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Cricket news - The Afghanistan and Nabi chronicles
"Humko laga tha ki sab cricket khatam ho gaya, (We thought our cricket was completely finished.)" Mohammad Nabi recalls the feeling around the Afghanistan team on the evening of their defeat to Hong Kong in the 2006 Asia Cup qualifiers rather grimly. Rain had robbed them of a victory, a chance to be seen on TV, and seemingly their cricketing ambitions forever. 'Sab soch baithe yeh kya ho gaya, ab kya karenge? (We all sat wondering what now?)'
Even though they had one more game remaining - the playoffs for the fifth spot against Nepal - the disappointed bunch had in fact decided to leave the tournament that evening. The gravitas or mere significance of being part of an ICC or ACC organised tournament meant little too them. They hadn't come with any long term goals, and in their minds, that defeat had ended their cricketing picnic. It was time to get back to their routine lives.
But as they sat in their hotel lobby with droopy faces, they were informed by a team official from the UAE team that if they win the game the next day, they could have a chance to qualify to Division 5. And if they kept winning from thereon every year, they would be in with a chance of playing the World Cup qualifiers soon enough. For most in the team, it sounded like too far-fetched a dream, and not surprisingly, very few bought into it, except coach Taj Malik Alam.
The ultimate father figure of Afghanistan cricket in its early days then even went to each room that night to convince the players to play for one last time. "All of us were summoned to the breakfast table early next morning," Nabi recalls. And the playing XI was made out of those who agreed to do his bidding.
Malik's plan worked as the anger of not having qualified for the Asia Cup was vented out against Nepal on the field. "We were all angry and we just kept smashing the ball and crossed 300 and won the match. Aise silisila shuru ho gaya. (that's how it all began)"
The story from thereon has gone on to become one of sport's most heartening tales in the 21st century. Like the UAE official had foreseen, in three years' time, Nabi & Co were playing the World Cup qualifiers. Three years on from fearing their cricket had ended prematurely, they were not just coming back to life but about to embark on a dream run that will continue into the 2019 World Cup in England.
"I always wished there would be an Afghanistan team one day, which I will be a part of." It was the one thought that occupied Nabi's mind and never drifted away during his time as an Afghan refugee in Peshawar.
Almost a decade and a half since, with Afghanistan now having gained Test status and qualified among the top 10 countries for the World Cup, Nabi's once wishful thinking has become reality.
But life in Peshawar was different. His family, like more than 3.3 million more in Afghanistan had crossed over to the neighbouring country, seeking refuge during the Soviet War. "It was totally different from the life we were living in Afghanistan. We were shepherds there. We couldn't bring anything along with us. We were rebuilding our lives, making do with whatever little we had," says Nabi.
He would also get exposed to cricket during his time in Pakistan. And the tricks of the game he would pick up there in years come to would end up defining him and his country's glory. Cricket though was banned by the reigning Taliban in Afghanistan back then during the 1990s.
But when the new government was formed in Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai, an unofficial cricket board was instituted. The board even held trials in Peshawar to form a team. "When we started playing club cricket with hard ball, it was not like I was going to play for Afghanistan. But when we heard that a team was going to be formed, I was very excited and went for the trials."
Nabi was selected in what would be Afghanistan's first-ever squad but even though the civil war in Afghanistan was over, the scars of it hadn't completely gone. Not surprisingly, when he was asked to travel with the team to Afghanistan, his family was apprehensive and didn't allow him to go. "The situation wasn't great back then," says Nabi. Eventually he threw a fit, and convinced his family.
Ironically, he found himself feeling like an alien in his own homeland. "I had food poisoning straightaway. The weather, the food and the water were all different from what I was used to. For a week, I was left bed-ridden, and couldn't play the tournament."
It was his first visit to Kabul, and all he could find there were ruins. "Wherever you saw around, there were bullet marks, everything was destroyed. There was nothing left...
"... surely there was nothing for cricket because no one knew what cricket was."
Afghanistan's rise in cricket may not have set off any great interest in their own land but there was support from the international body and several top cricket boards.
The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) conducted trials for Afghanistan players, where Nabi and Hamid Hasan were selected to represent the MCC youngsters. As a part of the team, they would get to play several county second XIs as well as have international tours.
At times they even got to bowl at international players in the nets, from Sachin Tendulkar to Inzamam-ul-Haq to Kevin Pietersen. Soon it was time for Nabi to help bowl his country to greater heights.
Afghanistan's Division 5 debut was dramatic, beating hosts Jersey in a closely-contested final. "There were celebrations when we returned home after the win. Ministers came to greet us at the airport, fans crowded the streets. That is when we realised we could do it. We had the talent and the blessings of the people."
Afghanistan were accorded ODI status next year. They even beat some of the more established teams like Ireland and Scotland in the World Cup qualifiers but lost to Canada in the final. "Had we beaten Canada, we could have qualified for the 2011 World Cup. Par Allah ne chaha ki hum qualify na ho."
Nonetheless, the disappointment was over-ridden by their qualification for the 2010 T20 WC. It all turned around in a matter of two years.
Though much of Afghanistan's initial success was aided by the boards in England and Pakistan, it was the selection of Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan in the Indian Premier League that gave their players an opportunity to come out as global superstars.
They had already played in the Bangladesh and Pakistan leagues, but there was increasing interest in them even from Australia and the Caribbean. The rise of Nabi and Rashid also saw some of their teammates get a share of the spotlight.
"Our selection in the IPL has made a massive difference because I'm not playing there as Nabi, I'm playing there as an Afghanistan player. Why else would a local channel in Afghanistan buy rights of IPL? It is only because the three of us (Rashid, Mujeeb and Nabi) are playing there. Some are fans of Punjab, some of Hyderabad. Some are even fans of Chennai and Bangalore but they are all watching because Afghanistan players are playing there. When we do well, others in the team ask us if there are other good upcoming talents in the country."
Their global appeal has meant that they have been travelling around the world all through the year. "To be away from the family is a little difficult but this is our life now. It's all a matter of a few years. It's a little tough but we have to explain it to the family. I have four kids, I have to take care of them. If there is time, we call them over - whether it is in Dubai or when our league (APL) is going on. Last year, they were with me during the IPL, they were with me in Dehradun as well for a month. That's how we adjust."
"I, at least, get a chance to go home once in a while but I don't think Rashid has gone home in the last two years."
Nabi is a realist though. He realises that Afghanistan needs a strong feeder system to ensure that their cricket doesn't go down once the current set of cricketers leave. It has happened with countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe in the past.
"We have taken cricket till this point, we have gotten the Test status. Now we want the cricket officials to strengthen the base of our cricket in Afghanistan. If we lose all the top players of the country, our team will go down. We have to strengthen the domestic cricket. If we don't play quality cricket there, we can't play quality cricket at the international level.
"Right now, everyone in Afghanistan wants to become a spinner. Everyone is inspired by Rashid. My own older son is a leggie. Not enough fast bowlers are coming through. We have had good bowlers, talented but we are making turning pitches. If we don't get good pacers, no one will be inspired to take up fast bowling in the next generation."
Nabi has some prudent suggestions too. He believes Afghanistan needs more "A" tours and even more exposure playing the bigger teams. "The talented players need to be put in camps so that they can adjust with the environment of international cricket. Or else, all our growth will go wasted. The good thing is that the talented youngsters, who are coming through, are getting opportunities at the national level now. From my batch, only Asghar and Samiullah are left. The rest are all new. Now look at Ireland, they still have the same set of players with whom I played in 2009."
Apart from player management, he also highlights the need for more and better grounds in the country to make the domestic players better prepared for a higher level of challenge.
"We have a lot of academies but very few grounds to play matches in. If you play in academies all day long, but don't play matches, you won't be able to understand match situations and pressures. In Kabul, we have only three grounds. There are more cricketers and fewer grounds. We don't need big stands but quality grounds. We need match practice to make quality players."
Even as age ceases to catch up with Nabi, and for all his exuberance of 20s, the upcoming World Cup could well be his last 50-over ICC tournament. And despite this being their best team in history, the hopes from them aren't too high. They aren't expected to make it to the semifinals but carry the threat of changing equations with a few upsets. And that's exactly what Nabi wants his team to do.
"Whether we win or lose, we want to play top cricket, just like we did in the Asia Cup. India may have won the tournament but we won hearts. That's exactly what we plan to do in the World Cup. We can give strong competition in all the nine matches. We have to show the world that Afghanistan hasn't turned up just to play, but to win."
"Yeh Afghanistan ab woh Afghanistan nahi hai."
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