SPIN ME ROUND

Esquire Middle East - - IN THIS ISSUE - SEAN WIL­LIAMS

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

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