Battered by a Shikhar Dhawan onslaught, Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai had called an on-field team huddle after lunch. From a distance, standing at the VIP enclosure lobby, Dawlat Ahmadzai, a former fast bowler and the Afghanistan U-19 team coach, murmured: “This is Test cricket”.
Ahmadzai was part of the first group of Afghan cricketers that formed the basis for a national side, back in 2001. He featured in three ODIs and two T20 internationals after his country gained the ODI status in 2009, but he is now celebrated back home for spotting Rashid Khan. About six years ago, Ahmadzai, a national selector then, bumped into the prodigious talent, while on a scouting mission in Jalalabad.
In its infancy, Afghanistan cricket threw up the Zadrans – Dawlat and Shapoor. The two fast bowlers became the team’s pin-up boys. It’s an irony that both missed Afghanistan’s Test debut because of different reasons. A knee injury ruled out Dawlat, while Shapoor wasn’t included, although he played the T20 internationals against Bangladesh.
It’s a culture shift that Afghanistan now depend more on their spinners and had a slow-bowler overload in the Test squad. Ahmadzai concurred, adding that Rashid’s rise has ushered in the change. “I won’t say there’s a dearth of fast-bowling talent in Afghanistan cricket. We have some exciting prospects at junior level. But Rashid’s arrival, and his rise to stardom, has somewhat changed the culture. Now the youngsters want to bowl spin. So this is a phase, when spin is dominant. But we will unearth some excellent fast bowlers in the future,” he told The Indian Express.
Pace or spin, Afghanistan are now the team for the future, revelling in a success story that had a blank slate to start with. Cricket used to evoke curiosity, when Ahmadzai and company brought the game to Kabul at the end of their refugee lives in Pakistan. “It was very difficult. For almost nine years, we paid out of our own pocket to play the game. We used to buy the bats and balls, and our boots. For nine years, we camped at one place (Kabul), playing on a concrete pitch. Facilities had been non-existent. People used to inquire about the ‘funny’ sport that ‘nobody played’. Even our Olympic federation guys used to tell us they didn’t know the way to ‘process the novelty’. That was at the turn of the century, when the Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan,” Ahmadzai recalled.
Things have changed drastically and now Afghanistan have a good domestic structure to nurture young talent.
“We have a solid domestic structure. The first step is provincial cricket followed by regional cricket. The U-19 boys come under national set-up once they start playing regional cricket. We have one first-class tournament – Ahmad Shah Abdali Tournament (a four-day tournament), played by with six teams. List A matches are played at regional and provincial levels, while T20 cricket is (going to be) franchise-based (soon),” Ahmadzai said.
He remains a protagonist of the ‘successful story’ despite hanging up his boots. “These guys (the Test squad) are realising our dreams. Asghar was my team mate and so was (Mohammad) Nabi. They know our dreams and they know the struggles that took us to Test cricket. We all are all part of a successful story.”