T20 World Cup 2021: From beacons of hope to symbols of pride – Afghanistan’s soul-stirring journey – Firstcricket News, Firstpost
Last Sunday, the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi witnessed the end of an era in Afghanistan cricket. Without warning, in the middle of the T20 World Cup, a former captain announced his retirement from the international stage. Such dramatic calls often point to a discord within the side, a seemingly irrevocable fractious divide.
It might be a while yet before the exact reason behind Asghar Afghan’s premature, abrupt departure is known, but it can be said without equivocation that he wasn’t nudged out because of dressing-room frictions. Afghanistan’s first Test captain is widely loved and revered within the contours of the team and beyond. As the tears flowed copiously and unchecked, Gulbadin Naib hoisted Afghan on his shoulders in scenes reminiscent of Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble’s last days in international cricket.
Afghan exchanged long, meaningful embraces with every player, every member of the support staff. Through the tears, you could spot pride, contentment and satisfaction on his conflicted visage; there was a touch of hurt too, which he attributed to the heart-breaking loss to Pakistan in the earlier game that hastened his exit from the world stage.
The send-off Afghan was given was in keeping with the brotherhood existing within the team. Mohammad Nabi is helming a side that has – or had, until Afghan’s retirement – three former skippers. Indeed, Nabi was only appointed captain for the World Cup after original choice Rashid Khan cried off. Naib, the Atlas who carried Afghan off the park, had been the captain at the 2019 World Cup in England. Any differences between these individuals exist only in the fertile imagination of conspiracy theorists.
“It was unity and passion that drove us,” Nabi has said of the circumstances under which the Afghanistan team came together in the formative years when they had to flitter from one country to another in search of a training base. “We had formed a close bond in the dressing room – when we had one – and we knew the suffering and agony will pave way for a better future. We were fighters, we were strong and we knew that patience and dedication will help us reach the target.”
Sport has this extraordinary ability to produce tales out of the ordinary, tales that defy belief and bear testimony to the resilience and power of the human spirit. Often, these are about individuals who have braved the odds and come out smiling at the end of what might have appeared an endless ordeal. The entire story of Afghanistan cricket belongs to this genre.
Afghanistan only received their Associate Membership from the International Cricket Council in June 2013. Exactly five years later, they were playing their first Test, against mighty India in Bengaluru. It was the beginning of the end of one fairytale journey, the start of another. Afghanistan’s elevation as a Test team was neither a political statement nor a commerce-driven decision. It was on the back of their cricketing structure and merit, both of whom have been driven exclusively by indigenous talent.
Geographical location made it inevitable for Afghans to gravitate towards cricket sooner than later. British troops introduced the sport to the country in the late 1830s, but it wasn’t until the escalation of violence in Afghanistan at the start of the 1990s and the subsequent exodus of thousands to Pakistan that cricket began to seep into the Afghan culture.
Where kids should have been running around without a care in the world, their life was infested with gun shots and bombs going off in their native land, necessitating them to be ferried to safety across a tenuous border to the neighbouring country. Understandably, equipment was born out of improvisation – a stick of wood became a bat, a tattered tennis ball wrapped in tape aspiring fast bowlers’ weapon of choice.
Their current skipper was bitten by the cricket bug when his family fled to Peshwar; Nabi was only two. Like several other young kids, he learnt the sport in what were then referred to as ‘refugee camps’ – first from the Pakistani soldiers and then, once they were allowed beyond the camps, by playing with Pakistani children in the gullies.
Nabi’s original hero is Wasim Akram but even as a young man, he felt the need to be different, to not conform to type. Bowling in Pakistan then revolved around either running in from a million yards and letting the ball rip or contorting the body ala Abdul Qadir and propelling the little cherry with strong wrists. Nabi turned to off-spin because he ‘wanted to be noticed’. “When all of them were pacers, I chose to be a spinner,” he has been quoted as saying.
Asghar Afghan was Asghar Stanikzai until 2018, when he changed his surname in honour of ‘protecting the national identity of Afghan citizens.’ Rashid Khan, the leg-spinner supreme with the permanent smile, was born Rashid Arman, bang in the middle of 11 brothers and who, like Nabi, grew up in Peshawar a decade later than his captain.
Rashid is a multi-talented individual – or at least he dabbled in a lot of things before cricket became his calling. In Peshawar, he was a computer science student and an occasional English teacher. In his homeland when he played local cricket, he was referred to as ‘Peshawari’; in the Pakistani city in which he went to college, they called him ‘muhajir’ (refugee). He couldn’t care less what they called him, they would soon be hearing a whole lot about him.
Nabi and Rashid are the most famous, but not the only, Afghanistan superstars to have emerged from the refugee camp stables. That’s not their identity, though. The novelty around the beginnings have worn thin now that Afghanistan are no longer mere sentimental favourites. Their cricket is joyous and uninhibited, they carry a joie de vivre that can neither be coached nor imposed. It’s no exaggeration to say they have replaced West Indies as the most universally liked outfit. Despite the professional touch to their cricket, there remains a wonderful spirit of amateurism best illustrated by their gung-ho opening pair of Mohammad Shahzad and Hazratullah Zazai.
“There is always uncertainty, so we look to enjoy the moments as much as we can,” was Nabi’s succinct summation of the smile plastered on Afghan faces during each game. Their enjoyment is reflected in the vibrancy and energy of their fans in the stands and beyond, to whom these heroes have graduated from beacons of hope to symbols of pride.
The uncertainty Nabi referred to is more tangible now, following the Taliban takeover of the country once the US and other troops departed Afghanistan a couple of months back. While the Taliban did eventually endorse the men’s national team, the future of women’s cricket appears bleak. At every step, there is stress and tension, though fear of repercussion has manifested itself in studied silence.
Against this backdrop, to play sport, to play it with a smile and to play it so well is a wonderful tribute to the spirit of Afghan cricket and its extraordinary ambassadors. As they brace to take on India on Wednesday, they are still in with a chance of making the semifinals of the World Cup. Now, that would be quite another story, wouldn’t it?
R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelancer who has been writing on cricket for 30 years. He has reported on more than 100 Test matches and is the co-author of VVS Laxman’s autobiography, 281 And Beyond.
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