You might think the Taliban would despise cricket. The game, with its complicated rules and strictures on the spirit with which it must be played, was invented by the British and has a dress code incompatible with the regime's ferocious and puritanical sense of Islam—white trousers and white shirts. Nevertheless, cricket is one of the few games tolerated by the Taliban (soccer is the other), and yesterday the Afghan national team arrived in northern Pakistan to play in the Patrons Trophy tournament. This is the second time this year the team has toured Pakistan, and the first match of the competition was played earlier today.
As Rory McCarthy wrote earlier this year, Afghan cricketers "are not allowed to wear short-sleeve shirts or shorts. It took the cricket team many hours of discussion to convince the regime to allow them to play in whites instead of the traditional Afghan baggy trouser suit or shalwar." Players are not allowed to trim their beards, the Taliban insist, although long, shaggy beards and good cricket are not necessarily incompatible. The legendary cricketer W.G. Grace, one Britain's great Victorians, was a bearded player. (Meanwhile, Afghan boxing has suffered because the regime refuses to allow its boxers to cut their beards.)
The Afghan cricket captain, Allah Dad Noori, told reporters yesterday that his team's tour of Pakistan should not be considered political: "We have the sense that Afghanistan is under bombardment and attack and innocent people have been killed. But we have come here to Pakistan to play cricket and show the world that we are not terrorists, that we are just ordinary people. We are the peace ambassadors for Afghanistan. We don't want to talk about politics. We came here to play cricket."
There are, however, strong politics within the cricket team, as McCarthy points out. "Mr Noori insists that his men were chosen from provincial teams playing across Afghanistan. But the reality is that most have long lived as refugees in neighboring Pakistan, a country obsessed with cricket. All are also ethnic Pashtuns, the dominant Afghan tribe from which the Taliban emerged. No players came from minority groups like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, who have been persistently persecuted by the Taliban."
If Afghan cricket is to flourish, then Noori should look further than his own tribe for players. He might also care to remember that the current captain of England is Nasser Hussain, an Indian-born Muslim with British citizenship whose very name is symbolic of some not insignificant changes to the nation where cricket was first played.