x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

From Peshawar's streets to Abu Dhabi, the rise of Afghan cricketers

Afghanis growing up in Pakistan, Hassan and Nabi overcame parental and ethnic stigmas to take up cricket, and that childhood passion has led them out of the refugee camps.

Playing for MCC has given Mohammed Nabi, an Afghani, a chance to play in front of an international audience.
Playing for MCC has given Mohammed Nabi, an Afghani, a chance to play in front of an international audience.

Hamid Hassan was six years old, growing up in the district of Bati Kot near Jalalabad, when the horrors of war first visited him.

The Soviet troops had left Afghanistan by then and the communist regime of Mohammad Najibullah had fallen, but peace remained elusive as militias trained their guns on each other. Hassan's family home was caught in the crossfire and the shelling convinced his father to take his family on the treacherous trek across the border to Pakistan.

"When we left Afghanistan for Peshawar, I was very young," Hassan said. "It had become very unsafe. Bombs everywhere. Our house also came under fire. Still, it was very difficult to leave your country and live like refugees."

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Hassan and his family settled in a part of Peshawar called Tehkal, and it was not long before an alien, colonial sport, loathed by most of his tribe, caught his fancy and changed his destiny.

"I saw cricket for the first time in Peshawar," Hassan said. "Boys playing on streets, grounds, everywhere. I joined them, though I did not even know how to hold a bat. But I could hit hard."

He gradually become a regular fixture at the games. His parents were not pleased, especially since his grades suffered at school. Young Hamid persisted, however, playing in secret.

In the years since, he has progressed from taped-ball cricket to the international stage, where he is a feared fast bowler for Afghanistan. He has been clocked at 145kph, and a few days ago was too quick for Ireland in the World Cup qualifiers. Four were bowled in Hassan's five for 23, his best figures, in Afghanistan's biggest win.

He is the pride of the country today and the whole, including his parents, are thankful for the choices he made.

"Of course, they [his parents] were very unhappy [at first] and did not allow me to play cricket," said Hassan, who is now 23. "They said you have to study. I said I will study and I also want to play cricket, both. Now they are proud and very happy for me, all my family. I would say all of Afghanistan is happy for us.

"It's amazing. Sometimes, when we sit, me and [Mohammed] Nabi, we think if we did not start playing [leather-ball] cricket, we would still be playing on the streets or grounds with a tennis ball.

"So it's all a gift from God. We just worked hard and with the help of God, we have reached here. I would say thanks to my mum and dad, and the family. They supported us. That is why we are here."

It was his speed that caught the eye of officials at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 2006.

He and Nabi now play regularly for MCC, and they were in Abu Dhabi last week for the team's traditional English county season-opener against Nottinghamshire.

Nabi is the hard-hitting, off-spinning all-rounder who has captained Afghanistan through many of their games, from the obscurity of World Cricket League's Division Five in 2008 to the one-day international status they enjoy today.

The team played in last year's World Twenty20 as well.

Nabi, like Hassan, hails from the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, and they both now live in the same city near Jalalabad. Nabi was born in Peshawar after his family fled to Pakistan during the Russian invasion.

"My family is from Logar," he said. "Our families had to move to Pakistan because of the Russian war. That's where I was born and that's where I started playing cricket. With so many people playing, it was not easy staying away from the game.

"So I was maybe 10 years old when I started playing in the refugee camps. I finished my school in Pakistan, all the time playing tennis-ball cricket.

"I never knew Afghanistan would go on to play cricket. I never knew I could play international cricket, but every day I enjoyed playing."

Unlike Hassan, Nabi did not meet any resistance from his parents, but committing time to cricket was always a difficult decision to make. The Afghans led a difficult existence in the refugee camps of Peshawar, and to spend so much time on a sport with no future seemed a sheer waste of time to the elders.

Emal Pasarly, the editor of BBC's Pashto service, who has followed Afghanistan's rise in the cricketing charts, recounted in a recent interview the struggles of growing up in those camps.

"I was one of the very, very few lucky Afghans to get an education within the Pakistani schools," he said. "At least there was electricity and gas in the city, but in the camps there was no clean water, no electricity. Nothing. The Peshawar heat was also terrible, and so in that sense I was a lucky guy.

"Thinking about the Afghan cricketers, I would've never, ever made it, even if I had the talent of Hamid Hassan. I'm not nearly mentally as strong as them. They started a game from scratch, which inside Afghanistan people not only didn't know much about, but at that time also hated it.

"They thought of it as a Pakistani game, they thought of it as an English game, English colonisation, and so most of the Afghans hated cricket."

That attitude was just one element that made it difficult to learn the game, he said.

"These cricketers were playing a game that everyone was against," Pasarly said. "And it wasn't like football, where you play for an hour or so. It needs your full dedication. Most of the people wanted their sons to work and earn something for the family, and yet they were playing."

Hassan, Nabi and the other Afghani cricketers, most of whom come from the refugee camps, accepted these challenges.

"One of our friends, Muneer, he used to play tennis-ball [cricket] with us," Hassan said. "He advised me a lot. The guy who took me to the Afghanistan team, our ex-player, Hasti Gul Abid, he convinced me to play hard-ball cricket because [he said]: 'You have the ability, the power and speed.'

"He went to my dad, but my dad said: 'I am not going to allow Hamid to play cricket.' Then I started sneaking away from home to play cricket. [I would] run away secretly. That's how it started.

"So it's been a lot of fun over the last six or seven years, since I started playing for Afghanistan. I am very happy and proud of myself."

Nabi said his coach was the guiding light and helped him make the transition from tennis-ball cricket to the real stuff.

"During the time of the Taliban, I heard that Afghanistan are forming a team. I became very happy hearing that. I was excited because I had always dreamt of representing my country," he said.

"In Peshawar, I was just playing tennis-ball. Then in 2002, I joined a club and started playing there. Around that time, I heard about a tour to India for the ACC Under 17 Trophy. I got selected for the team in 2003 and I was also nominated as the captain.

"We had a coach then, Ajmal Akhtar. He would go around looking for Afghan cricketers, and if he thought you were good, he would pick you. He selected me in 2003. I owe a lot to him."

Hassan and Nabi owe a lot to the MCC, as well. The young duo caught the eye of then-MCC president, Robin Marlar, at a game in Mumbai when Hassan, bowling in training shoes, left four MCC batsmen with bruised toes and Nabi battered their bowlers. Both remember that date: March 23, 2006.

"In that game in Mumbai, it was 50 or 52 °C," Hamid said. "It was so hot. I could bowl only six overs, but I bowled really quick. I hit four or five players on the toes. Some of their toes were broken. After the game, everybody had an ice pack on their legs. Nabi got a century in 39 balls. He hit 16 sixes, massive sixes.

"Then Robin came to us. I did not know who he was. He said: 'You want to play in England?' I said: 'Yeah, for sure, why not? England has good wickets.' I did not know that this guy is the president. He said: 'I will meet you at the party tonight.' When we met them at the party, he said: 'I will take you to England.' Then he said he was the MCC president. I was really shocked. After that, when we returned to Kabul, we received the visa."

They went to England and went on tour with the MCC to Holland.

"It was a good experience there, and then we were part of the MCC Young Cricketers. We learnt a lot of things there," Hassan said. "So that day in Mumbai was probably the biggest day in our cricketing life."

Nabi said they are grateful for the opportunity.

"We are really thankful to the MCC for taking two cricketers from a poor country like Afghanistan at a time when no one was interested in us, and supporting us all along," he said. "It is a matter of pride for us, as well, to play for the MCC, because it such a big institution.

"Many great cricketers have played for them."

Both Hassan and Nabi have been a regular feature in the MCC teams since.

Pink balls were used for the team's four-day match against Nottinghamshire, and Hassan could only wonder at his journey from taped-ball cricket to the present.

"Seriously, sometimes I wonder what I would be doing if I was not a cricketer - student, a worker, businessman … or something else," he said. "I am very happy because I did not waste my time. We are playing for the country and it's a big honour.

"There are a million people there and all of them want to play for the country. So we feel fortunate, lucky."

arizvi@thenational.ae