Khurram Khan : UAE Champion

UAE captain Khurram Khan, 38, is one of the classiest players on the circuit. On and off the field his immaculate and unhurried style has made him stand out from all his peers. His matches for the UAE national team are laced with fine performances with bat and ball from the day he started playing for them and for long he has been the wicket opponents have prized the most. He spoke to us in Kuala Lumpur, a few hours after signing off from his duties as purser on an Emirates flight.

“Captaincy helps my game and it’s something that’s inbuilt.”

How long have you been playing for the UAE?
I started playing in July 2001 and my first tournament was the ICC Trophy in Canada.

What took you to the UAE?
I was always playing back home and my brother was here in Dubai. He was constantly asking me to come here because there was a club where I could play. When I finished my university in Pakistan I got offered a job in the UAE soon after.

Were you always working with Emirates Airlines from the start of your time in the UAE?
Yes, I started working with Emirates in 1999. I think Arshad Ali and I were the first to qualify under the four-year rule to be able to play for the UAE.

Have you always played for Fly Emirates?
For two or three seasons I played for a club called Tariq Cricket Club, Multan in Pakistan which was a very good team. And then I played for Emirates. The good thing was I always used to play in a team which reached the final or won tournaments and so I got to play more matches and win which boosted my confidence.

How quickly did you get noticed as a cricketer in UAE?
To be honest, I was noticed very quickly because the first game I played for was the team I finally got a job in, I scored an unbeaten 100 and got two wickets. It was a difficult track because it was cement and the ball didn’t turn at all. I batted and fielding very well that day. After that very first game, I got the job as well!

Do you ever think that if you’d stayed in Pakistan you could have played for them?
I’m just happy with what I’ve achieved so far. There can be a lot of ifs and buts but I really am happy with the decisions I’ve made regarding my cricket.

Have you found that standards at club-level have increased since you first came?
I think that as far as the facilities are concerned, definitely things have improved. When we started playing there was only one ground which was the Sharjah Cricket Stadium and the rest all were cement and hard tracks where we couldn’t even field. Cricket-skills wise, there is also definite improvement as well and naturally so, because of the increase in cricket grounds and turf wickets. It has its ups and downs though.

Your generation of players, who are now in their 30s, many of them are in the national team. Is the younger talent drying up now?
I don’t think it’s drying up. There are lots of youngsters who are playing. The clubs in Dubai have under-12, under-14 and under-16 tournaments and this is very good. If you have these youngsters playing now, they will surely come up to the national team in the future. There is definitely no shortage in talent.

There is an issue now of having to include local players in age-group ACC tournaments. Is this an issue that can be resolved for the UAE?
It has to be seen from a different perspective. Let’s take myself for example, I have been living in the UAE for 13 years and still I am considered an expatriate. Lots of the guys who play are born in the UAE but are Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan and they too are still considered to be expats. This is the rule of the country because they do not give out passports. Whereas if I were in Scotland or Ireland it would be different because they have Indians and Pakistanis but they are now Scottish or Irish. It’s just a different way of looking at it. We have different regulations and it is the way it is where we are not going to get passports. If I were in any other country, I would’ve gotten a passport. There are locals coming up but it’s not a large amount of people.

Cricket is a great game. Would you see any reason why a local Arab would not want to play?
Most of them who are playing have basically been living or educated abroad like in India, Pakistan or even Australia. All these countries love cricket and this is where they learn the game from. Being in the UAE, there are other sports, like football. This is the main reason they don’t play. Twenty20 has brought in a lot of interest into the game which is very positive. If you go to the nets now you will find it hard to practice because there are so many people playing. The numbers will go up after other T20 tournaments.

How often do you get to practice?
Normally we practice three days a week. It’s not an easy schedule to follow because all of us work. Some of us work from 8am to 5pm and some have shifts which makes it difficult. Some of our players have to travel from Abu Dhabi which is two hours away. You finish work at 6 in the evening and travel two hours, practice, and it’s another two hours back. They only reach home way past midnight and the next day is work again. Therefore it’s very hard to keep up.

If you’re flying and away on work most of the time like me, then I’ve got a different fitness plan that I’ve got to work on every day. I take my elastic fitness bands along with me whenever I fly, wherever I am and do a lot of push-ups every day.

UAE’s fielding has been the best in recent tournaments. Any idea why?
Well, it all adds up to the fitness levels. If you’re not fit enough then it definitely won’t help you in the field. You just have to be professional and work hard. If cricket here can be made into a profession so you work at it just like in an office then cricket standards will improve. It should just be cricket. Afghanistan’s cricketers just play cricket and earn some money from the game and look how far they’ve come.

How does UAE now raise its game now that other teams are catching up?
These things are always in the back of your mind but you have to leave them alone if you want to compete against teams like Ireland, Scotland and Afghanistan. We have to work hard and a plan has been given to every player. We are also now organizing training in Abu Dhabi cricket stadium. We’ve not done this before and we hope this will raise out fitness levels.

At the end of the day, you aim to play good cricket.
Exactly. There are a lot of teams playing good cricket. Like Afghanistan, they have improved and are far better than what they used to be. Over the last year plus, whatever they touched has turned to gold for them. I have been following their cricket and keep a track on what’s happening. They deserve to be there and are winning all the time. The last time we met them was in South Africa for a 50-over game and we beat them quite easily and that was in the first round. After that they went on to beat Canada and Ireland and get ODI status.

Cricket is an art. It’s not something you can just learn in a couple of years. It’s obvious the Afghans have been playing for a long time.

When did you first start playing cricket and why do you like it so much?
I can’t even recall. Back home in Multan when you start walking you have a bat in your hand. My brothers, Atiq and Zeeshan, were first-class cricketers in Pakistan and that helps a lot. I still remember we used to have a very small house and around 14 cousins of mine and I used to play in the very small courtyard.

Your style is to play the ball very late. How did that come about?
I think it came because the wickets in Dubai and UAE turn in cracks and are generally very slow. Therefore if you’re early you won’t know what’s happening so you have to wait for the ball and play quite late. When you’ve been playing for a long time, you get used to this style. I’m not a hard hitting batsman, I wait and just play.

Did you have any cricketing heroes while you were growing up?
Most definitely. I used to love Saeed Anwar when he used to open for Pakistan.

Does your son play cricket?
I’m trying to push my six-year-old Zain but he’s not interested at the moment. When I go back to Pakistan for 20 days, he comes back and starts playing cricket because everybody plays there. After a month it generally dies down. In his school, there’s no cricket but in a year or so I’m going to put him in a coaching class.

What have been your best moments in cricket?
It is definitely winning the man-of-the-match against Sri Lanka where I took four wickets in the 2004 Asia Cup. Then in the game against Bangladesh in the 2008 Asia Cup I scored 78 runs.

You were captain for quite a while. When exactly did you start?
I think I was captain in the second game I played for UAE. The first game was in Canada, the second was an ACC tournament. Our original captain had to return home and after that I was appointed.

Does captaincy add to your game and make you a better player?
It depends on you. You can take advantages of choosing where you’d like to bat or when you’d bowl but as a captain you have a bigger responsibility to the youngsters in the team. I’m very cool and relaxed and always give a chance to the youngsters to develop their game. Captaincy helps my game and it’s something that’s inbuilt. I used to captain back home in Pakistan and after that in my university as well. It’s never a burden and I have a picture in my head when I’m on the field. It comes naturally.

You’ve played without a coach and also with one. What do you think a coach adds to a good cricketer?
I think coaches have a very big responsibility of improving the technical aspects of cricket as well as have a psychological effect on the players. Lots of players can’t handle pressure well and so if you have a good coach who’s positive and confident, the same mentality will be taken up by the players. That is what the coach’s role is.

Does the club and local cricket in the UAE prepare the players to deal with international cricket?
The biggest difference is playing in UAE and playing against an elite team in the ACC or ICC. When you are batting in UAE, everybody knows you and knows your style and how you play. Whereas in other competitions, people are always talking and trying to put you off your game by constantly saying things to you and it can get a bit hard. These kinds of things are now part of the game so you just have to learn how to handle it.

What made you put in all the hard work to play cricket?
I used to play with a soft tennis ball in my own backyard with cousins and after that I never played cricket with a hard ball until I was in university. I started playing proper cricket very, very late. I got success in my career very early for my club and that encouraged me a lot. I went to Lahore for a Super 6s tournament and we were an unknown, small club. There were 60 teams and we won that tournament and I was the man of the tournament. I was not a big hitter and so I just pushed and placed the ball and got runs. The PCB chairman Mr. Bukhari was distributing the prizes and he was very impressed and I got three of four job offers after that and this was also very encouraging for me. I played for the Tariq Cricket Club and it was basically the start of my career.

In your career or in the field does one thing lead to another naturally or do you have to plan?
It’s a bit of both. I’ve worked very hard and I always believe in myself as a cricketer. When I came to UAE, there were all cement wickets and I couldn’t hit the ball as hard as the others who would smack the ball all around the field. When they built the turf wickets all over I was very confident and I thought that now is going to be my time.

How will the UAE fill that gap in talent when you and national team players of your age retire at the same time?
The best thing is to keep producing youngsters and encourage them by given them a chance to play more. They will need some time to adjust and when they play with us they can improve and go on and take part for UAE.

Do you think ACC Trophy champions can go on to beat countries like Ireland, Scotland or Canada?
The thing is these teams play a lot more cricket. Like for the Irish players, they play in the UK in their domestic season which has Dutch players as well. Scottish players also play there. They are all playing county cricket and strong cricket and that is how they improve but in Asia the Test-playing nations should invite the smaller Asian cricketing nations to play a higher level of cricket. We can have tournaments where we play against their A teams. This will help us improve a lot. In a lot of cases, after the players confirm their place in the team, they have to pull out at the last minute because they are called back to work. Cricket also needs to be professionalised after which there will be a definite improvement in all countries.

Of the four wickets you took against Sri Lanka in the 2004 Asia Cup, which was the best delivery?
It was actually the match before, in the game against India. This was the day before the Sri Lanka match and I was bowling to Yuvraj. It was my tenth over and off the first five balls no runs were scored. The last ball he tried a huge shot and got bowled. That was a great feeling and it was a left-arm spinner against a left-handed batsman so to get him out was something.

Do you keep all your prizes and other cricketing memorabilia?
I try to; all the newspapers clippings and all that stuff. It’s taking up a lot of space in my house but I just can’t bring myself to throw it away.

Basheer Stanikzai : Managing Afghanistan

Basheer Stanikzai, 25, is a veteran of Afghanistan’s campaign to achieve ODI status. Active in Afghan cricket administration for six years, he has been with the team through all its successes and soul-searching setbacks. Hard-working, capable, and thanks to his financial and social independence, seemingly above the pull of tribalism and malfeasance which has muddied his country’s progress in certain arenas, he has won the respect of many by doing his job well.

He spoke to us after the conclusion of Afghanistan’s matches at the ICC World T20 in Barbados, where he was Team Manager.

“It was very, very hard to get to this stage but we are here now.”

How long have you been with the Afghan team?
I have been involved with the Afghanistan cricket team since June 2003 and I have worked at different posts in the Afghanistan Cricket Board. This time I’m the Team Manager at the ICC World Twenty20. I was appointed as the Assistant Manager of the team at the 2006 and 2008 ACC Trophy and World Cricket League Division Five. I was then the Team Manager at the World Cricket League Division Four and the ACC U-17 Challenge Cup in Thailand that year.


How do you explain the rise of Afghanistan cricket?
There were a lot of things the team has been working on. It was not for money or to become famous, they were playing for the nation. The good thing about this team is that they don’t like losing matches. One loss in a tournament may be good because it will keep them in check and they won’t take it easy. When they keep winning, they may take it easy so it is good once in a while to lose.

ICC Division Five in 2008 was a very hard tournament because the conditions were not favouring the batsmen but the team worked hard and we won that tournament. In Division Four when we got a new coach Kabir Khan, he worked mentally on the players.The team plays with a lot of honour and pride for Afghanistan and it was very, very hard to get to this stage but we are here now.

When did you first start getting interested in cricket?
In Pakistan I was playing cricket with all my friends. Actually my father was in Kabul and in 2001 he asked the entire family to come there. I finished my class 10 and came to an English language centre in Jalalabad and finished my class 11 and 12 . Then around 2001 and 2002 I went to Kabul and was very upset there because I didn’t have any friends. My friend then told me that there was cricket in the city. I went to see and it was (national player) Khaleqdad Noori’s club and I asked about the fees. He said it was 300 Afghani and then I said I’d pay 500 Afghani because I wanted to play a lot of cricket. I didn’t get any batting or bowling in the first 15 to 20 matches but just fielding. One day I caught a very good catch and from then on they gave me a chance and I got even more interested in the game.

Did you ever think of trying to play for the national team?
Actually I would love to play for my nation but it was difficult to have top fitness and Taj Malik, Karim Sadiq and other players trained hard. We do not have any experts in cricket but Taj and I used to practice but it would be a big moment for me to even play one game for Afghanistan.


Weren’t you once in the national Under-17 squad?
Yes, Khaleqdad and I once organized a short 15-day tour to Mohali. Our U-17 team went and had training and a tournament there. We made that team jointly. In that team we had Karim, Nabi, Hamid, Noor Ali, Samiullah who are all in the national team now. I joined for those 15 days and I really enjoyed it. There was a lot of training involved for that.

When did Afghanistan first open up to cricket?
I think it was in 1996 when the World Cup was in Pakistan. There was a lot of cricket in Peshawar and in school everyday there were matches and so I learnt cricket there. I love to watch Ricky Ponting play and previously it was Brian Lara. Even at home my son who is 2 ½ asks me to turn off the TV because I watch so much cricket. I love to watch international cricket and it helped me learn a lot of things like by listening to the commentary. I learned things like the shots hit by batsmen and many other things about the game by watching international cricket.

When did you first start realise that Afghanistan could be a good cricketing team?
It was on the Under-17 tour. They had a lot of passion for their country. They wanted to play and do everything well when they wore the national jersey. Our team has a lot of courage. From Division Five we knew we could go higher. We hate to lose. Losing hurts even more than the joy of winning and I think that is a good sign for a successful team.

How do you rate the team now?
We are a nation that can compete in the 50-overs World Cup, not just T20. We beat Ireland on the way here to the Twenty20 World Cup. Ireland prepare themselves very well and it was a good chase of 134 against them in the Twenty20 Qualifier Final because they are a strong bowling and fielding side. And in the WorldT20 we were with India and South Africa, two top-ranked teams in the world. It is a good experience for our players to play against such top-class cricketers.

After this tournament the players will want to work harder and compete strongly against any other team. I believe they will now easily beat teams from the ACC as well as the ones in the World Cricket Leagues. These games will give our boys a lot of courage because they now know they have played against the best in the world. What we need is to arrange a few more international matches to train the team and raise their performance.


How do you make the administrative side of Afghan cricket as strong as the team?
That will take a lot of time. First of all, everybody should work for administration and not run behind the team to chase their own success. My idea is this – leave the team to the respective technical people and the administration has to concentrate on marketing and finance. These departments are currently weak and we should have big policies. If we have financial policies we can think about how much we can pay our players, where to invest the funds and the marketing policies should concentrate on sponsors and things like that like the one we just got from Supreme Group which was a very good contract.

Right now we have a very well known figure as our Chairman who is Dr. Omar Zakhilwal who is also Afghanistan’s Finance Minister and he has promised to take cricket to a very high level. Even Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has given his vote to build this game in the nation. There will be a lot of pressure on administration after this because the team have reached the stage where they want to be and they have played there. Now it will be up to the administration to give courage to the team to go above that level. The team has reached that very high level but the administration has a long way to go. It will take some work to develop that area. We must concentrate on developing the domestic game to find new players. If I was working in administration, I would make plans and strategies for the game in Afghanistan. If we work hard for three years on administration, even if we don’t get to the level of Bangladesh or Pakistan, we can make the game a lot better. We can have more grounds to play on and there will be more support for cricket. There is already huge support for the team in Afghanistan and every shop and home who had a television was watching our game against India.

Are you sure you will stay on in administration?
I am very happy that I work honestly for Afghanistan Cricket. It all depends on the cricket board if they give me a chance to continue or not. I haven’t asked for anything from the Board that gave me this post. They have put me in marketing, I have proven my abilities, they gave me team management, I have done well at this also. I was Director of the National Cricket Association as well. When I saw the nets and pitches, I did a marketing job and got practice sessions for the players. If you want to prove yourself, then you can do any job. Whatever they want me to work as, I will work for Afghanistan Cricket.

How will the team stay strong after players from the current team retire?
Unfortunately there are some of the guys who’ve played in the national squad might retire soon. We have some very talented players waiting to play in the national team. There is Shahidi who is only 15 years old. He is very talented and plays like Sangakkara. He will surely become Afghanistan’s Sangakkara in the future. There is Ahmadi as well who is a great batsman and also Najibullah Zadran who is a left-handed batsman. He is a very strong, positive player. There will definitely be changes in the current team and it will happen soon but there are good upcoming players. Currently we have very good bowlers in Hamid, Mirwais and Shahpoor and these three will be in the squad for a long time. Hamid cannot take rest because he wants to play every match. There are new bowlers also coming up so they can surely perform at the top level.

Right now in Afghanistan how many people do you think can play good cricket?
There are a lot of them. As I said there are a lot of upcoming players. Recently we had a tournament in Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces. There is a lot of talent in these places but unfortunately there is no development of the game. Every chance we get we try to train them and there are so many of them. Most of them who play cricket, we have to tell them to get certain equipment, even shoes at times. When we select the Under-15 and Under-17 squads, it is hard to pick players because there are so many of them who are good. They just need a little assistance and we have to give them a chance and then cricket will benefit from that.

If you become the Marketing Manager, would you welcome the assistance from outside NGOs?
Yes I will appreciate the help. First I will make a strategy plan and marketing policies. Then I will look for a big domestic sponsor who can give title name to each of our tournaments to run our domestic cricket and then a special sponsor for our national cricket team. After that I will concentrate on marketing, which unfortunately we haven’t worked on. We now have a ground in Sharjah and we can get benefits from that. There are a lot of sponsors in Afghanistan, Dubai and in India. Maybe Afghanistan will be keen on Indian sponsors.

I will need a team to work on these projects. They will have to work very hard and honestly. If we get a sponsor for the national team for at least three years, then we can focus on domestic cricket as well. There will then be development and we can get sponsors for academies and other institutions like having one ground in each region so that it will help develop the game in Afghanistan.

How will you use the ground in Sharjah?
That is a big thing for us all. We have to make use of the ground. However, until now there is no contract between Emirates Cricket and Afghanistan Cricket on what conditions we can use the ground. The new administration is working on that right now so we are hoping something will happen. I have discussed with (ECB Administrator and ACC Executive Board member) Mazhar Khan this issue and am planning to invite teams to play against us. We will try to invite the ‘A’ teams from the Test-playing nations, maybe the UAE and even the Zimbabwe teams. This will bring a lot of sponsors and we can do a lot of marketing on this event.

Do you think people in Afghanistan like the team?
Back in Afghanistan there is a huge amount of respect for them. Even ministers ask about the team. Local people love the team and are supporting the team strongly in every single game they play. Even in the media, we can see how after playing against us even Dhoni said the team is good and in two years or so it can become a very good side. It’s a good sign for us that even the team we are playing against is happy for us. They are playing and also supporting us. In the supporters there weren’t just Afghans at the Twenty20 World Cup, I have even seen British people support our team. Some of them have come from London as well and brought the flag thinking that they’d be the only supporters of Afghanistan here. But they weren’t.

Afghan Star : Mohammad Nabi

Mohammad Nabi, 24, is not only one of Afghanistan’s best cricketers, he is one of Asia’s. An off-spinning all-rounder, he takes wickets and scores runs with an ease and grace that makes the game look very simple. Soft-spoken and modest, his calmness belies an intense competitive temperament. Invariably, when he does well Afghanistan does well.

We caught up with him in Dubai, on the eve of 2010’s ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, where a top two finish would take Afghanistan to the West Indies and games against the best in the world.

“I watched Saqlain’s doosra. Then I did it until I had it.”

I was 10 years old when I started cricket. In Peshawar, in a refugee camp

I first saw cricket on television in Pakistan, then tennis-ball cricket in front of me.

I finished my school in Pakistan, all the time playing tennis-ball cricket.

I never knew Afghanistan could play cricket. I never knew I could play cricket but every day I enjoyed playing.

In the countryside of Jalalabad even now there is big crowd whenever we play cricket.

Young boys in Afghanistan play a lot of cricket now.

In Afghanistan my name is famous but not many know my face, because cricket is only on the radio. In Peshawar, my face is famous but not many know my name.

Kevin Pietersen is my favourite player, I met him in England in 2006. And of course Shahid Afridi.

Like Shahid Afridi, who is really Afghani, with my brothers I have a car business.

Cricket has taken me to 12 countries, some – JerseyTanzania, I never knew before.

I have played in Pakistan club cricket for Customs one-day matches and three first-class matches for Afghanistan.

In 2006 I played for MCC with Hamid Hassan. It was a good experience. We played a 2-day game and two 1-day games.

Against Saqlain Mushtaq in Sussex, I was watching him. I saw his doosra. I didn’t ask him anything, I kept trying it like his action. When I came back to Pakistan I could bowl it.

Whenever I bowl I put the ball in good areas and see how the batsman copes.

We have good players. If we have good facilities we will go up. We have no physio and no trainer. There is one gym in Jalalabad only. Others have facilities – they have jobs and play cricket. We just play cricket which is good in one way because we play. We cannot make money from cricket.

We get a small salary from the Board, it is more than many in Afghanistan so we do not complain but the Board could do more for the players and cricket.

I have no personal targets, when I do my best for Afghanistan then I am happy.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe will be good competition for us.

Dawlat Ahmadzi : Afghan Original

Afghanistan opening bowler Dawlat Ahmadzai, 25, speaks of his epic journey from war-torn Afghanistan to the ICC WorldTwenty20.

“Some players used to walk one or two hours across mountains at night just to play cricket.”

I wasn’t born in a hospital. My father told me that when Russia came to Afghanistan, two or three years later I was born in Pakistan in the refugee camp.
I saw Pakistani boys playing cricket and that time I heard that cricket takes a very long time to play. But still I was interested.
They used to play cricket outside the camps and inside we were playing volleyball. The refugee camp I was in was very big. It was called Swabi and had a hundred thousand homes in it. I remember seeing Imran Khan for the first time on TV when Pakistan won the World Cup and they were all celebrating. After that my brother made a bat and we started playing cricket.

We were always hearing about the war and listening to the radio and they were discussing about the mujahideen (freedom fighters) and how they captured certain areas and a lot of people were killed everyday. In our province, Logar, all the elder people were talking about that area and how many people died there and how all the trees were burned. It was very painful to hear.

The Russians completely destroyed our homes. If we had stayed there, then we too would’ve died surely.
We had to walk four or five kilometres to get to school outside the camp. It wasn’t like we were behind fences like in prison or anything and every morning we’d get milk and food.

Actually we are a very big family. We are from a tribe called Namdhari and it consists of around 4000 people. We live together in one area and in Afghanistan we have huge lands and a village and also in Pakistan we lived together and worked.

There were different tribes from all over who came together in the refugee camps. We were all living in tents and after some time we made rooms and walls by using the mud. Yes, the winters were cold. We used to burn wood to keep ourselves warm. In summer, we used to go to school in the morning and that time it was OK but in the afternoons it would get very, very hot.

When I was young my father and uncles used to ask me what I wanted to become. At times I used to say I wanted to become a good doctor at first but I had no idea I would become a cricketer.

Right from the start I was always a bowler. From outside the camp, boys came from Peshawar and played with us and I used to join them. We played with a rubber ball. There weren’t many other sports other than volleyball. We also used to have something like shot-put which we called ‘heavy rock’.

My elder brother Hazratul brought a TV from Peshawar to my village. It was the first TV in the entire village at that time but some people weren’t happy about this. They said things like we were not supposed to watch TV. When I watched cricket on TV, nothing else mattered.

In 1996, when Sri Lanka won the World Cup, we came to Peshawar. It was filled with people playing cricket and at that time there was a famous cricket team called Nazrat cricket team. They were winning all the tournaments in different areas. Firstly they told me to just learn cricket when I was with them and after six months I became a fast bowler in their team. We won a lot of tournaments.

I really liked Waqar Younis. I really like his bowling action and actually learnt a lot from him. It is a pretty good feeling to see him watching me play in the World Cup (as Afghanistan were playing India Pakistan and their coach Waqar Younis were at the ground preparing for their match against Bangladesh).

In 2001 I was a teacher at a computer course. The course was run by the cousin of Allah Dad Noori and he came to the course and he was discussing Afghanistan cricket with his cousin. That is when I told him I too was a cricketer. The ICC and ACC wanted a letter from the new Afghanistan government (following liberation from Russia and the end of civil war) and I said I could help as I knew good English. So I went with him to Kabul. Just before we decided to go to Kabul, he had announced the trials for the Afghanistan team in Peshawar. A lot of people came there and he selected 25 players. After that we went to Kabul and Allah Dad Noori and Daulat Jaji who was a selector at that time, told me that I was a good bowler.

The players then were more or less the same as now. Karim was always trying to hit the ball and always thinking about big sixes and Raees was also a big hitter back then.

Many times they hit me for 6, many times I got them out. Then we decided to make a tournament in Kabul. I had done a lot of work in the ground. A lot of players came from different provinces. Logar, my team, lost the final of that tournament and the province of Parwan won the tournament.

At that time we had no idea Afghanistan could play international cricket When Allah Dad Noori told us that we have a tour to Pakistan playing a Grade 2 cricket tournament there were 26 boys and our coach was Naeem Ahmed. I asked him ‘what do you think our future is in cricket?’. He told me if you have a future in cricket, it will bring you to almost every country and he said to respect cricket, everything in it, from shoes to helmet. And to eat less at lunch! He also said you can play in the World Cup and ODIs if you worked hard. The team never thought of it that way, that people would see us on TV. We just played cricket. We respect his words very much now and understand what he was saying.

In 2001 we were still crossing over from Kabul to Peshawar to play cricket. We were still not with the ICC or ACC. We used to join different clubs and play for them. I joined Dev Sports and Malik Sports clubs. They were really nice clubs and the owner of Malik Sports had a good relation with Afghanistan cricketers and Karim, Nawroz and I played for him and Malik is one of the clubs that won the Pakistan club championships. In 2003 we got membership from the ACC and in 2004 we went to Malaysia for the first ACC Trophy. The boys were inexperienced there but we learnt a lot from that tournament.

Crossing the border was always interesting. One time Raees had to be a bus-conductor in order to get across, another time, it was so late at night, there were no buses and we traveled across the border with some sheep in a truck. The guards at Turkham were always aggressive and suspicious and getting across was never pleasant but it made us more determined to do well in the cricket once we got across.

For the future cricketers of Afghanistan we just bring the cricket of Afghanistan and show it to the people and now no one can say that ‘I don’t have a future in cricket’. We feel we have a bright future in cricket and with hard work we will all succeed in the team. There are many problems but in cricket we want to improve and develop everyday.

The proudest achievement is all our success over the years. From Division 5, Division 4, Division 3 to getting ODI status in Division 1 and qualifying for the T20 World Cup.

There is a lot of mental toughness in everyone. Some players used to walk one or two hours across mountains with cricket gear on their backs at night just to play cricket. We just had a good feeling about being good cricketers. We would’ve never guessed we’d be playing in a World Cup, we just play for Afghanistan.

Now there is a lot of talent and we have got exposure to international cricket. Now we can say we can play against big teams. We just have to keep playing well and in the future we will surely win more games.

After the current players retire, they will start coaching and they can scout new talent. We also have a good Under-19 team and from the junior teams we can pick new players for the senior squad. If they can create good junior teams, then it will be good.

People tell me that I can do more work for Afghanistan cricket. Even I think I can help develop cricket because I know the conditions and I can also build a good foundation for cricket. I will also work hard to help improve the game. I do have some ideas. Afghanistan can be divided into four zones and each zone should have Under-15, Under-16 and Under-19 teams and also a senior team. Then we can make tournaments between the zones and also within the zones themselves. If this is done, we can create strong junior teams and the future of Afghanistan cricket will be bright. We can also spread cricket in this way and start building grounds as well.

We need a financial policy, a marketing policy and a development policy. There is USAID who can spend US$100 million on developing sport in Afghanistan. The Governor of Loghar is very well known to me and my family has land almost as big as Barbados in Afghanistan some of which we can use for cricket. Every child and parent is now pro-cricket.

I’ve played international cricket against teams like India, travelled the world playing for Afghanistan so I am very happy. Now I would like to see Afghanistan do well as an ODI nation.

Emal Pasarly : Tracking Afghanistan’s Rise

Emal Pasarly, 37, of the BBC Pashto service has been following Afghanistan’s cricketing success longer than anyone else. His informed insights have shaped his countrymen’s understanding of the game and he has played a significant part in building support for his country’s greatest export.
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.

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.

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.


And it has been the BBC from the start?
Back in those earlier days we had a colleague who used to do a sports program. The program was about cricket and other sports but there was no terminology for cricket in Pashtun. So when I started the sports program, I started trying to explain cricket to our audience because no one knew what a bat, batsman or a bowler was. It was a struggle but when the Afghan team managed to win tournament after tournament, through being online, we managed to get lot of new words in Pashtun. Thanks to our audience as well, we used phrases for four and six. It was a combination effort between us and our audience to get some words for the game.

So Afghans have adopted cricket culture by bringing those cricket terms into their own language.
People didn’t know the fielding positions yet because the Afghan team was never on television. Online and on radio you can explain things. I was struggling to explain what is called leg-bye. Everytime I had to explain about the powerplay rules and that you could only have two fielders outside the circle and things like that. But now that people are watching it on TV, they will be asking what silly mid-on and slip is and other things.

How many listeners do you get on your stream?
I started the coverage of the Afghan national team since 1996-1997. The first time under the leadership of Allah Dad Noori Afghanistan went to Pakistan. We started from then but of course there wasn’t too many people following it. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2004 when Afghanistan played in the ACC Trophy we started reporting online and later on giving it live coverage in those games. I remember for one game we received more than 12,000 emails from all over Afghanistan and other parts of the world, but by the time the team got qualification to the T20 World Cup in 2010, I thought the Afghan media was focused on cricket. They have more competitions now but I would say BBC was the pioneer in the coverage of Afghanistan cricket. Now the local radios are giving live commentary and TV crews are being sent to record the game to be played later on and even the T20 World Cup some stations showed it live. The game has changed.

How many people do you think watched the game on Shamshad TV?
For the second game against South Africa, the game started at 1:30 in the morning Afghan time but still people watched. Apparently even President Karzai called the TV station to find out the schedule of the game and wanted to watch it. When I spoke to my family, they knew everything about the coverage and even noticed me in a glimpse on the TV. People from all parts of the country watched the first game against India when it was earlier in the evening. Later on from youtube, they watched the highlights. The interviews I did with Kabir and some players are the most visited stories on our website and our site is visited by millions of people from all over. That itself shows the interest of the people. I was lucky to be sent by the BBC to the West Indies and was the only Afghan journalist there. Raees Ahmadzai gave me his Afghan flag and it was visible whenever the TV cameras were on the press box people told me afterwards.

Did you watch the team play first in 1996-1997 or hear about them on the radio?
The first time I saw something about Afghan cricket was when a colleague of mine was in Kabul and he said he saw some people playing cricket there. He helped them with some bats and balls and he was the one who told me first about it. I then found out about Allah Dad Noori and then I got his telephone number and spoke to him during the tour and asked him about the team and wrote stories about a team that I never saw. Later on particularly after 2004/2005 I met a member of the Afghan team and I followed them regularly since then.

How do you explain their rise through cricket?
It’s quite difficult to even think that this is true. I would say I have to pinch myself to believe it. Forget about 14 years ago, I would say since 2009 when they were playing in the World Cup qualification and now the difference is huge. Back then they were naïve and thought that other teams were much higher of a standard compared to them but now they are so confident especially the way they perform. It is quite difficult to explain how that can become possible. It’s like someone put some energy drink into them and from zero they’ve become heroes. It’s unbelievable!

If there was one point that you can identify from where the team went from zeros to heroes – what would that point be?
Back in 2008 in Jersey, Afghanistan were playing in the ICC World Cricket League Division 5 and they lost the game against Singapore. The pitches in Jersey were terrible and nobody could score. I think the highest score was 150 on a dry day. They lost to Singapore and their game against Jersey was washed out and Singapore had a chance to qualify ahead of Afghanistan. They won against Afghanistan and had to play Japan I think. The Afghan team manager at that time didn’t speak English and agreed with the rest of the other teams that Singapore could play on the rest day and we would not play against Jersey and by accepting that they would have not been able to qualify for the semi-finals.

I’m not taking the credit but I notified the Afghan team that this decision doesn’t make any sense. Then they realized what happened and went back and complained about the arrangement and that when Singapore is playing then Afghanistan too should play against Jersey. At the end of the day because of that washed out game, they qualified for the semi-finals, beat Nepal and managed to get to the next Division and in-between that time they changed the coach to a professional and since then everything clicked. So therefore, the rain in Jersey changed everything. In Afghanistan it is usually very dry and there is drought but in Jersey it was the rain that helped Afghanistan.

How much of that success is due to the coach?The coach Kabir has his part, of course. He is the first professional who played at the highest level and is now coaching the Afghan team. Apart from that, what happens inside the country, after each tournament they are given a warm reception back home and have even been invited to the presidential palace by Hamid Karzai. There is a lot more media coverage and also games played at each level, they’ve got more experience. So there are a number of things that have contributed to their success and personally I think they had the talent but lacked only the belief. Slowly they’ve got that belief and now they’re overconfident in a way in the sense that they think that they can even beat South Africa. Belief was what they lacked but they got that in the first few tournaments.

They would have had tremendous belief in the first place to get out of the refugee camps.
Definitely. Mentally they are very strong. When I looked into the eyes of these players, I was amazed. When you speak to Raees Ahmadzai – the way he talked to me, the way he acts, he is full of confidence and sometimes I don’t understand how he got that sort of confidence. Confidence not only in his playing career but as a person he is so confident, full of energy. This guy could demolish a mountain and some of the other players are so mentally strong. That certainly helped them. Because they believed in something that they had, they managed to come out of the ashes of those camps.

What more do they need to do to be the best they can be?
One thing I am afraid of is that if somebody doesn’t pay attention to the structure and to the next generation, they might go down like Kenya after 2003 (Associate nation Kenya were semi-finalists in that year’s World Cup) because this group is mature, talented and professional. For the next generation if no one pays attention they might lose and if few of them leave the game there might be a gap. The good thing is Kabir Khan and others have identified some new talent. For instance, I was told there was a new bowler who is a university student in Jalalabad in the eastern part of the country. This guy is supposedly faster than Hamid and Shahpoor and he is only 20 or 21. That is very good news. When there was training for the Under-15s, 400 kids were there to be trained and I was told the fast bowling department was excellent. A lot of them were very quick. The team needs more batsmen in the younger squads though. If there is more attention and help in the coaching department given by the ACC and some Asian full members, they could achieve more. Of course I’m not saying that they can get to the full member level because security is preventing that from happening and probably even if everything is OK, it’ll take some years for them to get to that level. I think, though, that they can retain the ODI status longer than some people think.

What are the main problems faced by Afghanistan cricket?
I believe the lack of grounds is one of the main issues. We saw in the Twenty20 that the Afghan batsmen were struggling with the short-pitched balls. Though I’m not a technical guy in cricket, I believe it has to do with the concrete pitches they play on regularly back home. They don’t have proper pitches and in fact that have just one or two in the entire country. They also need stronger club cricket. They hold provincial tournaments but they are here and there and from what I’ve heard and watch, it isn’t that professional. They need to work on that aspect. There is a lot of cricket going on in Afghanistan even in provinces where there was no cricket a few months ago and now they’ve got five or six high standard clubs. There is a lot of interest in the game but the organisation needs more polishing.

Do you think the ACB is receptive to new ideas?
Being new is not a problem. The problem is that they don’t know the game. Those who started the game, they were at the organizational level for a while but they had other problems. I think the current board have a lot of good ideas but on how to get extra funds probably and help the current senior team. They may struggle in how to develop the game and they need support from ICC, ACC and other full member countries. They are also yet to grasp the idea how to approach others for help them. Once they get on track with that aspect, the current board can do well.

Iran’s First Lady

Narges Lafooti, 31, was the first lady to officiate in an ACC Tournament, the U-19 Women’s Championship in October 2010. The event also marked the first time Iran sent a lady official outside the country unaccompanied by any team, for an international tournament. Involved in sport since university either as a player or official, Ms. Lafooti has been a rugby player at university, then a referee and head coach of the national women’s rugby team. She also has lifeguard qualifications and has played varsity baseball. A calm, authoritative presence on the field, off the field she adds to her steeliness with considerable charm and a readiness to laugh.

Ms. Lafooti spoke to us in Singapore, with the assistance of an interpreter.

“I am very glad that Iran’s women players are well thought of.”

I really love batting but I play cricket far less than I’d like to. There are so few umpires in Iran that I have to do that job. I stand at both ends many times, with another umpire always at square leg.

All year I switch between rugby and cricket depending on where the work is.

I am travelling quite a lot around Iran for cricket. There are eight provinces with a women’s team.

My interest in cricket started in 2003 when Mr. Hossein Salimian of the Cricket Federation asked me to join an ACC umpiring course run by Mr. Khizar Hayat of Pakistan.

I was one woman among 20 men. There were some people in the class who had been playing cricket for a long time but they scored less marks. I got the highest score in the class, 99 out of 100. The Federation was a little shy to publish my score at first! After that we had a course in Iran for umpires from many countries with Mr. Mahboob Shah of Pakistan and I also did well in that. And it has gone from Level I to Level II in March 2009. I am one of two Level II umpires in Iran and the only lady.

The Iranian men players may not know the customs and rules of cricket very well for which I am sorry but they will learn more as they play more. I do not umpire in men’s matches.

LBWs are hardest to judge. I have noticed in the international tournaments that some bowlers and fielders think that the louder they appeal the more chance they have of getting a wicket but they do not realise that my mind is made up very quickly based on what I have seen and what I have heard and once it is made up it does not change.

I am always learning. I would like to train more lady umpires for Iran. It will definitely help in international matches if I know more English.

When people ask me about why I and Iranian women dress in this way I think it is not an appropriate question and I get tired of answering it. There is no problem with what we wear when we play and I think the question is not polite.

I am very glad that Iran’s women players are well thought of. Shamsa Hashmi gave them great help last year and Hajra Sarwar is doing the same this year. Mohzdeh Bavenpour in Kermanshah is also really helping our women cricketers. I wish I could see cricket on television. I would love to get DVDs of cricket. We have nothing like that in Iran.


Preview: Platform To Emerge As Next Stars

Emerging Teams Asia Cup begins in Bangladesh on Thursday

The platform to showcase talent for aspiring cricketers is all ready as the Asian Cricket Council Emerging Teams Asia Cup 2019 begins on November 14 across four venues in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh will be hosting the flagship event for the second time, first since 2017, as the fourth edition of the tournament will feature five Test playing nations alongside three associate members of the ICC. The three associate members – Oman, Hong Kong and Nepal – came through a qualifying event to join the five Test-playing nations – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. UAE pulled out of the tournament at the last moment and were replaced by Nepal who had finished fourth in the qualifying tournament.

Captains of the participating teams

Defending champions Sri Lanka will take on Oman in the first group A game at the Sheikh Kamal International Cricket Stadium Academy Ground in Cox’s Bazar while Pakistan will lock horns against Afghanistan at the main ground of the coastal city, the Sheikh Kamal International Cricket Stadium.

In Group B, hosts Bangladesh will face Hong Kong at BKSP-4 Ground while India will play against Nepal at BKSP-3 Ground, both in Savar. All the 50-over matches will begin at 9:00am local time.

Singapore hosted the inaugural edition of the Emerging teams Asia Cup in 2013 where India clinched the title, beating Pakistan by nine wickets in the final. After a break, the tournament resumed again in 2017as Bangladesh hosted the event for the first time. This time Sri Lanka lifted the trophy, condemning Pakistan to their second runners-up finish five-wicket victory.

The third edition of the tournament was hosted jointly by Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with Sri Lanka winning the title following an intense three-run win over India.

Hosts for the second time, Bangladesh will be eyeing to lift their maiden title this time around after the selectors announced a strong side, led by left-handed batsman Najmul Hossain Shanto.

Opener Naim Sheikh, Soumya Sarkar, all-rounder Afif Hossain, leg-spinner Aminul Islam and pacer Abu Hider are also in the Bangladesh team, having just returned from the three-match T20I series in India.

The top two teams from each group will battle it out in the semifinals, which will be held on November 20 and 21 at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur. The home of Bangladesh cricket will then host the final on November 23.

Nain Abidi: Changing Hearts And Minds In Pakistan

Following their encounter at the recent ACC Women’s Twenty20 Asia Cup in Guangzhou, Hong Kong’s captain Ishitaa Gidwani, who made her international debut against Pakistan in 2006, engaged Pakistan’s star batter Nain Abidi in conversation in order to find out what makes a professional cricketer tick.

“We are not just playing cricket in Pakistan we are changing hearts and minds.”

Ishitaa: When did you start playing cricket?
Nain: I was 21 when I made my debut in 2006 against India in Jaipur, scoring 23 not out. It was very special to play my first game against India. (Pakistan’s women are about to tour India at present too)

I took inspiration from Imran Khan, he picked up the World Cup in 1992, and that’s when I thought of cricket and then I went through a magazine, and there was an interview with a very good woman cricketer and then we arranged trials. 100 girls were called there and only six were selected. From that day I think I start my cricket.

Ishitaa: How does training work in Pakistan with the players being from all the over country?
Nain: We used to stay in our regions and practise there. Practise with the boys, U-19 and U-21. PCB gives us grounds and nets in the region. We practise individually until we get to the camps. Camps can be 4 to 6 weeks months or 10 days

(Picture by Andy Townsend)

Ishitaa: Is it easy getting time off work and studies?
Nain: We don’t work. Nobody of us works. We are 24/7 PCB employees. We just stick to cricket 6 to 7 hours a day, when there’s a camp it’s 24 hours a day of cricket. PCB pays us a handsome amount so we won’t want to work and go away from cricket.

Ishitaa: At Hong Kong we only get to train 3 times a week.
Nain: Since we won the Asian Games gold medal people are now appreciating us. We have hardly lost in the six years we have been playing. Even though a lot of people criticise us – we are doing something that is against women ‘you are doing something that is not made for women, made for man’ we are still going.
After the Asian Games gold medal we did not step back, the girls have worked hard, the management have supported us, there is a lot of hype from media, then we got a lot of internationals, we went to England and West Indies and did well and then we went to the T20 World Cup and beat India.

Ishitaa: How many tours do you have a year?
Nain: Three or four a year
Ishitaa: We have to wait two years for each tournament.