Afghan, nomad, superstar

 

How Rashid Khan came through war and displacement to become the best in the world

SIDHARTH MONGA 
“Forget geography, look at the history.”

These wise words from Afghan-American journalist Matiullah Abid Noor have helped me understand Afghanistan cricket much better than all the time I have spent interviewing cricketers and administrators. History and geography are inseparable in conflict zones, but what Abid Noor means to say is: inquiries into geography are not likely to lead you far; history will tell you much more.

This is the story of Rashid Khan, the world’s best T20 bowler, third best in one-day internationals, and in all likelihood the most recognizable Afghan in the world. But it is also a story of Afghanistan cricket, of Afghanistan the country, of the Pashtun region either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, of a timely rise in T20 leagues outside international cricket, of war and displacement, and of joy and hope.

Cricket in Afghanistan was officially registered in 1995, and it gained momentum only in the mid-2000s. Their fast bowlers and their expressive cricket captured the imagination of the world, but despite rapid strides and elevation to Test cricket, they are still far from being a consistent threat to the best teams in the world. The country itself remains unsafe and volatile, so much so that the national team plays in exile, on adopted home ground in India.

Rashid, practically uncoached all his life, has become the best in the world. T20 franchises trip over each other to avail of his services. More than a generation of Afghans has grown up being known for terrorism and drugs; now they are recognized as Rashid’s fellow countrymen.

Later this month, cricket’s 12th World Cup will begin. Despite all the forays the sport has made into non-traditional markets, it will have the fewest participating teams since 1992. Even in that exclusivist field, Rashid, a survivor of conflict displacement, one of 11 children in a family of amateur legspinners, will be among the most exciting players. That much can be said purely of the cricketer, without any romanticism attached to his journey.

“Afghans look at me and feel proud that I am an Afghan. When your people get respect in other countries because I am from Afghanistan, that is my biggest achievement”

I visited Afghanistan late in November 2014. It wasn’t snowing yet but it was bitterly cold; yet you couldn’t cross an open patch of land without seeing cricket played there, especially in the north-eastern province of Nangarhar. This was a country with hardly any history of cricket, little by the way of facilities, and yet cricket not only thrived but had become the face of hope in a bleak country.

Ever since then I have been asking anybody who has anything to do with Afghanistan cricket: where was so and so born, where did he first watch cricket, where did he learn to be so good? The answers are never forthcoming.

Turns out I have been asking the wrong questions.

Aslingshot, not a ball, is Rashid’s earliest memory of going out of home. In the mid-2000s, in the streets of Bati Kot town in Nangarhar, little Roshi – he is not fond of that nickname – spent his days with his slingshot and his younger brother.

Chaubees ghantay seenay pe rehta tha” [The slingshot would be next to my chest all day], Rashid says in Urdu. He and his brother would leave home early in the morning, skip school, hunt birds, and come back in the evening.

Rashid’s memory of the town is of one with no big buildings, of his house being in a remote location, of life being “tough but good”, and of looking forward to his brothers’ return from Peshawar.

Bati Kot is an arid, dry town. Its population is largely Pashto-speaking, comprising small-time government employees and traders. There are hardly any landlords there. It is closer to the border with Pakistan, just 40km away, than the cricketing capital of Afghanistan, Jalalabad, is. A popular occupation in Bati Kot was taking Afghan goods into Pakistan and returning with Pakistani goods – cotton, for example – criss-crossing the porous Durand Line.

That boundary, arbitrary and fluid, was drawn up in 1893 by the British diplomat Mortimer Durand and the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan, to limit Afghanistan’s influence in British India, and Britain’s influence in the region. It ended up separating people who are closer to each other in spirit than any notion of a nation state can encompass. Either side of the border in the northern part are tribes that are Pashtun well before they are Pakistani or Afghan. There is hardly a family on the Afghan side that doesn’t have relatives in Pakistan.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

During the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, even as an America-backed Pakistan used the porous border to destabilise the USSR and, in the process, Afghanistan, Afghan civilians found themselves refuge in Peshawar. The poor lived in camps – Kacha Ghadi being the most famous. Those who could afford to rented houses in Peshawar, and some of the richer ones went all the way to Islamabad.

Life doesn’t stop when you become refugees. You find work, you set up businesses, your families keep growing. Sometimes you get yourself an ID in the country of refuge to make things smoother. You also pick up the local culture.

That is how cricket happened to the Afghan refugees. In 1992 they saw Imran Khan’s “cornered tigers” win the World Cup and bring together all of Pakistan. The Afghans became part of the Peshawar club and academy scene, which would go on to become Pakistan’s best.

Bati Kot was one of the worst affected areas during the Russian war in the 1980s, and again in the post-9/11 world. Rashid’s five older brothers and four older sisters were all refugees in Peshawar, he says. His parents and the two youngest brothers were left behind: they had a big house and a tyres business they didn’t want to completely abandon. The plan was for the brothers to set something up in Peshawar before they could bring over the rest of the family.

War is not the best time for keeping records. If you start counting years and placing places, things won’t always add up. The real extent of Pakistan’s role in the making of Rashid might never be known. It was most likely in Peshawar club cricket that he cut his teeth. It was watching a Pakistani star, Shahid Afridi, that gave him most joy as a kid, and inspiration as an adolescent. It was the Pakistan Cricket Board that helped the Afghan cricketers with everything from coaches to academies to trainers to physios to match time – until, in the mid-2010s, Afghanistan formed a strategic partnership with India, which has hostile relations with Pakistan. Since then, players who had families and houses in Pakistan until recently have been ordered by their cricket board to come back with their families if they want to continue representing Afghanistan.

Rashid is a man who perennially lives out of a suitcase. The first club to recruit him in Afghanistan was called Kochai, which means “nomads”

The break-up with Pakistan, at least among the fans, has been bitter. Ever since Rashid wagged his finger at a dismissed Pakistan batsman in their Asia Cup encounter in 2018, stories have emerged of him having a Pakistani identity card, of his house in Pakistan, of his cricketing education in Pakistan. You type “Is Rashid Khan” in a Google search box and one of the first prompts is: “Pakistani?”

It is a question he has had to answer at home too.

Houses in the northern Indian plains, Pakistan and Afghanistan are similar: mostly flat and featureless except for the corridor that runs along a side of the house and doubles up as a space to park vehicles in. This is the space in which the kids of the house play cricket. Indian kids use plastic balls; those in Pakistan and Afghanistan use tennis balls wrapped in insulation tape.

There was not much unusual to this life for an Afghan kid in the 2000s. Pathans will tell you they can’t do jobs that involve sitting in offices. They are too free-spirited for that, and they have large families to feed. And they have large families because they need muscle. So Rashid was your typical Afghan child of that time: part of a large, free-spirited business family, madly in love with cricket, playing in the house because it was not safe outside, living in the shadow of the war.

Once they were settled in Peshawar, the brothers brought over the rest of the family – Rashid included – to Pakistan. Rashid says he must have spent seven to eight years there. The memories and the timelines are not very clear in his mind, but amid the displacement and war, cricket remains a constant.

Rashid says their corridor – whether they lived in Bati Kot, Peshawar, Jalalabad or Kabul – was long enough to hold six cars. You could bowl fast if you wanted to, but you had to use the plastic ball if you did. Rashid started off as a fielder in the games his brothers played before becoming a serious participant himself. The rules were thus: the oldest brother batted first, followed by the next oldest, and so on, and a batsman could bat until he was dismissed; Rashid’s turn was sixth. The age difference between the brothers was such that even nephews became part of the cricket. They would play for hours – Rashid reckons he bowled about 25 overs every day – until their mother called them in for dinner, whereupon they would start playing indoor cricket using a flip-flop as a bat.

Rejoice like Rashid: arms wide open, like Afridi, or leaping into the air, or taking off like an aeroplane - he needs the variations because there are so many wickets to celebrateRejoice like Rashid: arms wide open, like Afridi, or leaping into the air, or taking off like an aeroplane – he needs the variations because there are so many wickets to celebrate © Getty Images, Associated Press

The unique thing about this cricket was that all the brothers were legspinners. Rashid rates them quite highly; it’s just that they didn’t have the freedom and the support in their time to make it big. The corridor is where, Rashid says, all his skills developed. His mother wouldn’t allow him to go and play cricket at the academies anyway, he says. All he ever did outside of this corridor was play weekend games, where he quickly gained renown. His brothers, who caught the worst end of the war, now supported his cricket. “Our time is gone,” they told him, “but you still have it on your side.”

Taj Malik, one of the founding fathers of cricket in Afghanistan and a brother of national players Hasti Gul and Karim Sadiq, doesn’t find any of this far-fetched.

“Everybody starts this way in Afghanistan,” Malik says. “Draw stumps on the wall in your corridor with tabasheer [a white medicinal substance not too different to chalk]. Because there is no space, the batsman will only defend. To get them out you have to do something special, like turn it from behind the legs. But on concrete, it won’t turn that much. So you have to develop unusual ways.”

Rashid’s explanation is similar. There was no point bowling offspin on concrete. That’s why all the brothers were legspinners. “When you bowl legspin, you can turn it both ways,” Rashid says. “Offspin is just bowling the same thing again and again. Even my nephews bowl legspin.”

Offspin uses predominantly the fingers to impart spin. The ball turns back in to the right-hand batsman, but for variation the bowler has to largely depend on the pitch. At any rate, he cannot make it turn the other way. Legspin uses predominantly the wrist for turn, away from the right-hand batsman; however, a wristspinner can release the ball from the back of the hand to turn it the other way. It gives him an equaliser on true surfaces, and it is called the wrong’un. Rashid says he learnt to mix the two arts – wristspin and fingerspin – during these games with his brothers in houses spread across Bati Kot, Peshawar, Jalalabad and Kabul.

Because the tape ball turned slowly, he had to develop a quick-arm action, and along with his wrists, he had to use his fingers much more than other legspinners. This is why he came to have an unusual release point – with the bowling arm perpendicular to the ground, as opposed to slightly lower and wider out to the side for a regular legspinner. “If I bowled like a normal wristspinner, it would turn slowly. Brothers would defend easily. I had to do something different. Then I began to flick it with the finger. Carrom-ball bowlers flick it from the front, I flick it from behind. My quick-arm action, my speed, my quick wrong’uns all developed playing there.”

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

If the necessity behind the art was the concrete surface, the inspiration was a larger-than-life Pathan on the other side of the border. Or maybe, at the time, on the same side.

Shahid Afridi appealed to Afghan hearts. He was a Pathan like most cricketers from Afghanistan. He played to entertain and to be entertained, for the thrill. He was anything but conservative. He mocked pragmatism in batting. He was expressive, he was full of energy, he spoke Pashto.

Denied a normal life, denied even sport for a long time, Afghans, full of gallows humour, look for entertainment first and foremost in cricket. Afridi was the embodiment of that thrill and entertainment. In a “25 Questions” interview with ESPNcricinfo, Mohammad Shahzad was asked which cricketer he texts the most. “Afridi” was the quick answer. Their national T20 tournament is called Shpageeza, which translates to “six”. Can there be a bigger tribute to Afridi?

Rashid wanted to be Afridi. Just like Afridi, he started off as a batsman. He would open the innings and try to bat like Afridi. “He is one player who has fans all over the world,” Rashid says. “You don’t get such players every day. Check his record, he doesn’t have many centuries, but whenever he arrived, he would hit four-five-six sixes, entertain and leave. That is why he had fans. You had to become his fan.”

The love is not one-sided. Afridi recognises it. He sees a bit of himself in Afghanistan cricketers. “Zabardast ladke hain” [They are awesome boys], he says. “They are talented, and in international cricket you need to be brave at heart, strong from inside. Some of their boys are exactly that. And Rashid is their backbone.”

Afridi first met Rashid during the Bangladesh Premier League in 2016-17. He lets himself have a benevolent chuckle when he remembers it. “As such, we didn’t talk about anything in particular, even cricket or bowling, but I remember how happy he was to meet me.” When Rashid played around with Afridi the batsman in an Afghanistan Premier League match, the smile of satisfaction he wore was something else. Afridi is not on Rashid’s speed dial for cricketing advice; there can be no bigger compliment than Afridi saying Rashid doesn’t really need any advice.

In Peshawar, in Pakistan's north-west, Afghan cricketers (like Mohammad Shahzad, on the poster at left) are as popular and in demand in clubs as local ones areIn Peshawar, in Pakistan’s north-west, Afghan cricketers (like Mohammad Shahzad, on the poster at left) are as popular and in demand in clubs as local ones are © AFP/Getty Images

Rashid’s career graph would unwittingly follow Afridi’s. He was a batsman – he once hit offspinner Najeeb Tarakai for 30 runs in an over in the Shpageeza tournament – whose real utility would be legspin bowling. His run-up and his early celebrations were exactly like Afridi’s. It was only when Rashid made it to the Under-19 team that Dawlat Ahmadzai, a former Afghanistan player and the U-19 coach, asked him to take his bowling more seriously.

Rashid remembers the day clearly. It was an U-19 tournament in Malaysia, and they were having green tea (no Afghan travels out of Afghanistan without his own green tea) in one of the players’ rooms when Ahmadzai said to him: “Just work hard on your fitness for the next three months and pretty soon you will become the world’s best bowler.”

If it takes a village, there was no way Rashid would not make it: he seemingly had a whole country. Afghanistan is still a young cricket nation and cannot afford to waste cricketing talent. Whenever a gifted young player is seen, everything starts conspiring to push him to the top. Everybody who works in cricket – administrator, umpire, scorer, curator, photographer – is a scout. Word spreads fast. It was around 2013 that one such scout came to Nawroz Mangal, Afghanistan’s first international captain and another founding father of cricket in the country, to tell him about this young big-hitting batsman who was getting restless to play in the higher levels.

Mangal asked the scout to tell Rashid to keep playing in his region. If he is good, he will rise to the top, like cream. A year later, Nawroz happened to face him in the Shpageeza tournament in Kabul. Rashid was officially known as Rashid Shinwarai at that time, after the name of his tribe, possibly to emphasise his Afghan roots. He was often asked which tribe he was from: once he said he was a Shinwari from Bati Kot, they could trace him back to his family and be assured he was Afghan.

More than a generation of Afghans has grown up being known for terrorism and drugs; now they are recognised as Rashid’s fellow countrymen

When Rashid bowled to Mangal for the first time, he was cut away for four, with the turn. The next ball was flat; Mangal moved back to cut, but the ball came back in sharply instead of leaving him. Mangal managed to get an inside edge on it for a single. He had never seen anything like it, a wrong’un at that pace, and now he was down at the non-striker’s end, next to Rashid.

“Oi, what happened there? Did it hit a rock?” Mangal asked.

“Should I show it you again, Haji sahib?” Rashid asked in return.

“You can bowl a wrong’un that fast?” asked a disbelieving Mangal.

One of the signs batsmen look for is the slight dip in pace because the wrong’un comes out of the back of the hand. “If you do it again, then you are a bowler.”

“Just don’t let your partner know,” Rashid said.

And he repeated the ball. From then on, Afghanistan fast-tracked Rashid. He was kept in and around the national team camps in the Kabul stadium, and he impressed everybody. He was finally picked for a T20I tour of Zimbabwe in 2015-16.

Before the tour, Inzamam-ul-Haq, the coach, another Pakistani, perhaps their best batsman of all time, constantly had someone or the other in his ear about Rashid.

Haan, Nawroz miyan, idhar aa jao” [Yes, Nawroz, come here], he finally said to Mangal during a net session in Zimbabwe.

The same people on either side. Pakistani soldiers patrol the border with Afghanistan at Kitton Orchard Post in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agencyThe same people on either side. Pakistani soldiers patrol the border with Afghanistan at Kitton Orchard Post in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency © AFP/Getty Images

Inzamam asked him how good Rashid really was. Mangal suggested Rashid be called up to bowl in the nets. And so Rashid was asked to come down earlier than scheduled to Zimbabwe, for the ODI series preceding the T20Is.

“And when Inzamam saw him,” Nawroz remembers, “he was like, ‘What a player he is. Who can look at him and say he is just a T20 bowler?’ And after the first ODI, he said ‘Who can say he is just an ODI bowler? He can play anything.'”

Rashid’s figures on international debut were 10-2-30-1, helping to squeeze Zimbabwe out and level the series 1-1.

Amid the graffiti in the bylanes of Australian cities and suburbs these days, there has emerged a mysterious poster of a turbaned man with an impressive moustache. He is immaculately dressed in a waistcoat and jacket and what appears to be a round-neck kurta. The bottom half is not visible. In large capital letters, the posters say: “Aussie”.

The man’s name is Monga Khan. The original photo, taken in 1916, sits in the Australian National Archive in Canberra. His roots are debated. He is either an Afghan cameleer or a Punjabi hawker from undivided India. His relevance is not: over a hundred years ago, he was one of the people who applied for an exemption to the White Australia Policy. Adelaide-based artist Peter Drew, the man responsible for these posters, has revived Monga in an attempt to elevate him to folk-hero status and to recognise the role of the Pashtun people in the building of Australia, and more importantly, to redefine, in these highly polarised times, what “Aussie” really means.

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In Drew’s home town another Khan is becoming something of an Aussie folk hero. There is a nice symmetry to it, too. Adelaide is where the first mosque in Australia was built, by Afghan cameleers. This is where the mighty Ghan train originates and travels all the way to Darwin on the north coast. The train was named after Afghans because it was they who helped the settlers find a way through the country’s tough interiors. It is fitting that Rashid should play for Adelaide Strikers in the Big Bash League.

It was in Adelaide this January that I first met Rashid. He came down to Adelaide Oval in an Uber. I know many other cricketers who would expect the liaison manager or the hotel reception to arrange a pick-up. Rashid was almost a local by now, and an independent one at that. It was a meet-and-greet day for kids at the ground, and business picked up as soon as he arrived. Everybody wanted a piece of him, and I could see Rashid was more than happy to let them have it. Photos, autographs, small chat, he did it all. When we spoke, he was economical with his time, but he wasted none of it when he sat down for the interview.

It was towards the end of a long tour of Australia for me and I was a little disoriented, waking up in different hotel rooms and living out of a suitcase. Rashid is a man who perennially lives out of a suitcase. It had been more than a year since he had gone home, apart from a one-day visit to pay his respects to his dead father, whose funeral he missed. I wanted to meet Rashid and his brothers at home, but it didn’t look possible. From the Big Bash he would fly straight to Dehradun in India, Afghanistan’s adopted home venue, for an international series against Ireland. Then he would play the Indian Premier League in April and May, and go on to the World Cup in England in June and July, followed by the T20 leagues in August and September.

There’s always a league on these days. Their rise over the last decade has given players such as Rashid an alternative route to cricketing prominence, which would not have been possible if he had played just for Afghanistan. Rashid is the first of a kind, cricket’s version of footballers from small African nations who don’t have big representation in international football but are indispensable to European leagues.

With all these leagues comes a lot of time spent in hotel rooms, which can be the loneliest places in the world. I was curious about what Rashid did to fight this loneliness. Some of it must come naturally to him, having moved around so much all his life. The first club to recruit him in Afghanistan was called Kochai, which means “nomads”.

Rashid didn’t make much of his circumstances. “I go out, don’t do much in particular, apart from focusing on my recovery and fitness,” he said.

Others around him know how he finds a way around it. “He is a very smart man,” says Abid Noor, the journalist. “He has friends in every part of the world. He knows he needs them in order to lead the life he does. He can adjust anywhere.”

Customers in a restaurant in Kabul watch the India-Afghanistan Test in June 2018Customers in a restaurant in Kabul watch the India-Afghanistan Test in June 2018 © AFP/Getty Images

“Last couple of years in Australia, he has taken us out for team meals,” says Jason Gillespie, Rashid’s coach at Sussex Sharks and Adelaide Strikers, and an Adelaide man himself. “At a couple of his friends’ homes or restaurants. Middle-eastern cuisine. He hosts all the players and coaching staff and says, ‘Please come to my friend’s restaurant.'”

This is Rashid’s way of simulating home. This is what he would be doing if he was at home, showing off the amazing Afghan hospitality. A lot of the rest of his time goes in charming people’s backsides off. The first rule is to look after his own appearance.

“When we are heading out for a meal or whatnot in the evening, we often see Rash getting into a taxi and go off to meet some friends,” Gillespie says. “He is dressed up in very smart clothes. Geez. I think he prides himself on his appearance.

“And haircuts. Every day blokes at Strikers see a slightly different haircut. He likes to make sure he is looking good.”

Rashid chuckled when I asked him about the haircuts. “The guy [hairstylist] there is very good. I used to go before every match. My team-mates would be like, ‘But you just had a haircut.’ I used to go every three days, sometimes two.”

There is more to Rashid than appearances. “He is a very generous young man,” Gillespie says. “He is so giving of his time with the coaches, with his team-mates. The way he interacts with the team staff or the franchise, with Australian sponsors, he is absolutely brilliant. It is an absolute testament to his family, to his country.”

Amanda-Jade Wellington is a young legspinner with the Adelaide Strikers women’s team. Gillespie remembers Rashid spending an hour working with Wellington on a day off. He also spends a lot of time working with Liam O’Connor, a legspinner with the men’s squad at Strikers, talking to him about his own variations, the grips he uses, the type of lines and lengths he bowls, the pace he looks to bowl at certain batsmen in certain situations on certain surfaces. After he is done, he spends time with wicketkeepers, because it is not easy to read him.

“He is a great friend to everyone at Strikers,” says Gillespie. “They keep saying, ‘Coach, please make sure you sign him for a long time.’ He makes sure he keeps everyone at Adelaide Strikers happy.”

Mangal says that is an Afghan trait. “Hum kisi ko khafa nahi dekh saktay [We can’t bear to see anyone upset]. That is why you will see him spend hours taking selfies and signing autographs.”

The rest of Rashid’s time is spent in talking to his family on the phone. Gillespie has noticed that at times he spends the whole night on the phone. The time-zone differences can be brutal. Sometimes his nephews call in the middle of their night to complain they are not getting pizza to eat. Rashid then has to call the lady of the house – his mother – to please give them money so they can order pizza.

Rashid himself has been off bread and rice for over two years now. Even the quintessential Afghan naan. And the beloved pizza. So when he goes home, he orders pizza for everybody – “sometimes even at 6am” – but only watches them eat. He allows himself to cheat once a month (“only when the pizza is really good”). His trainer has told him to not completely give up on bread, so that it doesn’t feel alien if he has no choice. His team-mate Mohammad Nabi – who admits to having more cheat days – jokes to him, “Don’t forget the taste of rice.”

Look at the photo used as a default headshot for Rashid’s profile pages everywhere. He is unrecognisable from that man now. The transformation might have started with some admitted vanity but it grew into something more.

“When I began playing international cricket, especially when I saw Virat Kohli, I asked myself why I look like this,” Rashid says. “Why am I out of shape?

“I was all right, I was bowling well, there was no problem in that, but my body shape was not that of an athlete.

“I was young and I was representing Afghanistan. There are other youngsters looking at me. They are looking at what Rashid eats, what he does for fitness – they are following me. If they are trying to copy my bowling, they will copy my lifestyle. Then I realised I had to set an example.”

From baby face to badass: realising he was a role model for young Afghans, and inspired by Virat Kohli's transformation, Rashid got serious about his fitnessFrom baby face to badass: realising he was a role model for young Afghans, and inspired by Virat Kohli’s transformation, Rashid got serious about his fitness © Getty Images

Everyone who knows him swears that Rashid has never missed a gym session. “The better he does, the harder he works,” Nabi says. “It is an addiction for him.”

Rashid experiences the benefit of his fitness regimen during back-to-back games. He didn’t have to be told. He just knew. Just like he knew how to bowl. “It’s all natural,” Mangal says. “Nobody told him to hold the ball in a certain way. Nobody told him how to run in or how to release the ball. Allah has given him that gift, and he is looking after it.”

Tom Moody, Rashid’s coach at Sunrisers Hyderabad, remembers that when they picked him at the IPL auction, they were only unsure about one thing: how he would cope mentally. He had mesmerised lesser opponents by then, but the IPL was a different kettle of fish. He would be bowling to some of the best batsmen in the world in front of full houses. It can intimidate the best of players. It was the transition that could make or break Rashid.

“Five minutes,” Moody says when asked how long the transition took. “You could tell from the first time he bowled in the nets in our pre-tournament camp. He was quietly confident. You could tell he was not fazed. It wasn’t like his first clutter of overs, the first three or four overs, were apprehensive. He wasn’t sort of overpitching deliveries or dragging deliveries down, which a lot of wristspinners can do when they are anxious. He was right on it from ball one. And feisty, competitive and confident. In a pleasant way. Not in a way that you feel he is overconfident or cocky.”

Rashid is not always a pleasant competitor, though. Taj Malik remembers a domestic game where a young batsman, Hazratullah Zazai, hit Rashid for more than ten fours in an innings of over 150 in a four-day game. At the end of the day, Zazai found Rashid waiting for him. Malik snuck up and watched Rashid take Zazai into the indoor nets. “He knew this boy could be trouble later on, so he made sure he worked him over.”

“When Inzamam saw him,” Nawroz remembers, “he was like, ‘What a player he is. Who can look at him and say he is just a T20 bowler? He can play anything'”NAWROZ MANGAL

Zazai, a big Chris Gayle fan, used to work as a watchman at a cellphone company tower site. He would experience the generous side of Rashid too. Rashid made sure Zazai was with him in his Afghanistan Premier League side; he promoted him everywhere; he introduced him to Gayle. They are good friends now, except when Rashid is bowling to Zazai in the nets.

To do Afghanistan proud means a lot to Rashid. When he first played the Caribbean Premier League in 2017, just the kind of place that goes with the idea of face paint, he did so with the Afghanistan flag painted on his cheeks.

“Feels like I am doing something for the country,” Rashid says. “Afghans look at me and feel proud that I am an Afghan. When your people get respect in other countries because I am from Afghanistan, that is my biggest achievement.”

Mangal, himself a recognised face, was once asked about Rashid in Chennai when the locals learnt Mangal was from Afghanistan. That is a long way off what Gulbadin Naib, Afghanistan’s captain for the upcoming World Cup, remembers came with being Afghan when they used to go out to play cricket: even their opponents would be scared of them. On a trek in the hills close to Dehradun once, Rashid was left lost for words when a little boy came up to him in the middle of nowhere and asked in disbelief, “Are you Rashid Khan?”

Rashid has ushered in a new era in Afghanistan cricket in more ways than one. Before him, they only relied on big and naturally strong fast bowlers. Now there is a spin revolution on. Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Zahir Khan are only two of the many following in his footsteps. Everybody wants to bowl like Rashid.

When Mangal slog-swept Rashid for a six in an exhibition game in Khost in December 2016, it came as a national shock. People began to ask Mangal how he picked the wrong’un. Mangal’s response: “Why? He is my boy. I can’t hit him for a six?” In fact, Mangal had merely done what many batsmen try to do: play Rashid like an offspinner. There was no picking.

Rashid posted a photo from the match on Twitter. The crowd there was a throwback to the days in the West Indies when so many people would turn up that they would be sitting right by the boundary edge.

Rashid and his team-mates celebrate their victory at the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in 2018Rashid and his team-mates celebrate their victory at the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in 2018 © ICC/Getty Images

Mangal remembers the police had given up on the match. “‘We are nothing in front of that crowd,’ they told us. ‘How will we control them?'” They had all come to watch Rashid. “Then the police asked me to calm the crowd down because I am from Khost.” Mangal told the crowd how far the players had come from. Then the golden words: “Don’t upset them.”

Rashid knows how fickle peace back home is, so he wants to inspire the next generation while things are still good. He runs a foundation that works to help children in Afghanistan – many of them orphans. He knows well the impact displacement has on kids. Whenever he is in Afghanistan, he makes it a point to visit schools and be with children. When he heard a boy struggling with cancer wished to meet him, he organised a Skype call with him. When a bomb went off at a Ramadan cricket tournament in Nangarhar in 2018, Rashid tweeted in condemnation. Cricketers then united to send a message that these acts were not going to get them to cower down.

“People got used to it,” Rashid says. “The fear that this might happen, that might happen. Aadi ho gaye. It still happens, a blast here, a gun battle there. People have seen much worse times. Unke dil sakht ho gaye hain [Their hearts have hardened]. That fear is gone now. We know what has to happen will happen. When your time is up, whether you are here or in Australia or wherever, you have to go. If your time is not up, you won’t go.

“Even kids believe this. Isme imaan hai [There’s faith in this belief]. This world is not forever. We entered the world by turn. The world knew when to expect us. There is no turn for going back. What’s the point of fear?”

And then the gallows humour comes through as he quotes a famous Bollywood one-liner from the film Sholay: “Jo darr gaya, so marr gaya” [He who is afraid is dead anyway].

On a trek in the hills close to Dehradun once, Rashid was left lost for words when in the middle of nowhere a little boy came up and asked in disbelief, “Are you Rashid Khan?”

“This life is a bigger pressure than cricket,” Rashid says. “Whenever there is a big game, I tell myself one thing: it is still just a game. It is not your last game. It is not a matter of life and death. No owner or coach is standing outside with a gun. Enjoy your bowling. Entertain the crowd as much as you can. Bat a little. If you spend time worrying about your performance, you won’t be able to perform.”

To be the face of hope for a bleak country comes at a price. Mohammad Nabi once paid that price when his father was kidnapped by terrorists. Rashid has to be careful and discreet about everything.

“Little Rashid Khan”, the 11-year-old Ahmad Qureshi, is a YouTube sensation. He has aped every Rashid mannerism: the run-up, the action, the release, the celebration. He was kidnapped from Jalalabad in March. The ransom demanded was US$30,000. If the resemblance with Rashid cost him, it also came to his rescue. The news was shared around on social media; cricketers, including Nabi, retweeted it. The boy was rescued in three days.

Rashid has to come home unannounced to the rest of the world, and he leaves without telling his family beforehand. He doesn’t get to stay long enough for it to be considered a homecoming. He has to sneak into the country to avoid attention. If his mother knows his departure plans in advance, he knows she will spend the whole day anxious and sad. So he just comes to breakfast with his suitcase. This is the life of an Afghan superstar. Still homeless for all intents and purposes. And yet the history he is writing is more important than where he is and where he lives.

Categories: Afghanistan,Articles,Sport & Health

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