A majority of overseas players and coaches involved in the Shpageeza Cricket League, Afghanistan's domestic Twenty20 tournament, has decided to remain in the country, despite an incident last week when a suicide bomber reportedly detonated explosives at a checkpoint en route to the Alokozay Kabul International Cricket Ground in Kabul. Eight foreign personnel, most from South Africa and Zimbabwe, left the country.
The blast, which killed three persons including the attacker, took place last Wednesday afternoon, during a league match between Boost Defenders and MIS Ainak Knights.
Although the match resumed once security officials gave the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) the nod, there was concern among the overseas players and officials and their respective cricket boards. Cricket South Africa was one of the first boards to revoke the no-objection certificates of its players, while Zimbabwe Cricket, too, asked players to return immediately.
Four South Africans (Cameron Delport, Morne van Wyk, Glenton Stuurman and Abdul Razak), two Zimbabweans (Hamilton Masakazda and Solomon Mire), and West Indian Rayad Emrit chose to leave, while former South African batsman Herschelle Gibbs, who was the head coach of Speen Ghar Tigers, was the only overseas official to depart. According to the ACB, Emrit played two further matches after the blast before flying home to Trinidad to be with his wife who is pregnant.
Zimbabwe's Elton Chigumbura, Sikandar Raza, Johnathan Campbell, Ryan Burl, Richard Ngarava, Tendai Chisoro, Luke Jongwe, Richmond Mutumbami and Vusi Sibanda, former Pakistan allrounder Abdul Razzaq, Sri Lanka's Ashan Priyanjan, and Oman cricketers Bilal Khan and Zeeshan Maqsood were among those who opted to stay back, along with overseas coaches Adam Hollioake, Andy Moles, Gus Logie, Gordon Parsons and Umesh Patwal. Former Australia batsman Dean Jones and former Zimbabwe captain Alistair Campbell, who are part of the commentary team, also opted to stay back.
According to Shafiqullah Stanikzai, the ACB chief executive, Afghanistan's interior minister Wais Bamrak met all the teams on the evening of the blast and conveyed to them the message from president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani that the government would ensure their safety. Last Saturday, Ghani invited the overseas players and officials to his palace in Kabul, which is adjacent to the team hotel. Ghani, who is also the patron-in-chief of the ACB, told players and officials that they would receive presidential-level security.
Ghani's words had a positive effect, and Zimbabwe allrounder Raza also stated that security had been increased around the teams and the team hotel immediately after the blast. "The security has improved. The radius of the safe zone has grown bigger," Raza told ESPNcricnfo. "After the incident, there are two ways to look at it. One way is that the incident happened close to the ground. The other way to look at it is that the security forces managed to stop that guy from getting in. So, security did work."
Raza admitted that there was a "moment of fear" following the blast as security personnel assessed the situation. "There was a moment of fear, but once we realised that everyone was safe and nobody was hurt or dead, I think it brought us to our feet again," he said. "The game stopped and we tried to find out what exactly had happened. We managed to find out that the security forces had done their job and the man was stopped. The sound itself was pretty loud and there was a moment of fear. But we got out of it pretty quickly and that's why we went out and played the game."
Cricket is the most popular sport in a country that has been war-torn for decades. According to Raza, the Shpageeza League had "houseful" crowds for every match. "I just hope the tournament can finish smoothly now and we are hoping such incidents don't happen again because all lives matter and are worth the same. From the cricketers' point of view, we certainly don't want anyone to lose their lives for us."