We spoke to him at Bush House in London.
“I have to pinch myself to believe it.”
When you were forced to leave Afghanistan during the war with Russia, how old were you?
I was seven when I left. I am 37 now. We have different dates for birthdays; one is which is the Afghanistan calendar which is now 1389 and another one which is 2010. I was born in one year and when we migrated to Pakistan, my parents didn’t know the other year.
How come, unlike the others in the camps who played cricket, they’re good and you’re not?
(Laughs) I never lived in a camp to start with. It was in 1981 when I was living in a colony in Peshawar city which had a few houses and a small ground in the compound. I was standing in front of my door one day when some kids were playing a game, a game I didn’t know. It was similar to baseball but it wasn’t that. The boys wanted an additional player and so they asked me to join in and so I went. In the first hour, they handed the ball to me and I bowled and liked it as well. I used to then watch it on TV but other Afghan families and mine hated cricket and they didn’t allow me to watch it. I remember taking the TV to the bathroom and watching it in there secretly. There were so many Afghans who used to watch cricket secretively. Eventually even my family got hooked to cricket and they started watching too. I never took cricket seriously because I played football for my college and club but at the same time I played cricket too.
|Emal with Afghanistan captain Nawroz Mangal
© Leslie Knott
At that time around you in Peshawar, did you know of the talent that existed? How many Afghans live in Peshawar?
I was not aware of the abundance of talent and even now the number of Afghans living in Pakistan is still not clear. The figure is between two to three million and after some of them came in and returned home, the figure is approximately ten million. Back in the 80s, there were one or two Afghans playing in a Peshawar club. Asghar Stanikzai, the current national player, used to play for that club. I remember there was a fast bowler who was very quick and people used to say that he was a refugee. When we used to watch them play, we used to be secretly proud to have them playing in Pakistan. Even in the camps, cricket prospered late. It wasn’t in the 80s, it was later. In another camp where Shahpoor and Dawlat Ahmadzai started playing, I remember kids only started playing in the late 80s or early 90s.
Was there any sense of rivalry between locals and Afghan players?
It was not in cricket, it was in football. Afghan refugees had their own teams in football and they used to play hard. They had one or two of their own clubs and there was a rivalry with the locals. In cricket, because the Afghans didn’t have a club there was no such thing. There were one or two Afghans playing within the Pakistani club and so no one noticed them and nobody bothered to notice them as somebody else. They spoke the same language, they grew up in the same streets and they were friends from the beginning.
|With Afghanistan national cricketer Noor Ali Zadran
© Leslie Knott
Looking back at what the current crop of players has come from – we see them as champions in life, let alone in cricket. Did you have that similar struggle?
I had no such experience. I was one of the very, very few lucky Afghans to get an education within the Pakistani schools. Most Afghans were not allowed to be in the Pakistani schools. Only after a while at the college level some of them were allowed but very few were permitted to study in their schools. They were let into the city rather than in the camps. At least there was electricity and gas in the city but in the camps there was no clean water, no electricity, nothing. The Peshawar heat was also terrible and so in that sense I was a lucky guy.
Thinking about the Afghan cricketers, I would’ve never, ever made it even if I had the talent of Hamid Hassan. I’m not nearly mentally as strong as them. They started a game from scratch which inside Afghanistan people not only didn’t know much about, but at that time also hated it. They thought of it as a Pakistani game, they thought of it as an English game, English colonization and so most of the Afghans hated cricket. Cricketers started a game that everyone was against and it wasn’t like football where you play for an hour or so. It needs your full dedication so most of the people wanted their sons to work and earn something for the family and yet they were playing. So, it was terribly difficult but nowadays it might be easier for a parent to allow their son to play cricket because one day the child can play for Afghanistan and one day they will make their name in the game and possibly earn some money as well. But in those days, it needed someone who was 100% dedicated and someone who would accept all the struggles, all the hurdles. Personally, for me I just couldn’t do that.
How did you get from Peshawar to the BBC in London?
I would link it somehow to cricket. I got a scholarship from an English college and I remember going to the Peshawar British Council and they had a library. I used to go there to read British newspapers for the cricket county season. At that time I remember a Pakistani there called Salim Malik (not THE Saleem Malik) who used to play for Kent. He was very stylish and I liked and followed him and so I was looking for a college in Kent and I found one in Canterbury and luckily it was just a short trip from the Canterbury ground. It was winter when I went there so there was no cricket but everyday I used to go to that ground just to see it.
I wanted to leave Peshawar and go abroad for so many reasons – for education, work, to be safe. But I never, ever thought I would go to a country where there is no cricket or football. That way England was perfect for me because there were these two sports and I loved Arsenal Football Club. So I came for Arsenal and for cricket and England was good for me. I joined BBC in late 1994 as a part-timer then in 1996 I joined full-time. On and off my education was interrupted but I managed to do something in media. BBC itself has been more than a university for me.