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T20 World Cup 2024 – The issue of human rights depends on the success story of the Afghan men

If you get to some of the T20 World Cup 2024 venues early on a match day or a day earlier, before everything gets drowned out in the crowd, you can hear this message during rehearsals. I didn’t pay attention to the accompanying video, but the audio is clear: a voiceover of a girl on the field saying: we are all the same; that the field should be a safe place for girls, because cricket empowers girls.

The ICC has partnered with UNICEF to help empower girls through cricket. A lot of money is spent on women’s cricket, which remains a long-term investment rather than an immediate return on the bottom line. In a beautiful video on the UNICEF website, in which girls from different backgrounds play cricket, one cannot be missed wearing a headscarf in the Afghan national colors (not those of the Taliban).

That is where the ICC must be in a helpless state. The Afghan men’s team is an unmitigated success story, not only because of their own human spirit, but also because of the support they have received through the ICC’s development programs and the drive to expand the sport. That their progress to the Super Eight this World Cup is seen as a mild surprise and not a major shock is a testament to how far they have come.

Not that Afghanistan was previously a beacon of female power, but since the Taliban takeover three years ago the country has been bleaker than ever for its women. Forget about having a women’s cricket team or infrastructure; Afghanistan denies women basic human rights, such as access to education and health care.

Allowing men’s cricket is a classic trick of the oppressors: deny them to the extent that they are grateful for a small piece of joy, not a right but a goodwill that can be taken away at any time, so you better behave. The ICC has probably thought about it a million times: does it want to ban Afghanistan for not following its charter and deprive the country of that one little relief? Punish the men who fought against unimaginable odds to get this far? That is probably why the action has not been as swift and unequivocal as the government intervention in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

That the Taliban even allows cricket is not because anyone there appreciates the leg-break bowled with an incorrect release, but because the sport is popular among Pakhtun men, a source of their power. For the Taliban, cricket is just a pawn in the public image game. Letting them play is nothing short of sportwashing, not so much in the eyes of the world as in Afghanistan.

It also says that the Taliban cares about how they are perceived, even if only a little. That it is cynical to think that cricket embargoes will not make any difference. They may not succeed in forcing the Taliban to allow women to play or go to college, but it will not be nothing. That when cricket turns its back on the Afghan men’s team, it is not punishing Rashid Khan, but the Taliban. He and his teammates cause significant collateral damage, but not as great as the damage done to half their population.

Many potential South African greats were denied international cricket careers, not because they were individually considered racist, but because Apartheid was bad. Most of them continued to play county cricket. Whether cricket played a significant role in the fall of Apartheid is open to question, but it is undeniable that it played a role in increasing pressure on the government.

Now South Africa is a country that can impose transformation goals on its sports teams, once the bastion of the powerful white minority. Not that it doesn’t create its own tensions. CSA is now gaming the system by playing more players of color in series of less significance in order to maintain the average requirement. At this World Cup they only have one black African player in their squad. They are still contenders, but not quite the South Africa we have come to know. The rainbow is slightly less colorful.

Those who want to see sports free from politics will not be happy to know that even a response to the situation in Afghanistan can only be political. Even if the ICC decides to abandon the soft diplomacy it is now undertaking, which has its advantages, and decides to take stronger action, it may not have the full support of its own members because Afghanistan now has to be voted on.

These are uncomfortable thoughts at the start of the Super Eight of ICC’s latest attempt to globalize the sport, but we can’t look away; we must not look away. As consumers of the sport, we can at least inform the direction the governing bodies are taking.