The Inside Story: "Cricket wasn’t initially accepted by our society in Afghanistan," says CEO Shafiq
Afghanistan Cricket has certainly taken the cricketing world by storm. Gaining Test status and the rise of Rashid Khan as an international star highlight the giant strides made by the war-torn country on the cricket field.
With Afghanistan all set to make a grand entry into Test cricket in Bengaluru, Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Shafiq Stanikzai, in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, opened up on the hurdles they had to overcome within their own community, the impact BCCI has had on the rise of Afghan cricket, the importance of cricket to be part of the education system back in Afghanistan, the way forward and on other topics related to Afghan cricket.
Q Afghanistan is now a Test playing nation. What does that mean to you?
Well, it's a dream come true, to be honest. The day we started cricket, we were not – to be honest, we were not thinking that far, but as things went well and we progressed and we have seen the strength of Afghanistan cricket team, we started slowly, progressing towards - dreaming about the Test status.
And three years before, we came to know that yes, we can be a major cricketing force in the cricketing world if we tick a few of the boxes; we did that and attaining Test status and full membership of the ICC is something that which is remarkable, and Afghanistan is now among the top twelve teams of the world.
Q You said about “ticking a few boxes”. What were they? What were the challenges that you had to face?
Well, challenges were so many, but because cricket is very young – it's a teenage game in Afghanistan, and we had to do so much – we had to put so much hard work and still we have to do so much hard work to obtain our strategical objectives. But infrastructure – cricket infrastructure was a huge challenge for us, and obviously, making this game as a No. 1 sport in the country we need to put up a roadmap for ourselves and also go through a strategical...we have to put a strategy and achieve those strategical goals, were some sort of a challenge.
But honestly speaking, infrastructure, financial sustainability plus players – youth involvement. I would say the participation of the youth in the game was kind of a challenge and the best thing that the Afghanistan cricket board has done tremendously well so far is that in terms of the participation right now, from close to a nothing we went on to have 1.2 million participants across the country, making this great game popular in all 34 provinces of the country – is something right now Afghanistan Cricket in terms of the stadiums and cricket infrastructure, we are very well equipped.
Still, there is work to be done, but we're very much equipped with some great grounds and good stadiums in some of the regions and also in the provinces. Player participation - youth participation is tremendous as I mentioned earlier - we have 1.2 million participants.
Our high-performance department is doing tremendously well in terms of achieving this membership; we had internal review - we have contacted an internal review at the beginning of 2016 – and we knew that we are lacking in terms of the player development pool, plus performance-wise – like, our national team has to beat a full-member Test playing nation at that time in a bilateral event, and we have convinced a few full-members such as Zimbabwe, West Indies and Bangladesh to play with them, and luckily we beat them in one or two games and also we won the series – there was the under-19 World Cup where they beat full-members – those were the elements of criteria for obtaining full membership.
So those were the works that we needed to do, and the on-field and off-field financial sustainability – we got so many sponsors; domestic cricket went well, and also umpires, coaches, plus youth involvement and participation of the players – so those were the boxes that we needed to check, and, we have done it.
Q That's a whole lot of boxes to be ticked, isn't it? Listening to you, it feels there must have been so much of pain you would have gone through all these years. How difficult will it be, now that you have achieved Test status, to sustain this?
Exactly, I am a firm believer and I am always saying this – that every achievement is bringing some challenges with it – so it opens the door for challenges and you need to work so hard to sustain and also to move forward.
It was difficult – cricket itself in Afghanistan, at the start it was difficult, because the community was not accepting this new game; we were not accepted by the society, we did not have family support, and then slowly and gradually once the national team brought success, it catches the eyes of the people around Afghanistan.
The second step was to catch the eyes of the government, it has happened; then the cricket board has been established – we moved from a federation to a cricket board. Then, I would say, the one thing which was loved and which is loved across the country by the entire 36 million Afghans, is Cricket.
That's something which unites people in the country. For us, as an administration as I said, full-membership, obtaining Test status – is a challenge; but I would say that I am a firm believer on the capacity and strength and the talent that Afghanistan cricket possesses.
I keep on saying that every stage that Afghanistan Cricket has entered, we have dominated it – from being in ACC trophies, then becoming a top associate nation, we have dominated the associate world; then we have played low-ranked full membered sides – Test playing nations; we beat Zimbabwe consistently, we are beating West Indies I would say – like, from last one year we have been beating them quite consistently, we beat Bangladesh 3-0, so we have entered into a new stage, and it's a tough task, but our strategical objective and goal is to dominate and to become a major cricketing force in the cricketing world.
You had earlier said that Pakistan had a great hand initially when you guys developed. Then BCCI came into the scene. How exactly has BCCI's role helped Afghanistan Cricket rise up the ladder?
Well, I won't compare, but certainly, since we have moved to India, it has helped us a lot. Cricket in India is huge, media involvement in cricket is huge, market of Indian Cricket is very huge, one major support or - I would say - advantage that we are getting, playing in India is that you can convince some of the full members to play us – if someone wants to get used to subcontinental conditions there is none other best place than India, and playing in India is something which is remarkable.
And also, exposure wise – you can see it – Rashid, Mujeeb, Nabi, all these players are in everyone's eyes... 'now they are household names in Indian cricket?' – exactly. So, that was something that has given us a big boost, like, as a cricket board, we wanted to create superstars. Stars who are not only respected inside the country, in Afghanistan; we wanted to gain that respect globally, and moving into India, playing in India, made that task for Afghanistan Cricket Board very easy, and Afghanistan national cricket team is very well respected across the globe; our stars are not just Afghanistan stars, they are very well respected across the globe, they have fans across the world, they have fans inside India, and that's something that we have achieved in very less time, and I would like to thank BCCI; the support was immense – by allowing Afghanistan to play in the Indian territory, and also the Indian government.
During the chat, you mentioned that you had to convince your community to play cricket and ensure that it's the No. 1 sport. Do you think it's time that cricket is now made the official sport of Afghanistan?
Cricket is the official sport of Afghanistan. The reason why I am saying this is because it is the only sport which has entered into the curriculum of the sports/education ministry. So, cricket is a formal, official subject in schools of Afghanistan. We are in very early stages but the MOU has been signed with the ministry of education, and we have to contact that project and we have to implement that project, so – it's the No. 1 sport in terms of the participation, No. 1 sport in terms of viewership, and number 1 administration in terms of the capacity and the workload and also the achievements that we have done.
You recently said in an interview that you want to integrate education with cricket. So, you now said: “Cricket is now part of their curriculum”. Can you elaborate on what exactly that you're working on?
The theme behind that project is that we don't want to take students out of schools to the cricket field. We want to introduce cricket into the schools. So, by that way, in simple words, I would say that we want to have educated cricketers. So, that's why – if you see the younger generation, which is coming – like from under-16, under-19 – to the national team, they are very educated guys, they know everything about their education – the values of education; Afghanistan is a developing country, so we need to tick a few of the boxes – as an administration we have to realise what are our social contributions would be and social responsibilities would be. So, education is one of the major parts of our strategical vision; peace, development and stability of the country – so Afghanistan Cricket can be a major force to contribute into these four elements, which is education, health, peace and development of the country.
Going back to Afghanistan, the state of Afghanistan, you know a lot of mishaps happen here and there. Even during the Ramadan Cup recently an untoward incident had happened. How difficult is it for you as an administrator to see such things, because you would be desperately trying to take cricket back to Afghanistan and have a home base there. What are the plans that you have in place to ensure that such political tensions are being taken care of?
Well, in terms of the ACB perspective, we have taken some small steps – some baby steps which have paid off, like – last year we had conducted our Sphageeza cricket by inviting international players from across the globe; we have hosted the Indian disabled team in Afghanistan, so those were the baby steps that we have taken by bringing cricket into Afghanistan. But yes, the incident that you mentioned in Ramadan Cup – one of the local tournaments, it was not a structured tournament of Afghanistan Cricket Board. I would say that it was a very unfortunate incident. It was not Afghans – no Afghan can do any harm to cricket. They were not Afghans, and we have condemned it strongly, in very strong words, and I wish it has never happened, and I wish it will never happen again in the sports field.
If you have to pinpoint some of the areas that you need to work on, to ensure the under-19 cricket develops and there is a healthy talent pool coming into the long-form cricket from Afghanistan, what are the areas would those be?
Well, to be honest with you, there are so many boxes which need to be ticked, but we need to prioritise it. As an administration, we cannot...I would say we cannot reach everywhere, but the best thing that we are doing about the talent identification and also polishing them, we are identifying talents at the right age, and then we are putting them into the system and we are polishing them.
People like Rashid, Mujeeb, Rahman, (and a few) who are in the under-19, these are the guys, I can name so many...we have a player pool (close to 110 players), under ACB's development system. So, that's why I'm saying that we have many talents - unique talents that the cricketing world will be surprised with, seeing them. So they will come up. And I would say that the one good thing that ACB is doing is the identification of the players at the right age, and polishing them through the system.
Two years back you stated that your dream is to see Afghan play India in India. And it’s officially happening, right here. What do you feel now?
Obviously, it feels amazing, when you see your dream or your wish come true. In 2016, I made a statement that our dream is to play India in India for our ever first Test match, and it has happened, and that is something that, as an administrator of Afghanistan Cricket, I feel so proud about, and I couldn’t be happier than this. On seeing this day…I don’t know, to be honest, I’m so excited to see our boys going down on 14th of June, going into the stadium, tossing the coin for the first ever Test match, and then our players will be in the ground; seeing them in white jersey, and playing a Test match against India, World No. 1 Team, in India. I dreamt of it, we worked really hard for that, and we have achieved it, as in the ACB, and nothing can be more pleasing for us the administrators and for the players – everybody has dreamt of playing against India in India for the first Test match and it has been fulfilled, thanks to largely the BCCI, for accepting our request. It’s a historic Test match, and we will be enjoying it.
What will be your message to the boys ahead of the Test match, and what if they go on to win this?
Well, to be honest, we're here to win. It's a tough task – playing the world No. 1 side, in their home territory. It's a tough task. But my message for the team and for the boys is to play the way the Afghans are playing – the way they have played their cricket so far. And without fear, without any pressure, just go there, enjoy the moment, it's a huge, huge huge day for Afghan cricket and also for every single individual who is involved in Afghanistan cricket. So it's a huge day for us – from the administrative perspective to the players, it's a huge day for us. So enjoy the moment, and play the way – the style of game that Afghanistan team has brought into the cricketing world.