On September the 21st of this year, 11 men from England, and 11 men from Afghanistan, will gather on a field in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for a spot of cricket.
Of course, this isn’t just any cricket match. It is a group stage match in the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Cup. It’s a marquee match in a marquee event.
Like most countries that will be competing in Sri Lanka this fall, Afghanistan’s history is linked to Britain in a myriad of different ways. In fact, most of the time, when England is playing an international cricket match, it is against a former colony: it is conquerer versus conquered, prisoner versus jailor, revolutionary versus oppressor.
In the case of Afghanistan, the country was seen as the dividing line between the British Empire and the Russian Empire, and therefore saw invading force after invading force for centuries. Furthermore, unlike England’s other former dominions, there are currently British boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Around 9,500, give or take.
412 British soldiers have died in the fighting since 2001, including 18 just this year, and the number of Afghani civilians that have died in the conflict since 2001 is incalculable, though conservative estimates put it in the tens of thousands.
England and Afghanistan will of course not be the first two nations involved in an armed conflict to compete against each other in an international sporting event, but I think it will add an interesting subtext to the tournament. Especially since, technically, Britain is not at war with the government of Afghanistan, they are at war with the Taliban. They are not invading, they are liberating. Or vice versa. Depends on who you ask. Like I said: subtext.
Hopefully, for all concerned parties, it will be a friendly little cricket match, one which sees the minnows Afghanistan make their country proud and give the English a good scrap.
Personally, I would rather keep politics completely out of sport. Yeah, sure, there are moments when it heals, when it transcends. Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics comes to mind. So does Sean Avery. Jackie Robinson, too. As does South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup
But too often it is Munich ’72, or Le Guerra de Futbol, or the USA boycotting Moscow ’80, or the Soviets boycotting Los Angeles ’84, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos* . Or even, more recently, the deadly football riots in Egypt which really had absolutely nothing to do with football.
And on a more subtle level, events such as the Olympics, the European Championships, and, truthfully, most international cricket matches, are gross exercises in nationalism: You live on that side of this imaginary line in the sand, and therefore we are enemies.
Sure most of the time it is harmless fun, I guess, and maybe I am making too big of a deal out of it, but what it comes down to is that I don’t think we should be mixing sports and politics at all, or sports and nationalism. Or politics and music, for that matter. Politics are the opposite of sport, they are the death of sport. If the ICC wants to talk about the “spirit of the game” then they should stop allowing it to be politicized. (You, too, US State Department.)
And because of that, the Indian Premiere League, despite being a big steaming pile of cricket killing ebola to some, is actually what might save it in the end, because it removes all those imaginary boundaries. Players from New Zealand line up alongside players from Holland, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. It’s utopian, even.
To bring it all back home: there will be an interesting subtext to the England v Afghanistan match on September the 21st of this year, but I really do wish that that subtext did not exist. That it was simply a cricket match for us all to enjoy with a pint and a friend.
*I was quite hesitant to include that one. At the end of the day, it was a divisive gesture, and against the spirit of the games – it politicized a pure moment. I am interested to hear readers’ comments however. Also: the 1984 Miracle on Ice: patriotic hallmark for the USA? Or a globally divisive victory that set back Soviet-US relations? You make the call.