Doubts, Distress for Afghan cricketers after the Taliban takeover - so many cricketers are finding it difficult to focus on sport.

KABUL : The crack of bat on ball echoes around Kabul's international stadium as Afghanistan's top cricketers get in some practice - just days after the country fell to the Taliban.

The calm of the empty stadium is a surreal contrast to scenes just a few kilometers north, where tens of thousands of Afghans at Kabul airport are desperately trying to flee on evacuation flights.

Following the stunning victory of Taliban, many of the players in cricket-mad Afghanistan's beloved national team are finding it difficult to focus on sport.

''The fear is there in their eyes, in their voices, even in their messages,'' pace bowler Naveen-ul-Haq said of his teammates in Kabul during a BBC interview broadcast at the weekend.

''The Taliban have said [they] won't be troubling any sportsmen, but nobody knows,'' added Haq, speaking from the West Indies, where he plays in the Caribbean Premier League.

The return of the Taliban has sparked widespread fear in Afghanistan and in the international community, reviving memories of their brutal first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

They banned most forms of entertainment - including many sports - and stadiums doubled as public execution venues.

Sports the Taliban did allow were strictly controlled, and were only for men to play and watch.

They did not mind cricket, however, and the game born centuries ago on the playing fields of England is popular among Taliban fighters too.

That has done little to ease the fears of many players, for whom the fall of the country is about a lot more than the sport.

''I appeal to the leaders of the world : please don't let Afghanistan go into chaos,'' former national captain Mohammed Nabi tweeted days before the fall of Kabul, as the Taliban were rapidly capturing  territory. ''We need your support. We want peace.''

Cricket was barely known in the nation until the early 2000s, and its explosive rise in popularity was linked with conflict - the sport was picked up in Afghanistan by Afghan refugees who then seeded it in their home country.

But the national team has enjoyed a meteoric rise on the international scene since then, gaining coveted  test status in 2017 and now ranked among the top 10 sides in the world in the one-day and Twenty20 formats.

In the last 20 years, it has also emerged as a powerful symbol of national unity in a country riven by civil war and ethnic conflict.

''If you find positive news, if you see people happy together, it's only cricket  ------  that brings it to the country. It's that important to Afghanistan,''  Haq told the BBC. ''It's more than a game for Afghanistan's people.''

That connection with national identity was visible on Afghanistan's independence day - August 19, less than a week after the fall of Kabul.

Afghan cricketers marked it by tweeting pictures and emojis of the tri-color national flag, which the Taliban have replaced with their white banner in areas under their control. [AFP]


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