On April 13, the United States of America dropped the Mother of All Bombs – one of its largest non-nuclear bombs, which also goes by the acronym MOAB – in eastern Afghanistan. It was the first time such a weapon had been used in battle anywhere in the world. The idea, reports said, was to hit a tunnel complex allegedly used by Islamic State militants.
The area targeted was in Nangarhar province, which is where young Rashid Khan is from.
Just the night before, Rashid had spun a spell of 4-0-19-1 against Mumbai Indians, striking out Rohit Sharma with a googly. Rashid, still a teenager, hasn’t commented on political issues, but Mohammad Nabi is always happy to talk Afghanistan, and not just cricket.
Nabi calmly reassured us that Rashid was not overly disturbed by the MOAB strike. “Oh, these things are happening in every country in the world. Not just Afghanistan. Afghanistan has had it very bad, that’s true. But don’t worry about Rashid. This Mother of All Bombs was outside of the city. Rashid is from the city, so no problem,” explained Nabi when chatting with Wisden India.
Like so many of his countryfolk, Nabi has become almost inured to the unrelenting, decades-long violence that has ravaged the country, even the region. In fact, if Nabi is to be believed, no one from back home even mentioned the MOAB to him or Rashid: “We found out from social media later. It’s not such a big deal for many of us who have experienced this for many years. We are used to it.”
In the recent past, thankfully, at least Nabi has had a chance to get used to a happier life: Being in the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the best cricketers in the world at the Indian Premier League and elsewhere, and, soon one hopes, playing Test cricket.
Excerpts from a chat:
The story of the Afghanistan team has been a favourite for most people that follow cricket. And your contribution to it has been immense. Now, with a shot at Test cricket possibly around the corner, how does it feel looking back?
Zabardast! It’s been a fantastic journey. You asked me to look back – when I look back to my early days, I don’t even see a bat or a ball. I was born in 1985. Everything was destroyed in Afghanistan at the time. When we started, it was all very difficult. Nothing was proper: Coach, ground, infrastructure… we did not even have players. Everyone knows how it started for us, they have made a film about it also [Out of the Ashes (2010)]. Then gradually we started to play seriously, Asia, ICC … it has been tough, but we have done a lot. When I look back and see now, we have come so far. We have some proper grounds in Kabul and Kandahar, India is helping us build them; India has also given us a ‘home’ ground in Greater Noida. We are in the process of getting a first-class tournament; we have proper grounds, academies, T20s, one-day matches, two-day matches … if Test cricket happens now, it will be a new challenge. And the onus will be on us senior cricketers, because we can’t go down any more.
On Rashid Khan
“Spinners are useful in Twenty20s anyway, but he bowls with a quick arm action, so it’s difficult to pick. They don’t get time to pick him, at least the first time. When I first saw him in the academy some years back, I asked him to focus on line and length. He listens very carefully. He can be the world’s best bowler.
Your attitude must have changed over the years too – from just trying to do your best with no specific big goal in mind, now you are popular cricketers and people back your team to do well.
True. When I started out, got selected, we were at the lower levels, we used to pray that we qualify, we don’t lose – next one, next one, next one… Get to the next level. The first time we qualified for the World T20, then we got ODI status, then we beat some of the big teams. We used to think of one game at a time. Just win this and then think of the next one. As we won more, the dreams became bigger. World Cup. World T20. Now we have come to the IPL, so it’s all been changing. Not just for me, but for all of us.
Considering how troubled Afghanistan has been and still is, do you have enough youngsters taking up cricket seriously?
A lot of youngsters are coming to cricket. We have a lot of Under-16, Under-17, Under-19 talent now, which is a plus point for us. Look at Rashid. But he is not the only one. We have new challenges, which are also new opportunities. We can’t take a step back.
And seniors like you must play a big role in that?
Whenever we go back home, we do spend time with the youngsters, we talk to them. Not just me. All of us. We say do this, do that … they follow what we say. Rashid and I are now playing in the IPL; that is big for the youngsters in Afghanistan too.
Keeping that in mind, the success of the Afghanistan national team must have played a big role in lifting the spirits of people back home.
Immensely. All the fighting and everything else … when we win, the people get really excited, they are so happy. Cricket is one of the few things that bring a smile to people’s faces. When Rashid and I got a chance in the IPL, there was huge excitement. It was almost like the Afghan team was playing in the IPL.
Tell us about the time you got the news that Sunrisers Hyderabad had acquired both of you.
We were in Zimbabwe and it was early morning. I got the news first and went to meet Rashid and told him he had got (Rs 4 crore from Sunrisers Hyderabad) it. He didn’t believe me. He thought he was dreaming. But it’s part of life. If you do well, you will get rewards.
You haven’t got too many chances to play, but Rashid has become a star. As someone who has watched him from up close over the years, why do you think he has been so successful?
He is totally different from other spinners. Spinners are useful in Twenty20s anyway, but he has good speed. The speed of his arm. He bowls with a quick arm action, so it’s difficult to pick. They (the batsmen) don’t get time to pick him, at least the first time. When I first saw him in the academy some years back, I asked him to focus on line and length. He had the skills and the variations, but he needed control. He listens very carefully. He can be the world’s best bowler.
At Hyderabad, you have Muttiah Muralitharan. What has it been like to spend time with him, as both you and Rashid are spinners?
It’s been excellent. Not just because of Murali, though we have been spending more time with him. We have both learnt a lot from him. The dressing room, the travelling, the training, the matches … it’s a new experience for us. We are enjoying ourselves thoroughly. The players are also wonderful, the seniors like Yuvraj (Singh), Shikhar (Dhawan), (David) Warner, he has been so supportive, and Kane (Williamson). They have been very nice to us.
On the IPL experience
“All the fighting and everything else … when we win, the people get really excited, they are so happy. Cricket is one of the few things that bring a smile to people’s faces. When Rashid and I got a chance in the IPL, there was huge excitement. It was almost like the Afghan team was playing in the IPL. We were in Zimbabwe and it was early morning. I got the news first and went to meet Rashid and told him he had got (Rs 4 crore from Sunrisers Hyderabad) it. He didn’t believe me. He thought he was dreaming. But it’s part of life. If you do well, you will get rewards.”
Some neutrals are even supporting Hyderabad this year because of the two of you.
(Laughs) Yes, I know that, and that’s great. It means people here like us, Afghans. And to come to the IPL, it’s the biggest league in the world, and Hyderabad are the champions, and then do well against the top players of the world – it’s amazing.
I have played in many places now, in leagues, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, we (Hamid Hassan and he) have also played for MCC, and now Rashid and I will play in West Indies (Caribbean Premier League). So it’s great. We are having new experiences.
And if all goes well, Test cricket could be next?
Yes! That’s the dream.
You’ve gone on record saying you are worried because your wife doesn’t want you to travel so much…
(Laughs) Yeh to hai! These days cricket is so much … T20 leagues, then if you are selected, you play for the national team. There isn’t much time. The family doesn’t get time. My son is in school, so she can’t come with me. It will get even tougher when we get Test cricket status, there are other responsibilities too. But this is what we all wanted. Test cricket is the only dream left. I want to play one Test match at least. I have got everything else I have ever wanted from Allah. Cricket, family, otherwise too.
Before finishing, Wisden India has a lot of readers among Afghan people; all our articles on Afghanistan are very popular. Do you have any message for them?
Fans, not just in Afghanistan but even Afghans who are outside, they have always supported us, when we have done badly too. We couldn’t have done this without them. Their prayers have always been there. When we got the IPL call … Rashid and I have made Afghan people very happy too. They dreamt of seeing us in the IPL. So it’s a dream come true for everyone. All of us are always grateful for their prayers and support.