By: Aashay Chavan
For the past year or so, spinners have been enjoying a purple patch. This is certainly true for Afghanistan phenom Rashid Khan. The nineteen-year-old is rapidly ascending and his name is gaining buzz as he shatters international records. Khan is the fastest, both in terms of age and number of matches played, to get to 50 international wickets. As of the end of the T20I series against Bangladesh in June 2018, he achieved 100 international wickets. He also is the youngest player to captain an international side. His eight wickets in the Bangladesh series, as well as a fantastic final over to preserve a victory, cemented his status as one of the best spinners in the game.
Another star has emerged in the Bangladesh series: Mujeeb ur Rahman. He is atypical for an Afghani cricketer in that he is the first truly homegrown, truly Afghan player to make the international side. Of the current generation players on the squad, many identify with their tribes rather than their nation. Tribal territory is placed in both the nations of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the common sentiment is that an arbitrary state border drawn by an outside colonial power, ten thousand miles away and many decades ago, does not separate these tribal affiliations. Mujeeb was neither born in Pakistan, nor did he learn his cricket there (in the war refugee camps like Mohammed Nabi, Shapoor, or Asgar Stanikzai). He is a “self-taught” cricketer. He considers himself a student of the game, learning “from YouTube videos, bowling day after day until his fingers and forearms hurt”. This has paid off handsomely in the IPL and in the Bangladesh series.
The man who helped oversee the rise from ‘zero to the top’: Mohammad Nabi - one of the "founding fathers" of Afghanistan cricket. A spin-bowling all-rounder, he has been there from the beginning. He has the fastest 50 and was also the first to 100 wickets. Although he is no longer the captain, the rest of the team still looks to him for advice during matches. All three of these players (Rashid, Mujeeb, Nabi) now star in the biggest league in the world, and this is huge for not only them but their nation; crowds back home gather round any tv they can find.
Having swept their T20 series against Bangladesh, this Afghanistan team is looking to earn the rest of the cricketing world’s respect. The group will face its toughest trial yet from June 14th – 18th: the Test Match in their country’s history, against traditional cricketing power India, in Bangalore.
The most impressive aspect of all this for me is that these are not players who have access to elite facilities and coaches like other nations. Qualification, and subsequent debut, at the one-day World Cup came for Afghanistan in 2015. These were testing times as Afghanistan faced off against powerhouses in Australia, Sri Lanka, India, England, and New Zealand. One could argue that while the expectations were nil, qualification itself was a historic feat; the story is made even more captivating because the team included numerous players who started playing the game in refugee camps near the ever-changing borders of their long-suffering, conflict-ridden country. The players at the World Cup hardly knew any English and a translator was ever-present in their post-match interviews.
One such interview stands out most to me: Shapoor Zadran, Afghanistan’s premier pace bowler, who looks up to Pakistani greats Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar. Shapoor wants to be known like them, on a first-name basis. He was asked what would happen if the Taliban attacked his home (as they had in 1999, when he was 12 years old).
“Taliban like cricket. I am cricketer. Taliban no attack me”.
Despite the setback of a 10-team World Cup in 2019, Afghanistan surely can look to the future. Their young players, led by a three-headed monster of spin, can only be good for the growth of the game in their country. Their energy is contagious. Check back in on June 18th after Afghanistan's historic first Test. I have a feeling that regardless of result, millions of TVs will be tuned in and the energy in Kabul will be electrifying.