It has been just over a year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, again, and the effect on every aspect of life in the country has been drastic. But what has this meant for cricket? While a fledgling women's cricket scene has all but disappeared, the men's game is one of the few pastimes accepted - and seemingly closely followed - by the regime, which has clamped down on public entertainment in many forms. And cricket remains wildly popular among common fans in the country.
In the early days of the takeover, several from the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) fled the country, as many others did, and the board has since had to arrange UAE residency visas for about two dozen players to avoid travel issues when it comes to cricket tours. There were also questions about whether Afghanistan's ICC Full Membership should be reviewed altogether, given the Taliban's regressive stance on women in cricket. Money is an issue, with sponsors pulling out. And the country remains a strict no-go zone for international teams, with the UAE effectively their home base now. But, despite all these complications, cricket has continued to exist.
"There was uncertainty at the start but once the dust started to settle we see cricket is still there," Asadullah Khan, a former selector who is helping the ACB putting together a roadmap of how cricket is to be run in the country, told ESPNcricinfo. "The passion for the game has increased but the flow of money has started to dry up.
"Taliban in government helped cricket [to continue] but corporate sponsorships for the game have come down. ICC funds are not coming directly, hence money is an issue. ACB is still surviving but [we're] not sure how long it can be sustained."
Since the Taliban took over, issues with banking and foreign exchange in Afghanistan mean that, in some instances, the ICC has - using the revenue share due to Afghanistan - made payments on behalf of the ACB. That has hit cash flow. Currently, the ACB is revamping its corporate and domestic cricket structure and upgrading facilities in Kabul to include a high-performance centre.
"This is an issue [with the ICC's funds] because ACB is looking to expand the game in other regions," Asadullah said. "Kabul has been the main centre to cater to all the cricketers but now we need to go to the other venues too. The ACB is also presently working on revamping the entire board structure and revisiting its policy-making to make it more transparent.
"There is extensive work being done to expand the infrastructure to other places like Kandahar and Khost regions. Every region needs to have an exclusive and specialist coaching set-up, so that players come through a proper pathway, and we need money for that. The focus is to make the system more professional, with a focal point on player development."
Fortunately, the current generation of Afghanistan cricketers boasts elite, global stars in the form of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. The three are pretty much automatic picks for every T20 league in the world. In all, Rashid and Nabi have turned out in six different leagues for a total of 114 and 61 T20s respectively after the pandemic. Mujeeb has played in seven leagues (58 T20s). Fast bowler Naveen-ul-Haq, too, can be added to this list of in-high-demand T20 specialists, with four leagues and 68 T20s. Because they play around the world all year round, there is less focus on having them in preparatory camps.
"They are bringing in a load of information, the tricks, the intel about various conditions they are playing in, and it's really good for the team in terms of learning. It's free knowledge"
Assistant coach Raees Ahmadzai on Afghanistan's superstars playing in T20 leagues around the world
All that globetrotting presents a problem, in that they cannot regularly play alongside up-and-coming talent back home in domestic cricket for logistical and visa-eligibility reasons. They have been exempted from national preparatory camps but they make it to national duty, often joining the team a few days before the series. Like several of their national-team colleagues, Nabi and Rashid are based in the UAE.
Raees Ahmadzai, the former Afghanistan middle-order batter who is now an assistant coach with the national team and has deep ties with grassroots and domestic cricket in the country, thinks players' T20 league experience can only be beneficial to the wider set-up.
"Our players feature in the different leagues, they learn a lot and come back with tons of experience and they have next-level confidence behind them," Ahmadzai told ESPNcricinfo. "They might miss being with the larger camps but when they come, they bring a lot of knowledge back to the pavilion.
"The environment suddenly changes with them in the team; Rashid, Mujeeb and Nabi have a lot to share with young boys and this is eventually beneficial for the team. They are bringing in a load of information, the tricks, the intel about various conditions they are playing in, and it's really good for the team in terms of learning. It's free knowledge and I don't mind if they are missing Afghanistan camps but coming with million-dollar information for young lads in the team by playing T20 leagues."
There's another stumbling block in the development of younger players, though, and this one pre-dates the Taliban's takeover. There is little continuity with the coaches. The current batch of coaches, for example, including Jonathan Trott and Umar Gul, have contracts that run until December 2022. The ACB roped in Younis Khan before the Zimbabwe tour in June, to work with the batters for three weeks. On that tour, Afghanistan were without a head coach, with Graham Thorpe having fallen ill; so, Trott was called in for the Ireland tour in August and now the Asia Cup. In all, Afghanistan have had more than five head coaches since 2019, with none of them travelling to Afghanistan but only working on away tours, joining the squad just for the series.
"Ideally a head coach should be someone who should spend time in the country and be part of players' development right from the start," Ahmadzai said. "But unfortunately the situation in our country makes them not come, so there is always a gap.
"It's really important for a head coach to stay informed about how the system works in Afghanistan, how players are groomed and to keep a track of their development. It makes their job more productive, after all he is the one taking the lead in making strategies and setting long-term goals. But in our case, we lack consistency in this regard. We were without a head coach in Zimbabwe but still managed to win..."
Afghanistan blanked Zimbabwe 3-0 in both ODIs and T20Is, but they come into this Asia Cup, in the UAE, having lost to Ireland 3-2. Ahmadzai sees that loss as a good reality check ahead of showpiece events. "It was a good wake-up call before a tournament like the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup [in Australia in October-November]," he said. "Sometimes you come into the bigger event after winning a series but can't carry on the momentum. So this Ireland result will help [us refocus].
"Kabul has been the main center to cater to all the cricketers but now we need to go to the other venues too. There is extensive work being done to expand the infrastructure to other places like Kandahar and Khost regions"
Former selector Asadullah Khan
"We had a mixed performance, it wasn't all bad. We did manage to come back after losing the first two. We won the next two and were unfortunate in the decider, losing on DLS method. Overall now players know exactly where they stand and what needs to be done to get ready and look forward to the Asia Cup and World Cup."
Ahmadzai explained that he was working with players to tone down their emotions in pressure situations. "We do come close to winning against bigger teams only to slip in the decisive moments in the innings," he said. "I think we lack experience in dealing with the sort of pressure in those crucial moments. But this shouldn't be an excuse, we are playing cricket for a long time now. I think boys get emotional and lose it from there.
"In all big tournaments, we've played some close games that we should have won - like in the 2019 World Cup, against Pakistan. So this is the thing on our minds and we talked about how to conquer those critical stages and how to transform runs into match-winning knocks. You will see a difference this time, we will be doing something very special in this tournament."
Despite the year Afghanistan the country has had, there will be hordes of passionate cricket-lovers getting behind their team, hoping for just this.