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What makes the Afghanistan-Pakistan cricket rivalry so bitter?

Last night in Sharjah was ugly. As ugly as it can get in cricket, known to be that of a ‘gentleman’s game’.

Afghanistan and Pakistan faced each other in an important Asia Cup fixture in the Super Four round, where the stakes were too high. Afghanistan needed a win to keep their campaign, as well as that of India’s, alive, while Pakistan, too, wanted to secure a berth in the final. 

While Afghanistan saw the victory on the horizon, the Pakistani team bounced back at the last minute, stealing the game away. The event witnessed some heated moments between Afghan and Pakistani players, charging up the spectators on both sides. 

The videos surfacing on social media showed Afghan fans purportedly indulging in verbal abuse, uprooting seats and throwing them at the Pakistani fans, prompting many observers to say the spirit of the game has been ‘tainted’.

While the cricketing rivalry between Afghanistan and Pakistan may be in its infancy, it has got all the ingredients for a heated contest anytime the two teams meet, courtesy of their political histories.

Any historian would likely begin the political history of the two countries with the drawing of the 2,670-kilometre Durand Line by the British in 1893, which later became the international land border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Cricket writer Sidharth Monga, writing in ESPN Cricinfo, argued that just like the partition of the two Punjabs in 1947, “people on either side of the Durand Line have more in common with each other than with some people within their own country”. 

“It has divided people that were Pashtun well before they were Afghans or Pakistani or Indian,” he said.

So, the rivalry comes naturally.

Ahmer Naqvi, a freelance journalist, looks at the issue from the prism of sports being compelling for the reason that it allows for “political and social issues to be represented and to be resolved in a superficial way”.

“Because someone wins and someone loses and the larger issues do not go away,” he tells TRT World.

“It kind of gives you an arena for the sort of antagonistic energy to be played out in something that ultimately has no real life stakes. That is something not just about Afghanistan-Pakistan cricket. It is a part of all types of sport.”

Troubling history

As the politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan appears to be showing its reflection on the field of cricket, some cricketing legends from Pakistan condemned the trend of post-match brawls between the fans of the two neighbouring nations taking hold. 

That “hooliganism” is not something that is identified with cricket is what Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Ramiz Raja also spoke about during a press conference today.

“It sickens you and there should not be any room for such an environment in cricket,” Raja said. “We will write a letter to the International Cricket Council, we will raise our voice and do everything in our capacity.”

Raja, a former cricketer himself who was a part of Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup winning campaign, said the post-match visuals coming out of the stands were “very poor”. 

“This is not the first time this has happened. Win and loss are a part of the game. It was a grueling contest, but emotions should be kept in check,” the PCB chairman said. “Anything could have happened, even our cricket team could have been in danger. Whatever the protocol is, the PCB will lodge its protest.”

Raja is correct in his assessment that this was not the first time Afghan and Pakistani fans were at each other’s throats.

When Afghanistan and Pakistan met in a World T20 contest last year in Dubai, “thousands of ticketless fans” caused trouble, forcing the ICC to ask the tournament hosts Emirates Cricket Board to launch an investigation.

Two years earlier, in 2019, similar scenes were witnessed when the two teams met for the 50-over World Cup game at Headingley in Leeds. Sidharth Monga, writing in another article for ESPNCricinfo, called the spectacle “one of the ugliest cricket matches at an ICC event”, further saying, “Fighting among fans – to this degree – is unheard of at modern ICC events.”

But why are Afghans so passionate about beating Pakistan on the cricket field? The answer to this question could perhaps be traced to Islamabad’s involvement in different capacities during the last 40-plus years in the country.

“So, I think now that ordinary Afghans find the Pakistani cricket team or Pakistani fans as something they dislike or start fighting with, not something that I condone, but you can totally see why that happens,” says Naqvi.

Pakistanis, too, have their grievances. They say they do not deserve such backlash for hosting millions of Afghans when the country was ravaged by US invasion.

Monga, in his ESPNCricinfo article, writes how most members of Afghanistan’s national team actually learned to play cricket in Pakistan, highlighting the PCB’s positive role for it allowed those cricketers to participate in Pakistan’s domestic tournaments.

Things, however, started to change after India began developing its ties with Afghanistan for its own geo-political reasons. Soon, Afghan cricketers found a new home in India, with the players getting trained at Indian grounds. 

It’s been reported that Afghan cricketers were asked to stop living and playing in Pakistan, and even stopped from giving the country credit for the development of their cricketing careers.

‘Like a derby’

Mir Shabbar Ali, a cricket writer at Pakistan’s leading English-language daily Dawn, says that while the India-Pakistan rivalry stretches back to the brutal partition days, the two countries have evolved and see the popularity of cricket as “a tool of diplomacy”.
The PCB’s official social media handles, and those of India’s too, let no opportunity go to highlight any positivity coming out of Pakistani and Indian camps whenever they are stationed together. 

A recent example was when Pakistan’s ace fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi was injured and a video went viral showing Indian team players coming over to him and wishing him luck. It was the PCB’s doing, creating goodwill, which in turn is reciprocated by the Indian media as well.

In this context, Ali says, “There needs to be a fine line between Afghanistan and Pakistan when it comes to the spirit of the game, which is probably not being maintained.”

Ali, however, considers the Afghanistan-Pakistan rivalry as more fierce and natural than that of India-Pakistan. He says it is “more like a derby”.

“Many Afghans live in Pakistan and many continue to cross borders. And many Pakistanis living in the country’s northern belt have family ties with Afghans across the border,” he explains. 

“This is a proper derby, the likes of which we see in football between Liverpool and Everton, West Ham United and Millwall, and Arsenal and Tottenham. I would call it a regional derby, more than India-Pakistan’s could ever be.”

If fans of Afghanistan and Pakistan cricket are to look at their contests “like a derby”, then this heated rivalry could have a potential to match the intensity of some of the greatest rivalries out there in football.

Obaidullah Baheer, lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan and visiting scholar at The New School in New York City, thinks there is not much to read into cricket games and sport emotions. 

“If you go to England and see the scale of hooliganism between rival city clubs, it does not mean they want to go to war with each other or they hate each other,” he says.

“It is just passion, a part of sport. It is just that we have not been trained to read this or react to this properly. Very often we look at a small incident caused by specific individuals from one side or the other and we project that on everyone else.” 

Baheer says very often the conversation between Pakistan and Afghanistan turns bitter into “we did this for them”, which he argues is not true. 

“Not everyone in the ‘we’ did anything for the ‘them’,” he tells TRT World

“It has always been nations interacting with each other. We are neighbours. We have to learn to co-exist and we should not blow things out of proportion. This fake sense of patriotism or pride really has not helped anyone.”

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