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Af-Taj 2013: Going to bat for neighbours

Naqib Ahmad Atal and Muhaiyo Nozimova
Following Afghanistan's rise in the world of cricket, Tajikistan has requested help from the Afghan Cricket Board to develop the game north of the border. Despite a spate of friendlies and cross-border training…
15.11.2013  |  Jalalabad/Dushanbe
The heads of the Afghan and Tajik cricket boards announced in September 2013 that the Afghan national team will help develop the game in Tajikistan. (Photos: Afghan Cricket Board)
The heads of the Afghan and Tajik cricket boards announced in September 2013 that the Afghan national team will help develop the game in Tajikistan. (Photos: Afghan Cricket Board)

Of all the efforts by the neighbours to strengthen relations, Afghanistan supporting the birth in Tajikistan of a sport once shunned as "bourgeois" is one of the most bizarre.

“We need Afghan cricket assistance to the Tajik team,” Ismail Baig, head of the nascent Tajik Cricket Federation, said while thanking his Afghan counterpart for stumping up the expertise - and the equipment. 

Sports officials met in Kabul in September to sign an agreement enabling the Afghan Cricket Board (ACB)  to spread the game across the border. Afghanistan will assist in three areas: training Tajik coaches and umpires, organizing matches between the Tajik national team and the Afghan A side, and organizing matches among Tajik national cricket teams, said Dr Noor Mohammad Murad, executive head of the ACB.

Amid a landmark year for Afghan cricket, the board's achievements in grooming a new cricket culture were "praiseworthy" and showed "great leadership," Murad enthused.

Rise of the Afghan giant-killers

Afghan fans celebrate after their national team beat Kenya in September 2013 to book the team's place at the 2015 World Cup.

Afghanistan’s rise from a fourth-tier team to a 2015 World Cup qualifier in a few years has not been lost on the Tajikistan Cricket Federation, founded by Saraev Abdurasul in 2011.  

The Afghan men’s national team battled its way up the world rankings in the last ten years, qualifying for two 20Twenty World Cups in 2010 and 2012. Last month Afghanistan beat Kenya to book a place at the 2015 World Cup, the sport’s grand gala in the traditional Test format.

But it was not men from either country who initiated the organized development of the game in Tajikistan.

“In July, 2012 there were three competitive matches between Tajik and Afghan women,” says Abdurasul, founder of the Tajik federation. These matches followed a series of friendlies between student teams from Tajikistan, India and Afghanistan in 2011, the year the Tajik organising body was established.

Shepherds batted under the Soviets

The federation head thanks his shepherd father for his passion for cricket. “My father was a sportsman and in the 1960s he used to play on the pastures with other shepherds while he tended rams,” says Abdurasul, whose curiosity for the game prompted him to find out its name and that it originated from England.

But cricket was generally suppressed during the Soviet era. "After the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks came to power, they closed cricket clubs considering it a bourgeois, shameful game for the working classes," says Tajik sports journalist Shuhrat Davlatshoev. "Cricket matches were stopped in the USSR. In Tajikistan at that time officially there was not a single cricket team."

There are now eight club cricket teams in Tajikistan: two all-women teams and six all-men. Six trainers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, who have equipped the local Tajik teams with pads, bats, wickets and nets, will develop local tactics and professionalism.

There is still no designated venue for cricket in Tajikistan, although the country federation's deputy says "we will find a place for games."

Sticky wicket to lure Tajik sport fans

Afghan national teamDespite tough conditions in Afghanistan, the national team, seen here in training, steadily moved up the world rankings in recent years.

Tajik sports observers meanwhile don't seem too excited by the idea of the new sport.

“I’m not sure that cricket will be popular in Tajikistan,” says professional bodybuilder Yodgor Islombekov. “If you conducted a poll, maybe 90 per cent of our people would not know what cricket is.”

Sherali Jurabaev, the owner of Quvat, a sports nutrition store in Dushanbe, agrees: “Young people in Tajikistan prefer individual sports like bodybuilding and taekwondo. I think a difficult and technical team sport like cricket won’t become so popular.”

Part of the difficulty cricket evangelists will face is the lack of equipment available to buy in Dushanbe. The biggest sports retailer in the centre of the Tajik capital does not stock any cricket gear, but the owner says he will get some in if demand grows.

The bad news for those hoping to see the game flourish in Tajikistan is that not even Tajik President Emomali Rahmon seems particularly interested in the sport. 

Shunned in high places

Efforts between the two cricket federations have apparently failed to catch the Tajik president's eye. President Rahmon is said to be more interested in tennis and football.

“Our president likes football and tennis,” says Abdufattoh Sharipov, a spokesman for the Tajik leader, adding that President Rahmon has never been seen playing cricket.

Moreover, other naysayers say the Afghan help is limited because the national team's own success may plateau out and with it the will to keep training the regional newcomers.

Nor is the sport embraced as it should be to prosper at home, says Afghan cricket analyst Abdullah Houdd. 

“In other countries the national cricket game is heavily capitalized on, but this practice and tradition does not sell well in Afghanistan," he adds. "That's why we still have old players on the team.”

And, “there are parties, relations and connections in the cricket board, and this has weakened the team,” along with lack of facilities. "If there were cricket academies in Afghanistan it would be a very positive thing for the training of cricket, but sadly there aren’t.”

Success speaks for itself

Afghan and Tajik national cricketMembers of the Afghan national cricket team present equipment to their Tajik counterparts at a press conference in Kabul last September. (Photos: Afghan Cricket Board)

Neither the lack of academies or the absence of a domestic league has hampered the development of the game, argues Fareed Ahmad Hotak, a spokesman for the Afghan national team.

“The national team trainer, Kabir Khan, was a good player in Pakistan, and now he is coaching our team,” says Hotak, adding that competent referees had been hired from India and other countries. 

"We don’t have any problems on this front, and our team has the talent to provide technical assistance to other teams,” he concludes defiantly.

A series of matches are planned for the next year, says the head of the Afghan Cricket Federation, Dr. Murad. “Under the continued Silk Road Project, we will organize matches and games between the Afghan team, the Tajikistan national team and a provincial team from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province,” 

But whether the Tajiks will be watching is another issue.