Afghanistan's Asia Cup ambitions embodied by Mujeeb Ur Rahman
The teenager confident he can take the experience from playing in the Indian Premier League to help his side in the six-team tournament in the UAE
Afghanistan are conflicted. On the one hand, there are the youngsters who believe they are going to win the Asia Cup, and are happy to say so.
On the other, there are the sage elder statesmen, who may well think the same, but are too savvy to speak it.
This is, after all, just Afghanistan’s second appearance in the main round of the Asia Cup.
Clearly, their rise has been stunning. They have beaten a number of the international game’s top teams. But they are, it should be remembered, new to all this.
Still, though, when Rashid Khan, the side’s leg-spin superstar, who turns 20 on the day they play Bangladesh in a potentially decisive group match in Abu Dhabi next Thursday, was asked if they could do it, he said: “Definitely!”
Shortly before that, Raees Ahmadzai, the kindly former player who is now part of their coaching staff, had been translating for Mujeeb Ur Rahman, the teenaged spin whizz kid. He laughed it off, and attempted to play the idea down, saying: “We will just try our best.”
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As he smiled broadly, though, the look in Mujeeb’s eyes spoke another answer. “Yes, I understood the question,” he appeared to be saying. “And, why can’t we win it?”
Maybe the young guys have something to learn about tempering expectations. Or maybe they just have strong belief in the rich seam of talent that continues to be mined as well as any country in the cricket world.
Mujeeb is a perfect case in point. Barely 17 and a half, he has been playing international cricket for two years already.
On debut at the age of 15, he took four for 24 against Ireland in Sharjah. Which supports the point that Afghan cricket seems to live by: if you are good enough, you are old enough.
“The first time, I picked him,” Ahmadzai said of Mujeeb. “We selected him for the Shpageeza tournament [a Twenty20 league in Afghanistan], his first official tournament, and it was not easy.
“When I first saw him, very skinny and a shy person, I told my regional captain I wanted to see this guy play.
“He said, ‘No, he is young and skinny.’ He was very skinny back then, not like now. But the first time I saw him bowl, I was impressed and thought immediately he was ready to play in domestic cricket.
“He did very well. Luckily he also played under my coaching against Ireland in his first international match.”
Age, as the saying goes, is just a number. Especially in Afghanistan, where it is often not much more than an approximation anyway.
It means the whole idea of senior and junior players is a difficult clique to enforce. When Asghar Afghan – who was then known as Asghar Stanikzai – was injured ahead of the World Cup Qualifier earlier this year, the captaincy was passed instead to Rashid, the star of the team and mature way beyond his official 19 years.
And when the Afghanistan Premier League draft was held at a swish Dubai hotel this week, it was like an egalitarian idyll. Moneyed owners in sharp suits sat around tables listening avidly to the advice of young lads who were barely out of short-trousers.
“The coaches were asking for my input,” Mujeeb said. “We want to be a good team, no seniors and juniors, just a good combination. That will help to win the matches.”
Venkatesh Prasad, the former India pace bowler turned coach, was one of those heeding Mujeeb’s counsel. Prasad will be in charge of Nangarhar, Mujeeb’s team, at the APL, and is happy to have “one of the best spinners in the world” in his ranks.
Mujeeb’s profile was enhanced when he this year became the youngest player to feature in the Indian Premier League.
Fame was instantly secured when he dismissed Virat Kohli with a mode of delivery that he says is his own creation.
“Most of the time I was watching Sunil Narine and [Ravichandran] Ashwin and tried to follow what they did, but one thing I have produced on my own,” Mujeeb said. “The one variation I do that I learnt myself, that is unique to me, I learnt from using a tennis ball.”
Known for having an inexhaustible array of variations, Mujeeb says he is working out how best to use them.
“Most of the time I am not thinking to get the batsman out,” he said. “I am looking for dot, dot, dot. In T20 matches, dot balls are very important.
“All the time I am trying my best. I don’t worry if people are looking at the slow-motion to see how I bowl my off-break or leg-break. I don’t care if they are doing that. I just want to enjoy the game, and do my best.”
While the rest of the teams – bar late-arrivals India – were shaking off the rust at their opening training sessions in Dubai on Wednesday, Afghanistan were playing a practice match against regular rivals UAE.
They have been here for two weeks, and know the conditions well already, having called both Sharjah and Abu Dhabi home in the past.
“We have been working very hard in camp here, adjusting to conditions and getting used to the weather,” Mujeeb said. “We are going to try our best.”
Updated: September 13, 2018 01:21 PM