On 19 March 2024, Cricket Australia (“CA”) announced its decision to withdraw from their three-match men’s T20 series against Afghanistan because of the ongoing restrictions on women and girls in the country. This will be the third bilateral series that CA have declined to play against Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. In March 2023, CA cited the “marked deterioration in human rights for women and girls” for not playing a scheduled ODI series, and the Australian Government has since advised that conditions are “getting worse”.[1] Once again, this has thrust the spotlight on Afghanistan’s continued status as a Full Member of the International Cricket Council (“ICC”) and whether more national cricket associations should be following CA’s lead by taking matters into their own hands.

The ICC’s inaction towards the Afghanistan Cricket Board (“ACB”) appears to be even more stark given that, as recently as November 2023, it suspended Sri Lanka Cricket (“SLC”) due to a “serious breach of its obligations as a Member [of the ICC], in particular, the requirement to manage its affairs autonomously and ensure that there is no government interference in the governance, regulation and/or administration of cricket in Sri Lanka.”  Although that suspension was subsequently lifted by the ICC on 28 January 2024, there have been allegations of double standards in circumstances where Afghan women and girls are banned from playing any sport under the Taliban. Such outright prohibition is seemingly one of the more extreme examples of government interference. Against such a backdrop, albeit a complex geo-political one, it begs the question: why have the ICC not taken action against the ACB in accordance with its governance framework?

In this article, I examine:

  • some of the express constitutional and regulatory requirements for ICC Members;
  • the ICC’s historic handling of allegations of “political inference” in cricket;
  • the events leading to SLC’s recent suspension;
  • whether the ACB’s circumstances are distinguishable (and/or if the ACB should be afforded ‘special’ treatment); and
  • what the future of Afghan cricket might entail.

Obligations for ICC Members: Government Intervention and the Women’s Game

The ACB and SLC are both “Full Members” of the ICC; the former only attaining such status in June 2017. Whilst the requirements of Full Membership (by which members have a right to play in official Test matches, have full voting rights at ICC meetings, etc) are more onerous than for Associate and Affiliate Membership, there is a blanket prohibition on government interference for all ICC Members. 

Indeed, in accordance with paragraph 2.4 of the ICC’s Articles of Association (the “ICC’s Articles”), each Member of the ICC must:

“(C)      ensure that: (i) its statutes provide a process for free and democratic elections and appointments from amongst its members (or nominees from outside its members) for its executive body; and (ii) it determines its office holders by free and democratic elections in accordance with the process set out in its statutes;

(D)       manage its affairs autonomously and ensure that there is no government (or other public or quasi-public body) interference in its governance, regulation and/or administration of Cricket in its Cricket Playing Country (including in operational matters, in the selection and management of teams, and in the appointment of coaches or support personnel)…”

Further, paragraph 2.8 of the ICC’s Articles states:

“(A)   To retain its status as a Full Member [of the ICC], each Full Member must at all times satisfy the following conditions:

  • each obligation set out in Article 2.4; and
  • any further conditions as may be proposed by the Board of Directors and ratified by the Members by the passing of a Special Resolution from time to time.”

In accordance with paragraph 2.10(A) of the ICC’s Articles, “the [ICC] Board of Directors may suspend the membership of a Member with immediate effect where, in the opinion of the Board of Directors (in its absolute discretion), the Member is in serious breach of any of its obligations as a Member.”

As regards women’s cricket, the ICC Membership Criteria provides certain prerequisites:

  • For Full and Associate Members: “Have the appropriate status, structure, recognition, membership and competence to be recognised by the ICC (at its absolute discretion) as the primary governing body responsible for the administration, management and development of cricket (men’s and women’s) in its country.”[2]
  • For Full and Associate Members: “Have satisfactory women’s pathway structures in place.”[3]
  • For Full Members only: “Have either (a) participated in at least one (1) ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup or ICC Women’s T20 World Cup over the previous four (4) years or (b) currently feature on the ICC’s official women’s ODI rankings table.”[4]
  • For Full Members only: “Have a sustained and sufficient pool of players to support strong and consistent national level selection across the senior men’s, U19 and women’s teams.”[5]

The ICC’s historic handling of ‘political interference’ in cricket

South Africa Cricket during the Apartheid era   

It is widely acknowledged that the sporting boycott of South Africa during the Apartheid era played a seminal role in bringing that egregious system of governance to an end.

“Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire… It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.” (Nelson Mandela)

Amongst other things, Apartheid policies barred non-white players from playing Test cricket for South Africa and refused to accept touring teams that fielded non-white players. In 1970, this prompted the ICC to ban South Africa from competing in internationally recognised cricket.[6] Despite attempts to desegregate cricket with the formation of a “non-racial” governing body (the South African Cricket Union) in 1976, and some controversial “rebel” tours to South Africa in the 1980s, the ICC maintained its ban until South Africa’s formal readmission in 1991.

Zimbabwe: 2019

In July 2019, Zimbabwe Cricket (“ZC”) was suspended as a Full Member due to political meddling by Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Commission (“ZSRC”), a parastatal organisation. It came in the wake of ZSRC’s decision to suspend the entire ZC Board for supposed “unconstitutional elections” in June 2019, thereby putting it on a constitutional collision course with the ICC. Aside from breaching paragraphs 2.4(C)-(D) of the ICC’s Articles (outlined above), the ICC was reportedly concerned that its funding would have been diverted to the Zimbabwe Government, as opposed to developing the game within the country. Following the reinstatement of ZC’s Board, the ICC lifted its suspension of ZC in October 2019.

Why was Sri Lanka Cricket suspended?

Following a dismal campaign at the Men’s 50-Over World Cup in October/November 2023 (where the team finished second bottom of the table), Sri Lanka’s Minister of Sport sacked the Board of SLC. Although the decision was reversed by a domestic court, on 10 November 2023, the ICC suspended SLC for breaching its obligations as an ICC Member due to government interference – as outlined above. The ICC Board subsequently decided, on 21 November 2023, that SLC could “continue to compete internationally both in bilateral cricket and ICC events” but funding to SLC would be “controlled by the ICC” and Sri Lanka was stripped as the host of the 2024 Under-19 Men’s World Cup.

The recent suspension of SLC has a convoluted backstory and has been described by one journalist as a “political tangle masquerading as a cricket crisis”.  In that respect, there are several parallels with the ZC situation in 2019. 

Whilst the precise factual background and timeline of events is difficult to verify, in broad terms:

  • On 7 November 2023, Sri Lanka’s Sports Minister, Roshan Ranasinghe, sacked the entire SLC Board, replacing them with an interim committee headed by former captain Arjuna Ranatunga.  Aside from the poor on-field results, Mr Ranasinghe supposedly cited corruption and mismanagement by the SLC.
  • On 10 November 2023, the ICC suspended SLC’s membership on grounds of political interference – namely, breaching paragraph 2.4(D) of the ICC’s Articles.
  • On 15 November 2023, SLC purportedly initiated a defamation lawsuit against Mr Ranasinghe, claiming that “in response to [his] persistent and damaging defamatory statements… SLC has taken a decisive step to protect its reputation and integrity“.
  • On 21 November 2023, the ICC Board convened to discuss the scope of SLC’s suspension.
  • On 27 November 2023, Sri Lanka’s President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, sacked Mr Ranasinghe as Minister of Sport – a move that is widely understood to have been precipitated by the SLC fiasco.
  • On 28 January 2024, the ICC lifted SLC’s suspension in full.

With much conjecture swirling around in the public domain, it is difficult to sift reality from conspiracy. There have even been suggestions (unsubstantiated, I may add) that SLC asked for its own Board to be suspended by the ICC in order to impress on the Sri Lanka Government, and the Sri Lankan public, that the ICC will not tolerate political interference in the administration of cricket.

Afghanistan Cricket: an exception to the rule?

The return to power of the Taliban in August 2021 effectively ended the fledgling Afghan women’s cricket team, as women are banned from playing any sport in the country. [7] A spokesman for the Taliban’s Cultural Commission expressly stated that women’s involvement in sport, including cricket, was “neither appropriate nor necessary”.[8]

According to the ICC’s own rules and regulations, Full Member (and Associate Member) status is conditional upon having women’s cricket teams and pathway structures in place. Afghanistan, on even the loosest assessment, is not meeting this requirement. Even before August 2021, some may argue that the ACB was fortunate to progress from Affiliate Member to Associate Member to Full Member in such quick succession (2001, 2013 and 2017 respectively), not least given the ACB had even disbanded the women’s national team in 2014. Full membership was granted on the proviso that women’s cricket would be developed and some progress was undoubtedly made, such as in 2020, when the ACB organised a training camp for 40 female cricketers, with 25 selected for central contracts.

Under the Taliban regime, an ICC working group has (unsurprisingly) “reported a total lack of women’s cricket activity”, but the ICC has not sought to suspend or sanction the ACB as a result. In taking that position, the ICC has been keen to stress that it does not recognise the Taliban as the legitimate ruling authority, and hence will “not penalise the ACB, or its players, for abiding by the laws set by the government of their country.”[9] 

This typifies, in many ways, the challenges and intricacies facing international sports federations when attempting to apply their rules and regulations in a consistent, fair and proportionate manner.  The IOC are wrestling with this as regards the participation of Russian and Belarussian athletes (as neutrals or otherwise) in international sports competitions. On one hand, athletes should not be collateral for the actions of their governments; on the other, sporting isolation can be powerful tool and good governance requires strong and decisive leadership.

There is an argument that the ACB situation is sufficiently complex and unique that it needs to be assessed in its own vacuum.  It is difficult not to have immense sympathy for the Afghan players in a situation whereby:

  • Women and girls have to flee their country to play the game or have access to manu basic human rights.
  • The Men’s team continue to play in exile (with “home” fixtures in the UAE) and under the black-red-green flag of the old regime (not the white flag of the Taliban).
  • Star player, Rashid Khan, has publicly condemned the Taliban’s ban on secondary school and university education for women and girls.[10]
  • Despite the turmoil enveloping their country, the Men’s team have produced a ‘golden generation’ of cricketers.  They were a major on-field success story at the 2023 ODI World Cup in India, beating the likes of England and Pakistan, and only narrowly missing out on the semi-finals.

The doctrine of proportionality is a cornerstone of good governance, as well as being a principle of sports law (or the so-called lex sportiva) that has often been applied by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (the “CAS”).  Indeed, on occasion, CAS panels have even applied this principle over and above the regulations material to a dispute if strict adherence would result in disproportionate punishments.[11]  

If the ICC was to take a literalist approach to its rules, it is hard to see how the ACB would escape a sanction, particularly when viewed alongside the recent SLC decision. [12] Whilst fairness tends to mandate uniformity in decision-making, ACB’s circumstances are truly exceptional, so one can see how a degree of latitude has been afforded. The ICC effectively has to weigh up a situation whereby a Member is non-compliant against other principles and objectives, such as the ICC’s desire to grow the game. Indeed, the ICC had (i) in 2019, in partnership with UNICEF, raised US$180,000 to fund a girls’ cricket project in Afghanistan; and (ii) in November 2021, launched a global strategy to “strength, grow and protect” cricket, with a particular focus on the women’s game.

The Future

For now, unless there is a U-turn in the ICC’s position, the ACB’s Full Member status does not appear to be under immediate threat, but that may yet change. Australia is the only country that has refused to play bilateral fixtures against Afghanistan to date, with the ACB accusing CA of “playing politics” and also citing the “connection [of cricket] to the happiness and joy of the Afghan nation”. The response of CA has been categorical – “basic human rights is not politics” – so there is no immediate sign of relations simmering or the nations meeting outside of ICC-sanctioned tournaments. If other Full Members (particularly the BCCI and ECB) come under pressure from their respective governments to act akin to CA, the ICC may be forced to reassess its stance on the issue.

This issue only goes to show the difficulty (dare I say impossibility) of divorcing sport and politics. One only needs to look at Rule 50 of Olympic Charter (which states “it is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference”) to realise the gap between idealism and reality can be a wide one. That is not to say that political neutrality is not a laudable aim, but the challenge facing many international federations is that sport has historically proven to be a powerful tool in diplomacy.   

For the ICC’s decision-makers, it does feel like a genuine case of ‘you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t’. They may look to the actions of other international federations for guidance or inspiration – FIFA, for instance, can appoint “normalisation committees” with temporary control of member associations in “exceptional circumstances” (under Article 8 of the FIFA Statutes). However, in the case of the Taliban, where discrimination on grounds of sex/gender is almost unparalleled anywhere in the world, it is difficult to see what measures could be put in place to enable the ACB to operate in a truly autonomous manner. 

[1] BBC Sport, ‘Australia pull out of Afghanistan T20 series due to continued Taliban restrictions on women and girls’ (19 March 2024): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/68603864

[2] Clauses 2.1(a)(i) and 2.2(a)(i) of the ICC Membership Criteria

[3] Clauses 2.1(d)(iii) and 2.2(c)(iii) of the ICC Membership Criteria

[4] Clauses 2.1(c)(iv) of the ICC Membership Criteria

[5] Clauses 2.1(d)(iv) of the ICC Membership Criteria

[6] South Africa had actually left the ICC in 1961, but had continued to play against Australia, England and New Zealand until 1970.

[7]Teenage girls and women are also currently barred from entering school and university classrooms, as well as parks, gyms and swimming pools.

[8] Peter Beaumont, ‘Afghan women to be banned from playing sport, Taliban say’ (The Guardian, 8 September 2021): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/08/afghan-women-to-be-banned-from-playing-sport-taliban-say

[9] George Wright, ‘Afghanistan women’s cricket team: in limbo and in exile in Australia’ (BBC News, 17 April 2023) https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/65263457#

[10] Simon Burnton, ‘Rashid Khan hits out at Australia’s decision to abandon Afghanistan series’ (The Guardian, 12 January 2023) https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2023/jan/12/rashid-khan-hits-out-australia-decision-abandon-afghanistan-odi-series#

[11] Squizzato v FINA, CAS 2005/A/830 (at paras. 10.19-10.26); Puerta v ITF, CAS 2006/A/1025 (at paras. 11.7.1-11.7.34); FINA v Mellouli, CAS 2007/A/1252 (at paras 36-40); I v Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, CAS 2010/A/2268; Chand v Athletics Federation of India & IAAF, CAS 2014/A/3759.

[12] It is worth noting that that the ICC chose not to impose an outright ban on Sri Lanka playing international fixtures (the suspension related more to funding, votes rights, etc), so suspension of membership is not always used as a blunt instrument.