Afghanistan and the Eligibility Question
International cricket has never had a wholly straightforward relationship with the concept of the nation-state.
After all, the West Indies was only a feature of the global political map for four years between 1958 and 1962, coming into its brief existence a full thirty years after the creation of its cricketing equivalent – and even then there wasn't a perfect overlap, since British Guiana, a constituent of West Indies cricket from the outset, was never part of the political Federation. Since 1962, ‘West Indies' has been a purely cricketing entity.
Equally, ‘Rhodesia' (that is, the Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia), formed part of cricketing South Africa until 1980, playing in the domestic Currie Cup competition and contributing a succession of players to the ‘national' side, including the Pithey brothers, Colin Bland and Mike Procter.
Even today, Ireland in a cricketing context is a transnational entity, including Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, as well as the Republic. Whereas in most sports the two compete separately or Northern Ireland contributes to British teams, in cricket and rugby union, ‘Ireland' means the whole island, North and South.
It's important to understand this if we are to take a rational view of the claims of some enthusiasts that the rapidly-developing Afghan national team should be allowed to draw on any players of Pashtun descent, regardless of whether they have Afghan or Pakistani nationality.
On the face of it, it's all pretty simple. Afghanistan and Pakistan are independent states, and the ICC has clear guidelines on player eligibility.
But the truth is much more complicated. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is that established by a British-Afghan treaty of 1893, the frontier of British India having been ‘inherited' by Pakistan at its independence in 1947. This is itself controversial: the Afghan national assembly repudiated the agreement in 1949, although international lawyers generally agree that the pre-1947 border remains in force.
The problem is, of course, that the 1893 ‘Durand Line' cuts through the territory inhabited by the Pashtun, and for that matter, by the Baloch people. Hence the claim that all Pashtun are really Afghans, and should be eligible to play for Afghanistan regardless of where they were born.
Yet the identification of ‘Pashtun' and ‘Afghan' is problematic as well: the best estimates suggest that only about 40-42% of the Afghan population are ethnic Pashtun, and the number of Afghans whose first language is Pashto is said to be even lower, around 35%.
When the argument comes down to individuals, moreover, there are profound problems of documentation: the Afghan government estimates that only 1% of its citizens have a birth certificate, and even in Pakistan the level of registration, especially in rural areas, is also low. It was only in 2004 that the Pakistani government began a drive to register births among the up to 5 million Afghan refugees, many of whom have since returned to Afghanistan.
So it's hardly surprising that there were difficulties when Afghanistan proposed to include 32-year-old former Pakistan A batsman Riffatullah Momand in their squad for the World Cup qualifier in South Africa earlier this year; amid conflicting claims about his place of birth, they were apparently unable to establish the player's eligibility and had to withdraw him.
If establishing a player's real nationality is necessarily difficult in such conditions, so is documentation of the true state of Afghanistan's ‘domestic' cricket. And that's extremely relevant in view of the ICC's use of ‘development criteria' in determining players' eligibility, and which international matches they are allowed to play in. If you're not involved in your country's domestic competitions, there are many games you are excluded from.
An Asian Cricket Council survey of Afghan cricket in 2003 reported that there were 2,500 players in 350 clubs. Four years later, in August 2007, the BBC asserted that there were leagues in 28 of the country's 34 provinces, and that there were 12,000 registered cricketers. And towards the end of 2008, Afghanistan Cricket Federation marketing manager Bashir Stanikzai claimed that there were 18,000 players in 160 clubs across 22 provinces.
Yet the most recent ICC survey of cricket across its Associate and Affiliate countries, from 2008, gives figures of just 495 players, 390 seniors and 105 juniors. The total has remained unchanged since 2006, although 150 youth players apparently graduated to the senior ranks between 2007 and 2008.
Those are quite substantial discrepancies. There may be good reason for the difference between 495 and 18,000, and for the apparent contraction from 350 clubs in 2003 to 160 in 2008. But it all has the feel of good old ‘think of a number and double it' statistical methodology.
None of this is intended to belittle the tremendous achievements of the Afghan national team, or their importance as a flagship for national pride and resistance in the most appalling circumstances, of which we had a stark reminder in August 2008 when former international Rahmat Wali was reportedly killed by soldiers from the US-led occupying force who were searching his home in Khost Province.
But it is very important that our admiration of what skipper Nowrooz Mangal, coach Kabir Khan and their squad have done over the past eighteen months does not blind us to the complications inherent in the development of Afghan cricket, and that the ICC's rules on eligibility are applied strictly and fairly in this case as in others.