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An opportunity to keep the Afghanistan-Pakistan rivalry dignified

In the way of a second India-Pakistan fixture stands a rivalry that comes with its own history; but it is not completely untenable yet

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Afghanistan fans make some noise  •  AFP

Afghanistan fans make some noise  •  AFP

It might be difficult to believe for outsiders, but there are many cricket fans in India and Pakistan who find the cricket matches between the two sides unbearable. It brings with it vulgar jingoism and ill will; outside the actual cricket, it is just an ugly spectacle. Pakistan's late surge on the back of a lifeline handed to them by Sri Lanka's stunning win over England has made a second India-Pakistan match a distinct possibility. If India do Pakistan a favour by beating England this Sunday, they will likely top the table and Pakistan could enter the semi-final at No. 4, setting up a semi-final clash at Old Trafford.
Pakistan still need a couple - even one can do - of other results to go their way, but also have to win their two remaining games. In the way of another match marred by jingoism, then, stands a match that comes with its own unpleasantness. On Saturday, Pakistan will go up against their other neighbours Afghanistan. As a cricket rivalry, it is still in its infancy. The two sides have faced each other only four times in international cricket. The truth, though, is that it would never have needed on-field action for this rivalry to generate needle.
The ingredients are all there. Unlike India and Pakistan, they were not the same country, but they were never different either. The Durand Line, the border between the two countries, was drawn up in 1893 to restrict Afghanistan's influence in British India, and Britain's in Afghanistan. As far as borders go, it is one of the more porous. Refugees and drugs and terror and America's influence have travelled unchecked through this border until it was tightened in 2017.
Just like with the two Punjabs that the 1947 partition gave us, people either side of the Durand Line have more in common with each other than with some people within their own country. It has divided people that were Pashtun well before they were Afghans or Pakistani or Indian. When USSR invaded Afghanistan, the Pashtun people found refuge in Peshawar. Selling nuts in Pakistan and coming back with cotton fabric was a legitimate business for Afghans - and vice versa for Pakistanis - until recently. Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib's family had been in that business even before Pakistan existed. Naib didn't know till he was 11 that he was from Afghanistan because he grew up a refugee in Pakistan. Almost every family has relations on the other side of the border.
The translation of all this into a sporting rivalry began when Afghan kids found cricket in Pakistan. And it happened when cricket in Pakistan was at its peak: from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. Most members of the current national team of Afghanistan learnt their cricket in Pakistan. Mohammad Nabi, Asghar Afghan and Rashid Khan all played for Wajahatullah Wasti's club, Islamia, in Peshawar. For its part, the PCB played a big role in the development of these cricketers - including letting them play in its domestic tournaments - and also cricket in Afghanistan.
The break-up began when India's government felt the need to strengthen ties with Afghanistan to keep in check China's influence, which comes via Pakistan. Cricket was but a vehicle for this charm diplomacy. In the mid-2010s, grants, permission to use Indian grounds as their home venue, and a Test debut against India all reached Afghanistan pretty swiftly. It helped the Indian government that the BCCI was under a ruling party member of parliament's control now; previous board chief N Srinivasan is known to have resisted similar advances from the Afghanistan Cricket Board.
This cricket co-operation from India came at an obvious cost: culling of ties with Pakistan. For many flaws of the PCB, even the ICC felt this was an ideal and organic model of how a full member could help an associate member of the ICC. Now, though, the Afghan players were asked to stop living and playing in Pakistan; they were even stopped from giving Pakistan too much credit for their development as cricketers or talking about their time in Pakistan. They don't even speak Urdu in press conferences anymore.
This has infuriated Pakistan. Every time Rashid - especially him - gives credit to India or speaks well of India, message boards and social media go abuzz. In a tense Asia Cup game last year, Rashid wagged his finger in the general direction of the dismissed Pakistan batsman Asif Ali. This was a red rag. Here was a man who wanted to be like Shahid Afridi but had now ditched his celebration and wagged a finger at a Pakistan batsman. Stories began to emerge of how he still held a house in Pakistan, and how he had a Pakistan ID. As if celebrating success against Pakistan is a sign of ingratitude. As if they were refugees in Pakistan out of their own will and Pakistan had nothing to do with the situation.
No player or PCB member says it, but they feel "betrayed" palpably by the "ingrates". There were signs of schadenfreude when ACB's acting CEO Asadullah Khan, tongue-in-cheek, offered Pakistan help last week as they struggled for results, claiming in a TV interview that Afghanistan were both better at cricket, and had better technical resources. The CEO before him said last year that they had received more assistance from India than from Pakistan. It is a complicated situation as it is; add politics to it, and this is recipe for nastiness to attach itself with the cricket.
On the field, though, just like between India and Pakistan, things don't get ugly; or no uglier than in, say, India-Australia matches. In the match that Rashid angered so many Pakistan fans with his celebration, Afghanistan came close to beating the stronger and more-fancied team.
Shoaib Malik had to dig deep to help Pakistan win in the last over, but Pakistan were quick to console the crestfallen Afghan players. In Pakistan's pre-match press conference at this World Cup, Haris Sohail was told about the comments made by the ACB CEO, and he laughed it off. When Naib was asked if there would be extra tension in the match, he actually said he hoped cricket could be used to mend relations between the two countries. The match on Saturday is a good opportunity to prevent these contests from going down the India-Pakistan way.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo