Unlike the super-fit modern-day cricketer, Afghanistan’s batting mainstay is rotund, flaunting his one-pack after every ton. A star in his own right, Shahzad is also an unabashed, die-hard fan of MS Dhoni, copying everything from the Indian’s hairdos to his strokes
CHAPTER 1 – THE HEAVYWEIGHT
Mohammad Shahzad narrates an anecdote from his boyhood that reminds you of Murtaza Ahmadi, the five-year-old Afghan whose pictures in a ‘makeshift’ Argentina jersey made out of a plastic bag and with ‘Messi 10’ inked on the back went viral on social media last month. When Shahzad, Afghanistan’s explosive opener and wicketkeeper, was growing up in a refugee camp near Peshawar in Kybher Pakhtunwa, Pakistan, he had only two shirts. “I took them to a painter and told him to write ‘Moin Khan’ on one and ‘Ricky Ponting’ on the other,” he says. Ahmadi would receive a real Albiceleste jersey, personally signed by Lionel Messi. Shahzad’s fandom, back then, culminated in a sound thrashing at home.
“My parents used to say ke padhai karo, cricket mein kya rakha hai. Maar khate khate ham idhar aa gaye,” says Shahzad, who is originally from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. All eleven members of his family — like millions others fleeing the deadly Soviet war — crossed that historic gateway to the Indian Subcontinent, Khyber Pass, and came to this side of the porous Durand line.
Throughout recorded history, this place has seen a continuos quid pro quo. Waves of invaders, traders and immigrants have come down that road. They have brought along their own flavours to this melting pot, and they have ended up adopting its customs and culture — even sports. With an ethnic Pashtun, Imran Khan, leading the Pakistani team to world domination in the early 90s, many refugees took a shine to cricket.
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“Bachpan se hi cricket se bohot pyar tha, toh bas us junoon ne idhar tak pohcha diya (I loved cricket too much, and that passion got me where I am today),” he says in fluent Urdu, but with a discernible Pashto lilt.
And where exactly is he today?
Literally speaking, the conversation took place at the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) stadium, where Afghanistan were practicing ahead of the first round of World T20. But what the 28-year-old portly Shahzad actually means is that he is today Afghanistan’s pre-eminent batsman in all formats – the only cricketer from the country to have scored 1000 or more runs in One-Day Internationals as well as Twenty20 Internationals. In T20I, in fact, he is ranked 12th in the world – he was eighth last week. Now, the ICC rankings — and T20I rankings even more so — may not be an accurate indicator of a player’s true potential. AB de Villiers, for example, is ranked 34th in the world and Glenn Maxwell is 31st. Having said that, take a look at the top 15 names in the list: Finch, Kohli, du Plessis, Hales, Guptill, Willamson, Masakdza, Warner, Morgan, Rohit, SHAHZAD, Watson, Dilshan and Duminy. It takes some doing for an Associate player to be sitting amid top names from countries with a cricketing pedigree. And the 28-year-old, of late, has been doing a lot. He played a prominent role in Afghanistan’s qualification to the World T20 last year and then guided them to the ODI and T20 series wins over Zimbabwe in December-January. In January, he smacked 118 not out off just 67 balls — the fourth highest individual score in T20Is — in Sharjah as Afghanistan registered their sixth consecutive T20Is win over Zimbabwe. Shahzad’s favourite knock, however, is the unbeaten 131 off 133 balls that he made against the same opposition in the preceding 50-overs series. “That is my best knock so far. In that match more than any other, my team won because of me. I came to open and batted for 48 overs. I hit the winning shot. And I did so while playing with a tail-ender,” he recalls. It was his fourth ODI century, and Afghanistan’s 11th.
It, therefore, seems scarcely believable now that Afghanistan didn’t pick Shahzad for the 2015 ODI World Cup, their maiden appearance in the fifty-overs format’s showpiece event. And the word “appearance” had a lot to do with it. The thing is that in modern-day sport, one ought to be not only a good player, he also needs to look like one. The pot-bellied Shahzad belies this image. True, he had a string of poor scores in the Asia Cup 2014 and the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh. But while poor form can strike anyone, Shahzad discovered the length of the rope a struggling batsman gets is inversely proportional to the measuring tape around his waist.
He becomes conscious when you talk about fitness and insists that it was an injured calf-muscle that kept him from going to Australia and New Zealand, but team manager Shir Agha Hamkar tells you the truth: “In the last world cup, to be honest, he was not their because of his weight.”
However, Afghanistan now seem to have realized that — as Tolkien said — all that is gold doesn’t glitter. And it has surely helped too that, in Inzamam-ul Haq, they’ve a coach who himself was a plus-sized cricketer.
“Shahzad loves karahi mutton. Sometimes, he eats too much. Sometimes, I tell him look at your abs, and look at your plate. So, when I am around, he pretends to be eating little, but behind my back he sneaks more pieces of mutton,” Hamkar laughs. “To be serious, the coach says he needs good wicket-keeping and batting from him. He has given him a free hand: they way he is and the way he plays his game. The coach needs his keeping, batting and running between the wickets, not his so-called slim ‘fitness’. The thing is that he has tried his best to reduce his weight. But some people are naturally like that. If you touch his abs, they are not very soft, they are normal. Some people are like that. As long as he is keeping wickets for you and making runs – what else do you need? I would say he is like Sri Lanka’s Aravinda de Silva.”
Perhaps, Hamkar means Arjuna Ranatunga. De Silva and Ranatunga are legends of the games, but these comparisons do not matter to Shahzad. The only guy he has looked up to or ever wanted to be — since moving on from his adolescent man-crush on Moin Khan and Ricky Ponting — is the India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
CHAPTER 2 – THE FAN
“I saw Dhoni play for the first time in 2006,” Mohammad Shahzad recollects. “Then, when he won the 2007 T20 World Cup, I became his fan. When I came into the Afghanistan team in 2009, my teammates started calling me MS (also his initials). It was in the Caribbean in 2010 (Afghanistan’s first time at the T20 World Cup), when I first met him. I try to stay in touch with him regularly. MS’s number was 7, and in my team we already had Mohammad Nabi using no.7, so naturally I wasn’t getting it. Then I spoke with Mahi, he told me, ‘agar nahi hai to 77 laga do.’ So when he said that I took up 77,” he says.
“Bohot jhatka laga World cup 2015 miss out karne pe, because udhar MS se bhi milna tha aur khelna bhi tha. But then, ladko ne bataya, he was asking about me. He was asking, ‘ye kyun nahi aaya World cup khelne’. Achha laga sun ke,” he says.
Shahzad’s twitter profile says ‘MS Shahzad’. The first handle he ever followed, after the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s, was @msdhoni. Over the years, in fact, he has copied all Dhoni hairstyles. “Baal lambe kiye the ek baar. Pasand nahi aaye logo ko. Ammi se daant padi. Hata diye. Then jo Dhoni ne Champions League aur IPL mein kiya tha, side se ganja hona (Mohawk), vo bhi logo ko pasand nahi aaya. Kehne lage yeh mat karo, to wo bhi hata diya,” he says.
Tresses might not have worked for him, but people have definitely liked Shahzad copying Dhoni’s strokes, especially the helicopter shot. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and he did it right in front of Dhoni when the two teams met in the 2012 World T20 in Colombo, smacking Zaheer Khan for four. “I played the helicopter shot for the first time against the Sri Lankan team in Sri Lanka, I guess in 2009 or 2010. When I played it against India, Dhoni later asked me if I practise this shot, so I said yes, I practise it a lot. The helicopter shot is a very special shot because when a bowler balls the yorker in the death overs then it’s very difficult to hit him for a six, so if you bring down then bat to dig out the yorker and just give a flick of the wrist in the end then you can get a six on the ball that you could’ve got maximum a run or two on. So I practise it a lot. I watch Dhoni play his shot on Youtube on end,” he says.
Does he look up other players’ videos to learn more unorthodox shots, such AB de Villiers’, or… “I watch only Dhoni,” he cuts you short. “Cricketers mein mujhe sirf Dhoni hi pasand hain. And the helicopter shot is my way of telling him that I am his fan.”
His singleminded devotion to Dhoni reminds you the trailer of the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan movie ‘Fan’, where the protagonist says: “Connection bhi na kamaal ki cheez hai. Bas ho gaya to ho gaya… Vo star nahi hai, duniya hai meri.” How, then, did he feel then when his hero came under the pump and there were calls for his head in India after the ODI series defeat in Bangladesh last year?
“I used to get mad when I used to hear and read the criticism. Ek dafa Yuvraj ke baba (Yograj Singh) nein uske peeche baatein ki thi. So I thought why on earth is he criticising Dhoni. What right does he have? Ke ‘Dhoni aayega to main uske saath ye karunga, vo karunga.’ Everyone knew that India lost the 2014 World Cup because of Yuvraj Singh, because he played too many dot balls against Sri Lanka. Toh uska haq banta tha ke wo team se bahar jaata,” he says.
“Log to kehte rehte hain. Dhoni ki tarah ka kaptan na to puri duniya ko milega na Hindustan ko. He won you the T20 World Cup, 2011 ODI world Cup, Champions trophy. You rarely get such players. He should go from cricket when he wishes so. No one can or should force their wishes on him.”
Among Shahzad’s personal goal for the World T20 is a good performance with the bat so that India notices him. For, he wants to play in the IPL. “If someone does well, he gets noticed, and since it is here those people who matter will be watching. It’s a big platform. My favourite team is Chennai , par ab vo gayi do saal ke liye to ab Pune hai. Dhoni jis team mein khelega mujhe wo hi achhi lagegi.”
There is one more target he has set for himself. “Inzi bhai se vaada kiya hai ke main 2016 mein No.1 batsman banunga, I am at 8 right now (actually at 12). He has been of a great help. He keeps telling us to play carefully,” Shahzad says, and pauses. Then adds mischievously: “Vo to kehte rehte hain, par ground mein ham apni hi karte hain.”