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Can Cricket Lure Young Afghans Away From IS?


FILE - Afghan cricket fans celebrate the victory of the national cricket team over Zimbabwe as the team returns and celebrates in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 30, 2015.

FILE - Afghan cricket fans celebrate the victory of the national cricket team over Zimbabwe as the team returns and celebrates in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 30, 2015.

Like many parents in an eastern Afghan province racked by the Islamic State and the Taliban insurgency, Haji Daoud was worried about the extremists' influence on his teenage sons.

"My two sons were influenced by insurgent groups as they watched Taliban and IS videos on their mobile phones and were contemplating, along with their friends, joining the insurgent groups," Daoud, a businessman in Jalalabad, said of his 14- and 16-year-old boys.

A sporting victory, however, by Afghanistan's national team over Scotland in the 2015 Cricket World Cup changed the tide. Watching the game on television from New Zealand, his sons found a positive redirection.

"The match changed their mind," Daoud said. "Now, they are cricket fans and keenly watch cricket matches on TV and their mobile phones and follow the news of the Afghan cricket team instead of insurgents' propaganda material."

Cricket, until recently an unknown sport among Afghans, may become a powerful tool in turning young Afghans away from terror and mayhem, sport leaders say.

Deterrent to terror

As IS expands its influence in parts of Afghanistan and the Taliban is showing a resurgence, cricket promoters are hoping the sport will act as a deterrent.

"Instead of taking a wrong path, we'd better take pen, bat and ball [instead of guns and drugs]," an Afghan cricket star, bowler Hamid Hassan, said in an interview with VOA.

Hamid Hassan is surrounded by fans in Kandahar city, a stronghold of Taliban militants.

Hamid Hassan is surrounded by fans in Kandahar city, a stronghold of Taliban militants.

The Afghan Cricket Board — the independent body that runs cricket affairs in the country — has created "Under-19" teams, as well as provincial branches where it trains and recruits youth.

"Cricket has a very positive impact on people," Fazal Rahim, a young Afghan cricket fan in Khost province, told VOA.

Both cricket promoters and militants find a ripe audience in young Afghans, many of whom are unemployed and live in rural areas that offer few incentives other than joining extremist groups.

The militants attract youths with misguided hope through social media and jihadi video materials smuggled into the country from neighboring Pakistan.

The success of the militants' efforts is seen in the inroads IS has made into educational institutions. In November, a few dozen Nangarhar University students raised IS and Taliban flags and chanted pro-IS slogans in a protest over dormitory accommodations and meal policies.

Cricket organizers are seeking to redirect young militant passions into sport.

Popularity soars

Cricket has soared in popularity in this war-torn nation after refugees returned in recent years from camps in neighboring Pakistan, where the sport is a national passion.

And as the Afghan national cricket team has scored historic victories, including one recent win against the highly touted Zimbabwean team, not only have young people become fans, but they also want to play.

"We are using cricket to target the larger pool of youth to divert their minds from bad things and negative influences," Shafiq Stanekzai, executive director of the Afghan Cricket Board, told VOA.

Although there are no accurate figures, judging from the thousands of youths who are participating in cricket activities, the programs appear to be succeeding.

"Cricket has left a huge impact on young people in Afghanistan; it has greatly influenced the minds of our young fellows as it has stopped them from various types of drugs, militancy and criminal activities," Nazar Katawazai, a London-based Afghan cricket expert, told VOA.

‘Symbol of peace’

Hasti Gul Abid, who runs a cricket academy in Nangarhar province, said one key player was a former member of the Taliban.

Hasti Gul Abid runs a cricket academy in Nangarhar province.

Hasti Gul Abid runs a cricket academy in Nangarhar province.

"The love for cricket brought him here and he met with famous cricket players of the country, and now he is living a sportsman's life, playing cricket and enjoying himself," Abid said.

Cricket is attracting youths from provinces that have seen large-scale insurgencies during the past few years, including Nangarhar, Khost, Helmand, Kunduz and Kandahar.

In November, Kabul hosted a domestic cricket tournament that brought together players in six zone teams from across the country, representing at least 24 of the 34 provinces. The matches attracted around 1.2 million TV viewers and brought about 100,000 spectators to the stadium, cricket officials say.

Some teams from provinces where insurgent groups are operating reached the final rounds. Eastern provinces' Spinghar Lions won the final, defeating the Kabul Eagles, which had the captain of the national cricket team, Asghar Stanikzai, and many other famous players on its roster.

"Cricket will be a symbol of peace in Afghanistan," poet Pir Mohammad Karwan told VOA. He writes motivational poems and songs for the Afghan cricket team to try to eliminate hopelessness among the youths.

“Cricket will be a symbol of peace in Afghanistan,” poet Pir Mohammad Karwan told VOA. He writes motivational poems and songs for the Afghan cricket team.

“Cricket will be a symbol of peace in Afghanistan,” poet Pir Mohammad Karwan told VOA. He writes motivational poems and songs for the Afghan cricket team.

In Khost, the site of many high-profile terrorist attacks, including a suicide attack on a U.S. military base that killed seven U.S. citizens, some positive trends have been noticed because of cricket.

Ahmad Shah is one example. The anti-government militant spent time watching cricket matches in the newly built cricket ground in Khost, and has since befriended local players. Now, instead of promoting terror, he spends his time promoting cricket.

His new passion has helped him become a good citizen, his friends say.

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