SPIN ME ROUND
How a 19-year-old cricketer is changing the way people see Afghanistan
THE RECENT ASIA CUP WAS ANOTHER BIG STEP IN THE PHENOMENAL RISE OF THE AFGHANISTAN CRICKET TEAM TO THE GAME’S TOP TABLE. FOR ITS PRODIGIOUS YOUNG CAPTAIN RASHID KHAN, THE TOURNAMENT CEMENTED HIS PLACE AS THE WORLD’S BEST LIMITED-OVERS BOWLER.
PAKISTAN GAVE RASHID KHAN’S FAMILY A LIFELINE. It was also where he first believed he could make it as a cricketing superstar. In October
2014 Khan, then just 15 years old, came in to bat for Afghanistan against Pakistan’s under-19 side in Lahore. Many of his large family were there — Khan has six brothers and four sisters — to see him score 67 runs off 62 balls.
The Afghans lost the match. But for Khan it was a pivotal moment. “Everything was telling me I was good enough if I just worked hard enough,” he tells Esquire. “That was the time I started to believe in myself.” Khan’s parents, who had earmarked a medical career for their son, now considered a future in professional sport.
Today Khan is one of the best cricketers on earth — though it’s his bowling, not batting, that has confounded opposition all over the world. For that, we can thank another Pakistani, Shahid “Boom Boom” Afridi, whose splenetic, bowling action Khan adored as a young boy.
Then, Khan and his family lived in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, alongside tens of thousands of Afghans who fled during their country’s devastating Soviet war. In cities and refugee camps young Afghans began to learn Pakistan’s national sport. Some excelled.
Khan played in the camps with his brothers. He idolised Afridi, a frantic all-rounder from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border Khan’s own Afghan home province of Nangarhar. The two even share Pashtun heritage. Khan also admired Anil Kumble, India’s metronomic star of spin, and watched videos of both constantly.
A bet on Khan to surpass the achievements of both, would not be sniffed at today. Following that 2014 series in Lahore, in which Afghanistan won 2-1, Khan’s path to fame has been breakneck. To race through his recent highs: Khan became the world’s youngest Twenty-20 (T20) international in October 2015; became the first Afghan drafted to the Indian Premier League (IPL) in February 2017; was ranked the best one-day international (ODI) bowler in the world in February 2018; and achieved the same position in T20 cricket later that month.
Khan’s current bowling average is 14.45. Considering that the-lowerthe-better, a comparison with Afridi’s 34.51, and Kumble’s average of 30.89, shows the level Khan is currently at. Khan’s “airplane wings” celebration has become a modern cricketing meme — an act requested by a nephew. Compilations of Khan’s wickets often feature batsmen whose utter bemusement at his flight, spin and disguise can be seen even through the protective grills of their helmets.
Last June Khan tore through the West Indies almost single-handedly, picking up seven wickets conceeding just 18 runs. In May 2018 he took five wickets against the UAE on the way to securing Afghanistan’s place at this year’s Cricket World Cup in England and Wales.
Khan is the hottest T20 property on earth. As domestic T20 competitions proliferate worldwide he has won contracts at Hyderabad (India), Guyana, Adelaide (Australia), Quetta (Pakistan), Band-e-amir (Afghanistan), Comilla (Bangladesh) and Sussex (England).
In December Khan added an eighth country to his complex calendar, competing for Dubai’s Maratha Arabians in the second T10 League, a ten-over tournament held in Sharjah. Khan’s teammates included Englishman Alex Hales, West Indies all-rounder Dwayne Bravo and Aussie bowler James Faulkner. “We picked Rashid Khan because he is not only one of the finest leg-spinners in the game but also the darling of the Afghanistan fans in UAE,” Maratha owner Parvez Khan told Gulf News.
Khan enjoys Sharjah. You can find a lot of Pakistanis, Afghanis, a lot of south Asians there, and they all like their cricket,” he says. “It’s an ideal area for such a kind of tournament.”
If the success has gone to Khan’s head, he doesn’t show it. He speaks calmly about fame, and travelling the world so young. At first he admits the constant change of scenery was “difficult…i didn’t come home for two, three months.”
Khan still misses home. But, he adds, “you have to adjust yourself to any condition as soon as possible,” he says. “Whether you’re playing in the Middle East, South Asia, I just try my best to adjust as soon as possible, to every moment of the game.
“The more you enjoy the game, the less you will be tired,” he adds.
Perhaps Khan’s humility is a result of the fact that, as an Afghan in the middle of his nation’s biggest ever sporting achievement, he knows he is part of something much bigger than individual success. Afghanistan’s cricket board was only founded in 1995, six years after the Soviets withdrew. The ultra-conservative Taliban, which ruled almost the entire country thereafter, banned cricket.
Play continued regardless. Today cricket is big news in the country’s capital city, Kabul, where billboards of Khan and co. line major streets and shopping malls. Alongside mixed martial arts it is the country’s national sport. Its one-day team has become a worthy member of the world’s best one-day countries.
Reminders that the team’s fortunes are about more than sport are never far away. On May 19, 2018, as Khan lined up for an IPL match with Hyderabad, three bombs targeted a cricket match in his home city of Jalalabad, killing eight and wounding scores more.
The previous year terrorists attacked leggy fast bowler Shapoor Zadran, having already kidnapped his father.
The fact that, in June, Afghanistan became just the twelfth country in 141 years to play Test cricket, is all the more impressive. Khan and his compatriots took to the field in Bengaluru to play an Indian side ranked first in the world. Back home millions watched their team make history.
Sportingly, the team came up well short, losing by an innings and 262 runs in two days. It was only the fourth time in history a side was bowled out twice within a day, and Khan’s 2-154 made him the first player to concede more than 150 runs on debut.
But the occasion was about far more. Few countries can claim to have battled their way past terror, war and political decimation to become a Test-playing force within a quarter of a century. Khan knows it. “Something new is happening to Afghanistan,” he says. “It was hard in the beginning. Performing like that, and getting an image everywhere, I think it’s something really special not only for me but for my country, for my family… I think it has totally changed the image of the country as well. Whenever you speak to people in Afghanistan the next word is cricket…it gives you lots of pleasure.
“At least we have done something to let the people think positively about Afghanistan, and I feel really proud to be the one who is doing these things,” he adds. Wise words from a 19-yearold. But few other teenagers have reached the top of a sport, least of all those from nations that barely played their sport until the Nineties.
No matter what happens in the World Cup later this year, expect
Khan to remain staunchly modest throughout. Afghanistan’s spin doctor is helping heal an entire country. And he’s doing so with an impeccable bedside manner.
“KHAN’S HUMILITY IS A RESULT OF THE FACT THAT, AS AN AFGHAN IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS NATION’S BIGGEST EVER SPORTING ACHIEVEMENT, HE KNOWS HE IS PART OF SOMETHING MUCH BIGGER THAN INDIVIDUAL SUCCESS”
Afghanistan’s captain Rashid Khan has been ranked as the best ODI and T20 bowler in the world Afghans refugees watch the 2015 Cricket World Cup match between Afghanistan and Bangladesh at a market in Peshawar