In a country on the brink of crisis, Afghans had more reason to lose themselves in a moment of sporting joy as their national cricket team made an unforgettable debut at the Twenty20 World Cup.
Afghanistan’s Monday opener against Scotland came just 10 weeks after Taliban fighters toppled the country’s former US-backed government and won a 20-year war.
“The war has made us so exhausted, so tired. We want a moment of joy,” said Nasir Khan Naseri, a 50-year-old man with a flowery beard who has walked for peace in the years leading up to the takeover. power by the Taliban.
The former social worker is now helping at Sole Restaurant, a popular hangout in eastern Kabul, where men gather to sip tea and watch televised cricket while sheep carcasses are butchered and grilled.
“We want to be like other parts of the world, enjoy the game and put aside the current situation,” Naseri told Agence France-Presse (AFP) as the first in Afghanistan started to score the points against the Scottish bowlers.
The Sole could be a kebab joint anywhere in the cricket-loving world – aside from the security guard armed with an M4 assault rifle fitted with a rifle scope, its black paintwork worn down to metallic gray with age.
Two Taliban fighters watched the match alongside the other patrons, dressed in the gray digital camo-patterned shalwar kameez uniform of the city’s new police force, formed since their movement seized Kabul in August.
There are no women visible, but the mood among the men was relaxed and happy.
When a loudspeaker from a local mosque played a prayer, the cashier turned off the English TV commentary out of respect, just as the impressive Afghan drummers hit 93 for two.
Ahead of the tournament, Afghan team captain Mohammad Nabi admitted that “the only happiness in Afghanistan is cricket” and said the team hopes to put “lots of smiles on their faces”.
But as winter arrives, the country is on the brink of a severe food shortage that threatens thousands of lives.
And Afghans fear the new government, led by conservative clerics, will crack down on freedoms and seek to eradicate entertainment like music and sports, especially for women.
So far, however, fans agree that the Taliban – who did not ban men’s cricket when they were in power before 2001 – have only cracked down on men’s daily lives in an organized manner.
Prohibition on women?
“So far their action and their words are not so clear,” said Mohammed Qader Zorawar, 38, restaurant owner, cricket fan and founder of the Afghan Archery Federation.
“The Taliban are not against cricket, it was founded during the Taliban era,” he said, describing a time when Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan took love for the sport and have brought home.
The men’s team’s debut in the T20 World Cup was a resounding success, beating a dismal Scotland by 130 points, but the team as a whole has an uncertain future in international cricket.
If Afghanistan fails to field a women’s team, it could find itself excluded from international competition.
The Taliban have not yet formally banned women’s sport, as they did the last time they ruled in Kabul, but fear of persecution has driven many sportswomen into exile or into hiding.
The same regular refugee flight to Qatar that the men’s team used to travel to the Gulf for the competition in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also took many terrified sportswomen away.
According to Zorawar, most Afghan fans have no problem with female competitors, “but now most of them have fled the country, or are just at home, and now they are living in hiding.”
For now, however, fans are eagerly awaiting the next game on Friday when Afghanistan takes on cricket-powered neighbor Pakistan.
Everyone in the restaurant agrees. Just being in a World Cup is great for Afghanistan, win or lose, but it would be nice to beat Pakistan.
“It will be the most important game,” Zorawar said. “Some say the match between Pakistan and India was very important, but I say Afghanistan Pakistan is the most important.”