The International Cricket Council (ICC) will decide – or delay further — the fate of the exiled Afghanistan women’s cricket team at a council meeting in Dubai on Monday, even though the all-male working group has not spoken to a single member of the team.
It is expected the sub-committee, headed by ICC deputy chair and Singaporean lawyer Imran Khwaja, will recommend that no action be taken against the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) as the situation is “very complex”, leaving the women, now based in Australia, in a prolonged limbo.
During a visit by Afghanistan officials to Australia for the men’s ICC T20 World Cup in November 2022, a member of the women’s team was given the name of the restaurant where the chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, Mirwais Ashraf, was dining.
She arrived unannounced hoping to ask for some answers to the many questions they had.
“I was running very fast to meet him,” the player, whose name is being withheld for her safety, told The Ticket.
“When I was running … I was just praying that I could talk to him because it was very important for me and my teammates to have his support.
“But when I got there, he got into his car and left.
“It is very painful for me that he, and all officials of the ICC and ACB, are running away from us and they do not want to answer us, especially Mirwais Ashraf.
“He was a player like us, and no one can understand us better than him. We learned the love of cricket from people like Mirwais Ashraf.
“Players like him make us want to play cricket, but it is very painful that he runs away from what is his responsibility and ignores us.”
The ICC working group has managed to travel twice to Doha, Qatar, in the past five months to meet with Taliban and Afghan cricket officials, yet has not been able to travel to meet the women whose future lies in their hands.
According to ESPNCricinfo, the working group has been “provided assurances that the government has not interfered in cricket affairs,” and they acknowledge that “any women’s cricket while the Taliban are in power is near impossible”.
The assurance of no Taliban-government interference is akin to the emperor’s new clothes — it simply is not true. Any recommendation based on that premise cannot be worth the paper it is written on.
Once the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, women were prevented from playing cricket and all other sport. The 25 already-contracted players had their payments stopped, and they fled the country after receiving threats and fearing for their future.
Afghanistan is one of only 12 full-members of the ICC, and is currently in breach of its obligations to support and develop women’s cricket.
The complexity of the issue referred to by the working group is also debatable.
If all the money given to Afghanistan was invested in women’s cricket only, and the men’s team suddenly found themselves banned with payments stopped, it would be hard to imagine the men who run international cricket not finding a solution — and quickly.
The ACB received more than $50 million from the ICC in the past round of funding, which was presumably to be invested in both the men’s and women’s game.
While the Taliban has banned women playing in Afghanistan, the cricketers and their supporters point out they are not in Afghanistan and they should be supported to play in Australia with the funds that should have been earmarked for their development.
Despite everything, the women still want to play for the people of Afghanistan.
“We want to put on our uniform and see our flag in the middle of the ground and play in the World Cup. [We want to] shine and make our country proud,” Firooza Afghan told The Ticket in January.
In December 2022, the women’s team wrote to the chairmen of the ICC and the ACB, asking for clarification of their situation.
“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?” they wrote.
“The funding provided by the ICC to the ACB for the women’s program – where has this money gone? And can it be redirected to an organisation in Australia to invest in our development on behalf of the ACB so we can still represent our country on the international stage?”
In a response earlier this month, the ICC told the women it was a matter for the ACB, suggesting their hands were tied.
In an editorial on the Emerging Cricket website, the ICC deferring to the Afghanistan Cricket Board in this instance was likened to the ICC’s position during the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Under the ICC’s membership criteria, a nation can only be a full member by satisfying a number of conditions, including:
“Have the appropriate status, structure, recognition, membership and competence to be recognised by the ICC (at its absolute discretion) as the primary governing body responsible for the administration, management and development of cricket (men’s and women’s) in its country.”
Afghanistan should not even be eligible as an associate member since even at that level a commitment to women’s cricket forms part of the criteria.
The final clause of the document does allow for the ICC to exercise an ‘exceptional circumstance’ provision:
“In its sole discretion, and where the applicant is able to demonstrate exceptional circumstances justifying its inability to satisfy one or more of the applicable membership criteria, the membership committee may recommend the acceptance of the application notwithstanding the fact that the applicant does not satisfy all of the relevant membership criteria.”
However, Afghanistan was granted full membership in 2017. At the time, women were already playing cricket, although they were not paid until 2020. The Taliban did not take over until August 2021.
Surely, if Afghanistan had been granted such an exemption the ICC would have said so publicly, and there would be no need for the working group sub-committee.
Ahead of the working group’s last update to the ICC, member Ramiz Raja told Forbes, “Afghanistan will be a slow momentum driver, [you] can’t change the cultural aspect overnight.”
But cultural aspects can be changed overnight, as the Taliban has shown, and the Afghanistan women’s cricket team can confirm.
Whether the ICC is able to act as swiftly and decisively will be revealed in the coming hours.