DUBAI // Few among cricket's top echelons have probably heard of Mohammad Shahzad, but they would be well served to do their homework on the Afghanistan wicketkeeper ahead of the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies, especially the bowlers from India and South Africa.
Shahzad, 18, has been Afghanistan's knight in shining armour in their fairy tale rise in world cricket. He scored two centuries in four one-day internationals and blitzed his way to an unbeaten 214 in Sharjah earlier this week as the team chased down a record 494 in the fourth innings to win their Intercontinental Cup match against Canada. That win followed Afghanistan's success in the qualifiers for the World Twenty20 last week and they will now line up in Group C against India and South Africa when the tournament begins in the Caribbean in April.
For Shahzad, Afghanistan's opening game against India on May 1 will be special for more than one reason as it will bring him face-to-face with his idol, MS Dhoni, the India captain, for the first time in his career. "Dhoni is my favourite player and I am really looking forward to playing against him," says Shahzad, who takes a similar carefree approach to batting as India's wicketkeeper. "I just try to play my natural game and not try to curtail my strokes. Batting for me is simple: try to hit every ball outside the park. There's no big discussion."
Shahzad also keeps wicket like Dhoni, learning his trade in taped-ball cricket on the streets of Nangarhar, a relatively peaceful region of the war-torn country. "I don't like Dhoni just because he is a great cricketer," he adds. "But I like him because he is a wonderful human being. I adore his personality. "I have not had an opportunity to meet him until now, but this is one thing I have always dreamt about. Now I will be getting this opportunity in the West Indies."
Shahzad, however, will not be content just exchanging pleasantries with his hero; he will be determined to impress against Dhoni and the rest of India's star-studded team by helping Afghanistan score what would be a stunning upset. "It will be a great moment for us to play against such legends and stars like MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag," says Shahzad.
"Of course, there are the South Africans as well. "We have great respect for them, so obviously we will be very keen to prove ourselves against those two teams. It's cricket and anything can happen, especially in T20. We have seen Ireland knock Pakistan out of the 2007 World Cup and we have beaten Ireland so many times. "So it all comes down to how you play - reputations don't matter on the field. We have a very good team for T20 and our confidence is high. We are not going to the West Indies to socialise, we want to make our nation proud."
The nation is already proud of them. Shahzad and his teammates returned to Kabul yesterday morning to a hero's welcome. "Every time we return home, we are given a grand welcome," says Shahzad. "We have seen 25,000 to 30,000 people come to receive us at the airport. So their love and prayers have a great motivating effect on the team. "It is the reason why we want to keep winning - to bring joy to their lives and, God willing, we will do more of that in the West Indies." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org