Afghanistan must play the Hobart Test

As if there are not enough ways for a sports event to be called off right now, the Australian-Afghanistan Test match in Hobart in November is not guaranteed to proceed because of the Taliban.

Conscious of the new/old Afghanistan government’s ominous attitude to women’s cricket, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein says he will consult Hobart’s Hazara community before agreeing to what would be the inaugural meeting of the two countries at Test level.

Hobart’s Blundstone Arena (Bellerive Oval) during the 2015 World Cup.Credit:Getty Images

It is a men’s match, but it is the principle that concerns Gutwein. Should Australia be engaged in sport at all with a country that refuses to approve cricket for women, presumably unless they are fully-veiled throughout and are accompanied to and from the crease by a male relative?

Gutwein’s concern is commendable, his preparedness to put the rare indulgence of a Hobart Test match on the line shows that he is serious and the AFL can attest to his doggedness. The question is, what serves the best good here – to go ahead with the match, or bin it?

Sanctions applied through sport have a patchy history. Isolating apartheid South Africa worked, but it took 20 years, and that was with pretty much the whole world on board. Olympic boycotts were disruptive, but ineffectual. The stance of a regional government on one matter is unlikely to shake the Taliban. That’s not a slight on Tassie, it’s just a fact.

Neither the federal government nor Cricket Australia would take up the cause. To do so would beg a question concerning what issues and where the line should be drawn. Australia might be uncomfortably forced to cast out the beams in its own eye before addressing the motes in others’. Climate action might be one.

The Afghan women’s cricket team train in Kabul.Credit:Andrew Quilty/Oculi

So if Tasmania were to back out, the probability is that the match simply would be moved elsewhere, robbing Peter without paying Paul.

That is not to say that sport should wall itself off from the rest of life, far from it. Increasingly, sportspeople accept this. Just last week in Australia, more than 400 put their names to a movement to urge more action on climate change.

The threat to the autonomy of Afghanistan’s women cricketers is a human rights issue, one for the world. Cricket cannot ignore it.

But in pursuing it, how does one achieve the most good? This is always the question in geopolitics: how to take a moral stance without tripping up on the realities?

Afghanistan fans at the 2019 World Cup in England.Credit:AP

Scrapping the match would minimise, rather than highlight, the issue. It would take it off the table. On the scale of world affairs, the cancellation of an Australia-Afghanistan cricket match won’t register, let alone prompt outrage.

It would also do harm to the cause of men’s cricket in Afghanistan. Their emergence in recent times to claim Test status and introduce new stars to the game has been a fillip for cricket.

To marginalise them now would be to stall that growth without gaining anything for Afghanistan’s women. The net effect would be a setback to the game in Afghanistan.

Conversely, Hobart could act as both a host and a stage for Afghan cricket. Playing the match would be an act of solidarity with the men’s team. Through no fault of either board, this first Test between the countries has been delayed several times already. It needs to be played now.

For its duration, the eyes of the cricket world would alight on Hobart. Australia could use it the way a diplomat might, to affirm comradeship with the Afghanistan women’s team and cricket as a game for all. Yes, not playing would be a gesture. But playing would be a more profound one.

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