The development of women's cricket took a significant step forward late last week with an announcement from the Afghanistan Cricket Board who pledged to award 25 central contracts to players from a select talent pool that was invited to a national team trial camp at Kabul International Stadium in October. However, board officials have told ESPNcricinfo that cultural sensitivities may make it far more challenging for the women to be able to rise up the ICC global rankings in the same manner as the men's team achieved through the last decade.
"We need to go steadily and gradually," said one ACB official to ESPNcricinfo, requesting anonymity due to what he described as "complex" reactions within Afghanistan to the plans for women's cricket. "We need to be very careful given what is happening in this country because of security. In countries like Afghanistan, it is quite challenging. The first thing is we should not challenge the cultural and traditional norms and principles. We should go ahead understanding the context. We should not copy and paste what is happening in other countries. It's absolutely not comparable."
"So we need to be very careful about moving forward, but the intention is there and the vision is there. You never know. If things improve in this country, if there is stability in this country, we could have some surprises in terms of women's cricket. But it depends on what is happening in this country in terms of political and social situation. We are in dire need of resources and facilities that people do not question in terms of religion and cultural issues."
Besides those based in and around Kabul, the next biggest group of players who attended the women's national team camp came from the Herat Province, situated in the western part of the country bordering Iran. It's an indication of how much cricket has spread across the whole of the country. According to multiple sources, the contracts for the women's players will be 12 months in length and will be reviewed on a rolling six-month basis, but exact remuneration was not disclosed.
At a very basic logistical level, one of the biggest hurdles women's cricket development faces in Afghanistan is the demand for women's only facilities. According to an official, the women's national team camp was organized in a time frame so as not to clash with any activities for men's national team players that were scheduled to take place at Kabul International Stadium. No men were allowed to be present during the duration of the women's team camp, an accommodation that can be difficult to organise outside of Kabul.
"We have some very good plans for women but the problem is the facilities to accommodate them," said an ACB official. "Unlike the western countries, here you need to respect the religion and the culture and that requires isolated facilities for the women. That is lacking in Afghanistan. We don't even have enough facilities for the men in Afghanistan at basic standards, leaving aside international standards. This would be the biggest challenge.
"If we have isolated facilities specific to women, I'm sure it will somehow reduce the public reaction because they know there are no specific facilities for women. The morale situation for fighting and war in this country is affecting all cricket including women's cricket."
At the time of Afghanistan's elevation to Test status, they were the only one of the 12 Full Member countries to not have a functioning women's national team. To date, Afghanistan has not entered a women's team to compete in any ICC or Asian Cricket Council regional tournament. However, the pledge to award central contracts is a move that local officials hope will demonstrate to the rest of the world that they intend to make women's cricket a meaningful part of their overall plans going forward.
"It is not very easy to engage women in education, sports, health or any other sector," said an ACB official. "What we have seen from the men's point of view, we have seen some very good progress that the men have done extremely well in terms of the cricket development of Afghanistan. We thought we can also encourage women. We are being careful but the plans will proceed and we will see how the women progress."
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna