No one could have predicted that Pakistan will win after losing nine wickets to Afghanistan’s brilliant bowling attack in the tenth match of Super Four stage of Asia Cup on September 7, 2022. The last two sixes played by Naseem Shah really stole the wind out of Afghanistan’s sails.
Pakistan won and what followed was hate, bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and outright violence in the cricket stadium and on Twitter. Why do passions run so high in a game of cricket between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where sport enthusiasts come to enjoy and players lock horns to prove their worth? Well, the answer lies in the history of the two nations.
To understand the heightened passions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a simple analogy can be used — that of Pakistan and India. Whenever Pakistan and India are set to face-off in a game of cricket, people on both sides of the border pent-up the heat by using their Twitter handles and praying to god that their team wins. Why is it so? It has to do with the history of the two nations starting from the partition or even before that.
Both countries suffer from a historical breach that changed the map of the subcontinent. Pakistan was happy that it was created as a separate homeland. India for its part felt divided and betrayed. Pakistan’s argument for creation was that it has a better system of socio-economic development to offer to its people and the world, since Pakistan would be taking cues from the teachings of Islam. India for its part also laid claim and still does, to being a better candidate for civilizational status. And if you are a civilizational entity then essentially you outsmart your competitors in every field.
Cricket, although a sport, presented one such avenue where Pakistan and India tested their strengths of convictions to being a better civilizational entity. It is for the said reason that both teams try their best to beat the opponent.
One strand of this rivalry was the cricket matches played in the world cups. Until recently, India had an un-beaten record against Pakistan. This winning streak of India ended last year in the T-20 world cup match between the two countries. Pakistan beat India after successfully chasing a target of 152 runs.
Now, India was set to take revenge at the start of this Asia Cup 2022, which it emphatically did.
In the same vein, when one looks at the history of Pakistan and Afghanistan, one has much to learn and unlearn. The start of war in Afghanistan in late 1970s had continued well into the last year and still is going on. It all started with the fall of Zahir Shah in a coup in 1973 ending more than 200 years of monarchical government.
When Zahir Shah was deposed and Soviet involvement in Afghanistan increased, Pakistan for its part started to court various young student leaders to help it achieve its objectives in the future course of events. Historically, Afghanistan soon after Pakistan’s independence was against its creation. It tried to block Pakistan’s membership bid into the United Nations after independence. Pakistan, therefore, always wanted a pliant government in Afghanistan who would not press Pakistan against the Indian border. Pakistan’s geography and its north-south axis put it in between two countries that were hostile to Pakistan’s emergence and future development. Pakistan survived somehow and cricket arrived.
India, its rivalry with Pakistan, and its cordial relations with Afghan nationalists all made for a good mix to make Pakistan weak. Afghan nationalists against the idea of Pakistan and its emergence, continued well into the 21st century.
The war in Afghanistan allowed India to increase its foothold in Afghanistan after the American invasion. India, its rivalry with Pakistan, and its cordial relations with Afghan nationalists all made for a good mix to make Pakistan weak. Afghan nationalists against the idea of Pakistan and its emergence, continued well into the 21st century. They saw a chance to press Pakistan from both sides so that it breaks under the weight. The convergence of interests between nationalist Afghan governments post 9/11 and Indian state agencies put Pakistan in a weak spot.
This is not a secret that Pakistan has always pursued its own interest in Afghanistan. However, it is important to understand that the involvement started not as a proactive approach. For example, Pakistan had nothing to do with the deposition of Nadir Shah. It was the events that followed that made Pakistan court the seven boys from Afghanistan to see Soviet Union would not gobble up Afghanistan. Also, it was not Pakistan that asked the Russians to invade.
People travel to and from the Pak-Afghan border for trade and kinship ties. The geographical inclination of Afghanistan has made its people travel towards the Indus basin historically because of food surpluses and settled communities. No invader went to conquer Afghanistan from the Indian subcontinent. Invaders always came through Afghanistan to conquer the Indian subcontinent.
Following the same logic, leaving the situation alone in Afghanistan to broil would not have been in Pakistan’s interest. So, Pakistan had to do what it did to protect its interests in Afghanistan by managing the consequences.
Even when Pakistan joined the American alliance against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001, it did so grudgingly. Had it not done so India was ready to provide the services that Pakistan was enlisted to provide, in the form of airbases and military dumps.
India under the cover of American occupation did all that it could to sow discord in the western regions of Pakistan. The capture of serving military agents of Indian army from Balochistan province of Pakistan is a live example. Not only was India involved actively inside Pakistan but it also did its best to sow disinformation through the media.
Same routine was followed in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan were hammered with false information for the last 20 years through the media. They see Pakistan as a terrorist state and nothing else. The unearthing of a false news campaign by the sophisticated EU DisInfo lab laid bare the stratagems of the Indian deep state.
The people of Kabul and other big cities in Afghanistan who are exposed to Indian propaganda firmly believe that the cause of all their ills is Pakistan. That Pakistan is a terrorist state. That Pakistan has supported the Taliban to achieve its own ends — which it did, but the proper understanding of this particular subject is not so simple to fit into a few neat lines.
Pakistan still houses millions of Afghan refugees and it is still the best bet for the people of Afghanistan if they want to move forward. This however has become very difficult since the people of the two countries have so grown apart because of a thousand different reasons and the war of 40 years.
The people of Pakistan and Afghanistan need to understand that the past was not their doing and the future does not need to be like the past.
This history between the two countries is desperately trying to find avenues to play out again. Cricket field of Sharjah was the latest. Pakistan and Afghanistan tried to play a neat game and they did actually. But towards the end an untoward incident in the intense heat of the game destroyed the whole atmosphere of congeniality. And as soon as Pakistan snatched the victory out of Afghanistan’s hands the spectators went berserk and started to tear apart the fixed chairs in the stands and throw them at the Pakistani spectators. Twitter got alive with hatred, curses, accusations of terrorism, and false information. Indian bot accounts also started tweeting in Afghanistan’s favour and the whole post-match enthusiasm got drowned in a frenzy of anger. The spirit of the game got destroyed and what was left was open wounds from the past.
Rivalry is a good thing as long as it is positive and plays out on the cricketing field. If, however politics and past is allowed to hijack the entertainment that the game offers, no rational reason is left for the game to continue. The people of Pakistan and Afghanistan need to understand that the past was not their doing and the future does not need to be like the past.
Cricket is a great opportunity for the two nations to come together and share some moments of positive competition. If subversive entities are allowed to destroy the spirit of the game, then it will again rest on history to decide the verdict.
The way Afghanistan cricket team played he Asia Cup matches spoke of their fighting spirit. Winners are bound to lose. Losers are bound to win. High heads and impassioned effort will win the day for them soon. As Leonard Cohen said in his song A Thousand Kisses Deep,
“The ponies run, the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while, and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep.”