned, most female cricketers went into hiding and a couple were evacuated from the country. Even though cricket is popular among the Taliban, cricket only became popular in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, when Afghan refugees picked it up in Pakistan. By 2017, the men’s team gained Test status and are now in the top 10 national teams in one-day cricket and Twenty20 (T20) formats.

Cricket is a great unifying force in Afghanistan. A major concern was that women’s cricket would be stopped with the return of the new government. The latest official comment to come from the Taliban on 25 October 2021 was from Azizullah Fazli, the head of the Afghanistan cricket, who noted that: “Some people talk about our policy on women’s cricket, for them my message is just wait… Our government is streamlining things and women’s cricket will also be streamlined.”  When the Taliban were last in power, they completely banned women from sport.

Cricket Australia’s Moral High Ground and ICC’s Wait-and-See Approach. 

After the arrival of the Taliban, and the associated negative women’s sporting messaging, Cricket Australia took a strong stand. It seems that Cricket Australia will postpone their historic Test match with Afghanistan in late November 2021, however the ICC has argued that they would wait and see how the situation unfolded in Afghanistan. Currently, the men’s Afghan team is competing in the T20, is sitting in second place in the group stage and is in line to make the semi-finals. One of the great growth areas of international cricket has been the rise of emerging nations, such as Afghanistan and Namibia. In a globalised sporting world underpinned by broadcasting deals, the inclusion of competitive teams and growth areas is a key priority. Keeping Afghanistan in the tent would clearly be a priority, as the growth in this country has been phenomenal. International cricket needs new markets and growth areas, and Afghanistan is the leading light in this regard. They are capable of beating the best teams and have perhaps the two best T20 players on their roster.

The Predicaments and the Politics. 

The ICC makes it mandatory for all member countries to have men’s and women’s teams. Therefore, prior to the latest Taliban takeover, the ICC worked tirelessly to support the growth of the girls’ and women’s game at the elite and grassroots level. An ICC meeting is planned for mid-November to further discuss the predicament. Cricket Australia’s decision to threaten a Test ban angered the Taliban. Cricket Australia’s decision was considered by some to be premature, and not in line with the decision of the ICC.

While there has been much rhetoric about the cancellation of Afghan’s women cricket, the Taliban haven’t burnt sports bras and women’s sporting attire and equipment yet. But can a leopard really change its spots? What if the Taliban do ban women’s cricket, and what if female cricketers are persecuted, or even executed? The ICC would be perceived as weak if it allowed Afghanistan to compete in the current T20 competition. It would also force them to immediately take away Afghanistan’s ICC membership, and thus lose an emerging market. Australian Cricket would be vindicated.

By banning women’s cricket, the Taliban risk alienating themselves from the rest of the cricketing world. The world is watching with keen eyes to see if they will satisfactorily support women’s cricket. Cricket appears to have given Afghanistan a unifying identity, and so the actions of the Taliban will also be reflecting how popular the sport of cricket is within the nation. Fazli himself noted that, “Cricket has given us an identity and we are getting better.” Getting banned from international cricket, and not giving the Afghan masses an opportunity to compete on the world stage may be a risk the Taliban is not willing to take.

Australia’s Afghanistan adventure ended ingloriously, and its moral leadership in the final days before its withdrawal was heavily criticised. However, Cricket Australia has been lauded around the world for its proactive stance regarding the support of women’s cricket in Afghanistan. In 2011, Julia Gillard, then prime minister of Australia, declared, “we will not abandon Afghanistan.” Ultimately, Australia did. It seems Cricket Australia will not abandon Afghanistan’s women cricketers, thus reinforcing Australia’s role in the sporting world as a force for good.

Dr John Nauright is Dean of the Richard J. Bolte School of Business at Mount St. Mary’s University in the USA. He is a leading expert on global sport and global sport politics. He also directs the Global Rugby Leadership Institute. He has authored and edited many award-winning works including The Political Economy of Sport; Global Markets and Global Impact of Sports; Sport in Australasian Society; and Sports Around the World. His previous work on cricket includes analysis of the Hansie Cronje match-fixing crisis; cricket in South Africa; cricket in the Caribbean and on cricket boycotts during apartheid. He is a dual Australian – US citizen. He is also visiting professor at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill in Barbados.

Dr Steve Georgakis is Senior Lecturer of Sport Studies and Pedagogy at the University of Sydney. A former schoolboy representative player, he now promotes cricket at the grassroots and provides media comment on cricketing issues.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.