"This game can bring peace, prosperity and happiness to the nation."
Thousands of spectators. Loud cheers. In Afghanistan, that can't mean too many things these days - yes, cricket was back at the Kabul International Stadium, which is located not too far away from the city airport, where a suicide bombing last week killed over a hundred people who were doing their best to leave the country. The cricket: it was the first dose of live action for locals since the Taliban took over the political reins in mid-August following the withdrawal of western troops.
Afghan and Taliban flags fluttered side by side up in the stands at the stadium as a number of international stars - including the likes of Gulbadin Naib, Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi - turned up to play for the Independence Trophy on Friday. Apart from serving as a prep for the players ahead of the T20 World Cup, the match was also hosted for the people of Afghanistan, for whom it turned out to be a "big change" amid the uncertainty of the last few weeks.
At the moment, the onus seems to be on cricket, at least according to the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), to be a beacon of hope and restore some calm among the people. Outside the boundary line, the Taliban forces kept watch, their rifles in place. Inside, Peace Defenders took on Peace Heroes in the T20 fixture.
"The names [of the teams] indicate that this game is an important contributor to peace-building and peace protection," Hamid Shinwari, ACB chief executive, told ESPNcricinfo. "It's the people's demand that we want to have peace in the country in order to live a normal life and enjoy such opportunities.
"Maybe, the future set-up will be able to communicate better than I do. Currently, women cricketers and women cricket staff are in peril"
Hamid Shinwari, ACB chief executive
"This game can bring peace and prosperity and happiness to the nation. It could significantly contribute to the country's economy and household economy. So, why not invest in sport? We have got a huge mass of youth. Investing in youth means investing in the future."
In many ways, cricket has been one of the few happy things in the war-ravaged nation in the last few years. The sport was picked up by Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the late 1990s and quickly became a rage in the country. The Afghanistan Cricket Federation (as the ACB was earlier known) was formed in 1997, during the Taliban's earlier regime, and the national body was soon inducted into the Asian Cricket Council.
Afghanistan have had an extraordinary rise as an international side in the last decade, from becoming a Full Member nation and gaining Test status in 2017 to ranking among the top-ten sides in the world in limited-overs cricket. Just how much they have moved up can be gauged from the fact that at the next men's T20 World Cup, starting next month, they are among the top-eight teams and are already in the main draw, while the likes of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ireland are in the qualifying round. And that Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman are among the most sought-after players in the T20 league circuit is hardly new information.
"It (cricket) is the game-changer. It is perceived as a game-changer. It is my mission and aim to support and manage cricket development in the country," Shinwari said. "In a short time, we have got very good payoff in terms of Rashid, Nabi and many other players. They are bringing in revenue to the country and pride.
"They are positive models for the country's youth. Investing in this game will have the capacity to change the future of the country."
Shinwari explained that the bosses of the current regime are fans of the sport and the top players, and are interested in promoting cricket. "The support is there. And it is in the best interest of the authorities to invest in cricket development," he said. "People have been supporting cricket in a very good way since the beginning, which is why we've reached this level.
"And, the authorities must also think about cricket because it is an important tool for positive development and household economy building in the country."
According to an AFP report, there were no women in the stands on the day. There was, however, no restriction in place, according to Shinwari. However, with regard to women's cricket, he admitted that the team and the support staff are "in peril" because how the Taliban deal with the subject is unclear.
The development of women's cricket in the nation had taken a significant step forward in November 2020. The ACB had pledged to award 25 central contracts to players from a select talent pool that was invited to a national team trial camp in October. However, the board officials had then said that cultural sensitivities could make it far more challenging for the women's team to be able to climb up the rankings.
"There was no restriction for women to attend this match. It was open to everyone. Maybe, the future set-up will be able to communicate better than I do. Currently, women cricketers and women cricket staff are in peril," Shinwari said, painting a not-too-sunny picture.
For the moment, though, what the players - men, in this case - just want is for the Taliban to back the sport. "The players' main motive is to go with the cricket as planned," Shinwari said. "Their request to the government authorities is to support cricket. So far, all's good. But our expectation from the new government will be to bring in changes to all the organisations and national offices.
"Our request for the Afghanistan government will be to bring in qualified people into the Afghanistan Cricket Board and to be able to go ahead with the scheduled activities and establish effective ties with the international committee. Cricket is an international sport and the ACB staff should have the capacity to communicate in a very good way.
"They [the people] want more cricket. They want ACB and the government to support cricket at the national and international levels. Therefore, it's a great boost that people are with us in building cricket and also establishing the national cricketing community."