Last Sunday, Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium saw the end of an era of Afghan cricket. Without warning, in the middle of the T20 World Cup, a former captain announced his retirement from the international scene. Such dramatic appeals often indicate a discord within the camp, a seemingly irrevocable divisive divide.
It may be some time before the exact reason for Asghar Afghan’s premature and abrupt departure is known, but it can unequivocally be said that he was not nudged due to friction in the locker room. . Afghanistan’s premier test captain is widely loved and revered in the contours of the team and beyond. As tears flowed profusely and unrestrainedly, Gulbadin Naib hoisted Afghan onto his shoulders in scenes reminiscent of Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble’s last days in international cricket.
Afghan exchanged long, meaningful hugs with every player, every support staff member. Through the tears, you could spot the pride, contentment, and satisfaction on her conflicted face; There was also a touch of injury, which he attributed to the heartbreaking loss to Pakistan in the previous game which precipitated his exit from the world stage.
The Afghan farewell was given was in accordance with the brotherhood existing within the team. Mohammad Nabi is at the helm of a team which has – or had, until Afghan retirement – three former skippers. Indeed, Nabi was only named captain of the World Cup after the initial choice of Rashid Khan. Naib, the Atlas who took Afghan out of the park, had been the 2019 World Cup captain in England. Any difference between these individuals exists only in the fertile imaginations of conspiracy theorists.
“It is unity and passion that have driven us” Nabi said the circumstances in which the Afghanistan team came together in the formative years when they had to flit from country to country in search of a training base. “We had formed a close bond in the locker room – when we had one – and we knew the pain and agony would pave the way for a brighter future. We were fighters, we were strong and we knew that patience and dedication would help us achieve the goal.
Sport has this extraordinary capacity to produce unusual tales, tales that challenge beliefs and testify to the resilience and power of the human spirit. Often, these are individuals who braved obstacles and came out smiling at the end of what could have seemed like a never-ending ordeal. The whole history of Afghan cricket belongs to this genre.
Afghanistan did not receive its associate member status of the International Cricket Council until June 2013. Exactly five years later, they played their first test, against mighty India in Bengaluru. It was the beginning of the end of one fairytale journey, the beginning of another. The elevation of Afghanistan as a test team was neither a political statement nor a business decision. It was on the back of their cricket structure and merit, both of which were driven exclusively by native talent.
The geographic location made it inevitable for Afghans to turn to cricket as early as possible. British troops introduced the sport to the country in the late 1830s, but it was not until the escalation of violence in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and the subsequent exodus of thousands to Pakistan as cricket began to infiltrate Afghan culture.
Where children should have run regardless of the world, their lives were plagued by gunfire and bombs exploding in their homeland, forcing them to be transported to safety across a thin border to the neighboring country. Naturally, the equipment was born from improvisation – a wooden stick turned into a bat, a tattered tennis ball wrapped in duct tape sucking up the weapon of choice for fast bowlers.
Their current captain was stung by the cricket bug when his family fled to Peshwar; Nabi was only two years old. Like many other young children, he learned the sport in what were then called “refugee camps”, first from Pakistani soldiers and then, once cleared out of the camps, playing with Pakistani children in the camps. ravines.
Nabi’s original hero is Wasim Akram, but even as a young man he felt the need to be different, not to conform to the type. Bowling in Pakistan then consisted of running a million yards and letting the ball tear or contort the body like Abdul Qadir and propel the little cherry with powerful wrists. Nabi turned to the off-spin because he “wanted to be noticed”. “When they were all leaders, I chose to be a spinner” he was quoted as saying.
Asghar Afghan was Asghar Stanikzai until 2018, when he changed his surname in honor of “protecting the national identity of Afghan citizens”. Rashid Khan, the ever-smiling supreme leg spinner, was born Rashid Arman, amidst 11 brothers and who, like Nabi, grew up in Peshawar a decade later than his captain.
Rachid 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 occasional English teacher. In his native country, when he played local cricket, he was called “Peshawari”; in the Pakistani city where he studied, they called him “muhajir” (refugee). He didn’t care what they called him, they would soon hear a lot about him.
Nabi and Rashid are the most famous Afghan superstars, but not the only ones, to emerge from the stables of the refugee camps. It is not their identity, however. The novelty around the beginnings has worn off now that Afghanistan is no longer just sentimental favorites. Their cricket is happy and uninhibited, they carry a joy of living which can neither be coached nor imposed. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have replaced the West Indies as the most universally beloved outfit. Despite the professional touch to their cricket, there remains a wonderful amateur spirit, best exemplified by their gung-ho opening pair of Mohammad Shahzad and Hazratullah Zazai.
“There is always uncertainty, so we try to make the most of the moments as much as we can,” Nabi summed up briefly with a smile plastered on Afghan faces in every game. Their delight is reflected in the dynamism and energy of their fans in the stands and beyond, for whom these heroes have gone from beacons of hope to symbols of pride.
The uncertainty Nabi referred to is more tangible now, after the Taliban took control of the country after US and other troops left Afghanistan a few months ago. While the Taliban have finally approved the men’s national team, the future of women’s cricket looks bleak. At every step there is stress and tension, although the fear of repercussions has manifested itself in studied silence.
In this context, playing sport, doing it with a smile and playing it so well is a great tribute to the spirit of Afghan cricket and to its extraordinary ambassadors. As they prepare to face India on Wednesday, they still have a chance to advance to the World Cup semi-finals. Now that would be a whole different story, wouldn’t it?
R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer who has been writing about cricket for 30 years. He has reported on over 100 test matches and is the co-author of VVS Laxman’s autobiography, 281 And Beyond.