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Asian Cup 2022 – One year after the Taliban took power, Afghanistan still lives and loves its cricket

It has been just over a year since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, and the effect on all aspects of life in the country has been drastic. But what does this mean for cricket? While a nascent women’s cricket scene has all but disappeared, the men’s game is one of the few pastimes accepted – and apparently closely followed – by the regime, which has cracked down on public entertainment in many forms. And cricket remains hugely popular among ordinary fans across the country.

At the start of the takeover, several Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) members fled the country, as did many others, and the board has since had to arrange UAE residency visas for around two dozens of players to avoid travel issues. cricket tours. There have also been questions about whether Afghanistan’s full membership in the ICC should be completely overhauled, given the Taliban’s backward stance on women in cricket. Money is a problem, sponsors are withdrawing. And the country remains a strict no-go zone for international teams, with the United Arab Emirates now their home base. But, despite all these complications, cricket continued to exist.

“There was uncertainty at the start but once the dust started to settle we see the cricket is still there,” Asadullah Khan, a former coach who helps the ACB to build, told ESPNcricinfo. a roadmap for how cricket should be run in the country. . “The passion for the game increased but the flow of money started to dry up.

“The Taliban in government helped cricket [to continue] but corporate sponsorships for the game have dwindled. ICC funds do not come directly, so money is an issue. ACB still survives but [we’re] I don’t know how long this can last.”

Since the Taliban took power, banking and foreign exchange problems in Afghanistan have meant that in some cases the ICC – using Afghanistan’s share of the revenue – has made payments on behalf of the ACB. It affected cash flow. Currently, the ACB is revamping its corporate and national cricket structure and upgrading its facilities in Kabul to include a high performance centre.

“It is a problem [with the ICC’s funds] because ACB is looking to expand the game to other regions,” Asadullah said. “Kabul has been the main center to accommodate all the cricketers, but now we have to go to the other venues as well. CDA is also currently working on revamping the entire board structure and revising its policy development to make it more transparent.

“There is a lot of work going on to expand the infrastructure to other locations like Kandahar and Khost regions. Each region should have an exclusive and specialized training setup, so players follow a proper path, and we We need money for that. The goal is to make the system more professional, with a focus on player development.”

Fortunately, the current generation of Afghan cricketers has some elite world stars in the form of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. All three are pretty much automatic picks for every T20 league in the world. In total, Rashid and Nabi have emerged in six different leagues for a total of 114 and 61 T20s respectively post-pandemic. Mujeeb has played in seven leagues (58 T20s). Fast bowler Naveen-ul-Haq can also be added to this list of in-demand T20 specialists, with four leagues and 68 T20s. Because they play all over the world all year round, there is less focus on their participation in the preparatory camps.

“They bring a lot of information, tips, information about the different conditions they play in, and it’s really good for the team in terms of learning. It’s free knowledge”

Assistant Coach Raees Ahmadzai on Afghan superstars playing in T20 leagues around the world

All this globetrotting presents a problem, in that they cannot regularly play alongside promising talent at home in domestic cricket for logistical and visa eligibility reasons. They were exempted from the national preparatory camps but they go on national duty, often joining the team a few days before the series. Like several of their national team colleagues, Nabi and Rashid are based in the United Arab Emirates.

Raees Ahmadzai, the former Afghan mid-tier hitter who is now an assistant coach for the national team and has strong ties to local and national cricket in the country, believes players’ experience in the T20 league can only be beneficial for the larger configuration.

“Our players are playing in the different leagues, they are learning a lot and coming back with tons of experience and they have next level confidence behind them,” Ahmadzai told ESPNcricinfo. “They might miss being with the bigger camps, but when they come they bring a lot of knowledge back to the lodge.

“The environment suddenly changes with them in the team; Rashid, Mujeeb and Nabi have a lot to share with the young boys and it is ultimately beneficial for the team. various conditions. they play, and it’s really good for the team in terms of learning. It’s free knowledge and I don’t mind if they miss camps in Afghanistan, but they come with information from a million dollars for the youngsters of the team playing in the T20 leagues.”

There is, however, another stumbling block in the development of young players, and this one predates the Taliban takeover. There is little continuity with the coaches. The current batch of coaches, for example, including Jonathan Trott and Umar Gul, have contracts that run until December 2022. ACB signed Younis Khan ahead of the Zimbabwe tour in June, to work with the batters for three weeks. On this tour, Afghanistan was without a head coach, with Graham Thorpe having fallen ill; thus, Trott has been called up for the Irish tour in August and now the Asian Cup. In total, Afghanistan has had more than five head coaches since 2019, with none of them traveling to Afghanistan but only working on away tours, joining the team just for the series.

“Ideally a head coach should be someone who should spend time in the country and be part of player development from the start,” Ahmadzai said. “But unfortunately the situation in our country makes them not come, so there is still a vacuum.

“It’s really important for a head coach to keep up to date with how the system works in Afghanistan, how the players are prepared and follow their development. It makes their job more productive, after all, he’s the one who takes the initiative to strategize and set long-term goals. But in our case, we lack consistency in that regard. We were without a head coach in Zimbabwe, but we still managed to win…”

Afghanistan shut out Zimbabwe 3-0 in the ODIs and T20Is, but they enter this Asian Cup, in the United Arab Emirates, having lost to Ireland 3-2. Ahmadzai sees this loss as a good reality check ahead of the showpiece events. “It was a good wake-up call before a tournament like the Asian Cup and the T20 World Cup [in Australia in October-November]”, he said. “Sometimes you go to a bigger event after winning a series, but you can’t keep up the momentum. So this Ireland result will help [us refocus].

“Kabul has been the main hub to accommodate all the cricketers but now we have to go to the other venues as well. Khost”

Former coach Asadullah Khan

“We had a mixed performance, it wasn’t all bad. We managed to come back after losing the first two. We won the next two and were unhappy in the deciding game, losing on the DLS method. ‘Together, the players now know exactly where to stand and what to do to prepare and look forward to the Asian Cup and the World Cup.”

Ahmadzai explained that he works with players to soften their emotions in pressure situations. “We’re getting closer to winning against bigger teams to slip into the deciding moments of the innings,” he said. “I think we lack the experience to handle the kind of pressure in those crucial moments. But that shouldn’t be an excuse, we’ve been playing cricket for a long time now. I think the boys get emotional and lose it from the.

“In all the big tournaments, we’ve had close games that we should have won – like in the 2019 World Cup, against Pakistan. So that’s what we’re concerned about and we talked about how to conquer those critical stages and how to turn runs into winners You will see a difference this time we will do something very special in this tournament.

Despite the year the country has had in Afghanistan, there will be hordes of avid cricket fans supporting their team, hoping for just that.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo’s correspondent in Pakistan