Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan‘s visit to Afghanistan last week could well pave the way for a revival of cricketing ties between the two neighbouring countries. The relations were severed in 2017 following a bomb blast in Kabul, for which the Afghan authorities had blamed Pakistan.
Imran’s visit to Afghanistan, his first since forming the government in August 2018, was primarily to meet Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, with an eye on strengthening relations between the two countries. While in Kabul, former Pakistan captain Imran also met the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s chairman Farhan Yousafzai and a number of national team members – Asghar Afghan and Mohammad Nabi among them – with the ACB expressing its desire to play bilateral cricket. As such, cricketing relations between the two countries go back a long way, with many prominent Afghanistan players having learnt the basics of the game while being refugees in Pakistan during the war years.
“We have played a major role in their [Afghan] cricket development and are still open to extending our support whenever required,” Wasim Khan, the PCB chief executive officer, told ESPNcricinfo. “They are Full Members at the ICC and one of the key players in South Asia, and we are very much looking forward to taking our relationship forward.”
That, however, might not happen immediately, with the international cricket calendar being as packed as it is. “We are always open to talk to revive our ties and work out a slot for any series in our FTP. But this year, or the next, it’s tough to make it,” Wasim said. “But Afghanistan playing Pakistan has a big [commercial] potential and a big viewership.”
ESPNcricinfo understands that while the Pakistan foreign office or the prime minister’s office hasn’t discussed the matter with the PCB yet, Imran has noted the ACB’s request to play Pakistan. When it comes to playing Afghanistan (or India), the decision is left to the Pakistan government – and not the PCB – because of the often-strained political relationships with the countries concerned.
Members of the PCB and the ACB were last seen together in 2017 at the PCB’s Gaddafi Stadium headquarters when they signed an agreement to play bilateral cricket starting with friendly T20s in Kabul and Lahore in July and August that year. But then the deadly bombing incident happened on May 31 that year. The ACB released a statement soon after, saying “no agreement of friendly matches is possible between both parties. In light of the findings of security services and calls by the Afghan nation, the ACB hereby cancel all kinds of cricket matches agreement with the Pakistan Cricket Board.” The PCB took exception to the comments, describing the allegations as “baseless” and “irresponsible”.
Things then turned ugly when Afghanistan and Pakistan faced off at the 2019 ODI World Cup at Headingley, with reports of clashes between the two sets of fans in the stands and even outside the stadium.
Now, with Imran taking the lead and the ACB willing to put cricket first, things might go back to the way they were.