For someone who began life as a refugee, Mohammad Nabi has learnt to accept crises with a smile.
Nabi, 29, is the captain of the Afghanistan cricket team with 655 runs and 23 wickets in 27 ODIs to his name.
Cricket, however, doesn’t always offer a level playing-field and Nabi, having faced more than just financial hardship and travails associated with a refugee, knows this from experience. As recently as five months ago, his father, Haji Khobi, had been abducted by local thugs in Jalalabad. Sitting in the cosy lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Dhaka, Nabi turns pale as he recounts the event.
“My father is retired and we never had money. I don’t know why he was picked up and held to a ransom of $2 million. They were just local goons without any political connection,” Nabi says, speaking to The Indian Express. “I was in Ireland playing a series and badly wanted to come back. But my family persuaded me to stay and thankfully, my father walked free after two months as the culprits were nabbed. The government was very helpful. They saved my father.”
For a cricketer who survives on $2,300 per month, Nabi does not classify his sport as a get-rich-quick kind of career. Even so, he says cricket and the Afghanistan players have come a long way since he first played for the national team.
“At least we are getting something now, after the Afghanistan Cricket Board introduced central contracts. The national team players are under Grade A and get paid monthly. We even have a sponsor now but things were very different, just four-five years ago. We had nothing — no proper ground and very little money. We struggled to buy the equipment,” he explains. “Still, I didn’t choose a different profession because I always wanted to be a cricketer, ever since I picked up a cricket bat for the first time, as a kid in Peshawar.”
Back in 2000, Afghanistan had a tenuous link to cricket. Nabi, still a refugee in Pakistan, was making his presence felt in local cricket tournaments in Peshawar. He returned home two years later, attended a selection trial and got picked for the national team.
“It was very difficult to convince my family. It was quite natural of them not to be interested, for cricket seemed to have no future, but I put my foot down. Looking back, I feel I took the right decision,” Nabi says. Cricket, however, has made deep inroads in Afghanistan now. Even the Taliban is interested.
“Cricket in our country is free from politics. Everyone became a follower after we got ODI status in 2010. We also played the World T20 and it made every kid want to pick up a cricket bat,” Nabi says. “As for the Taliban, we don’t have any problems. They too support cricket.”
Cricket-related infrastructure is also developing in Afghanistan but international exposure still remains the most essential factor for the country’s players, feels Nabi. “We have two international grounds in Kabul and Jalalabad, and a full-fledged domestic tournament where 24 provinces play. We play all three formats — three-day matches, one-dayers and T20,” he says. “I wish the BCCI allows us to play in the Ranji Trophy, which is a huge tournament. If Afghanistan gets a chance to play there, we would benefit immensely.”
The Afghanistan team received a lukewarm response to a request to allow them to train and play warm-up matches in India to prepare for the Asia Cup.
“We requested the BCCI but they didn’t respond and we had a month-long camp in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, instead,” Nabi says, with a touch of disappointment.
Still, the captain is very fond of India because the country had presented him with a great opportunity.
“I was playing an exhibition game in India against MCC in 2005 and scored a 39-ball century. Mike Gatting (now MCC president) was very impressed and took me to their academy at Lord’s where I trained for two years. I hope India will help us grow as a team,” Nabi says.
Afghanistan are rank underdogs in the Asia Cup, though this team has the ability to pull off the odd upset. Nabi, however, is not very concerned about results. “This tournament allows us to share the stage with big teams like India and Pakistan. It’s a huge bonus and a priceless experience.”