Mujeeb Zadran haggles with his assistant coach. For words, not money. He is trying to explain how he had a brush with an IPL scout three months ago in Malaysia. He speaks in Pashto, while the coach translates. He wants to make sure this comes out right, just like his carrom balls.
In the first game of the Under-19 Asia Cup, Mujeeb broke the back of the Pakistan batting with six wickets in a devastating spell. He opened the bowling and bowled unchanged from one end, and by the time his spell was over, so was the Pakistan innings. Afghanistan needed only three bowlers to shoot them out for 57 in 20 overs. They couldn’t read his worng ’uns, or his right ’uns, because even his right ones are wrong ones. It was a cocktail of variation, delivered with his 5’10’’ frame and a quick action, like a Long Island Ice Tea on a slingshot, and it left Pakistan woozy.
He’s not sure which franchise showed interest in him though, or who the scout was. He was simply excited to be on their radar. “Knowing that IPL was looking for me, it gave me a lot of confidence,” he says through his translator.
Mujeeb is sitting in the lobby of a posh hotel in Christchurch, a day before the IPL auction. It is a peaceful chat, with a group of journalists, full of laughter as he talks about his favourite Bollywood actors (Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor; he declines to imitate them, mindful of the rolling camera) and his favourite food (chicken biryani, fish; both when he visited India). He looks blank as the questions are put to him, understanding only snippets, waiting for the translation to come through. Then he nods as the Urdu answer is relayed. Despite knowing that his friends are waiting for him, he is unhurried. A little shy, but calm.
Around 13,500 kilometres away, Afghanistan in not calm. In the past two weeks, there have been three bombings in the capital Kabul, with more than 130 people dead, and more across the country. The last of these attacks happens 24 hours after the interview, as Mujeeb bowls in the U-19 World Cup semi-final against Australia. The black armbands the Afghan team wears are supposed to be temporary, but have become a part of their uniform.
Afghanistan Under-19 coach Any Moles knows all about these attacks. “You have to be smart”, he says. Smart means safe. Smart means no exploring the streets, no going out shopping, no going out for a walk, especially not in the early morning “when there is more of chance of a bomb going off.” He says it like he is talking about traffic. Moles travels from the cricket ground to his hotel in an armoured vehicle. For all practical purposes, smart means house arrest.
But as Mujeeb talks about his origins, a less gruesome picture takes shape. Despite losing his father when he was just three months old, the family business on his mother’s side ensures he has no financial worries. He grows up in Khost with the family of his maternal uncle, his mamu, and they treat him like their own. His mother becomes his biggest support in life. Here, as a young boy, he discovers a combination that is as intoxicating as opium, Afghanistan’s biggest cash crop: tape-ball cricket and YouTube.
“I watched YouTube videos of [Sunil] Narine, [Ravichandran] Ashwin and [Ajantha] Mendis on how they grip the ball and flick it,” he says, gesturing with his middle finger. “When I first started to bowl it, I would just flight it and not put power behind it. But slowly I practised for countless hours and eventually I started to have power in my fingers, then I started to flick it with more power behind it.”
If the internet taught him the carrom ball, the real world introduced him to the googly. “I have a big family and all of them are in cricket, so one day I was batting against one of our family members and I saw him bowl a ball that looked like a leg-spinner, but it actually turned back in to me. So then I asked him how did you do that? He explained to me how you flick it from back of the hand, so I learnt that delivery and started practicing in the nets along with my carrom ball and off-spinner.”
So his early cricketing education took shape, the embers were stoked. And when he watched Afghanistan play their first world event in 2010, the World T20, a fire was lit.
Afghanistan are serious about their cricket being visible. According to the team’s media manager, this Under-19 World Cup is being is being shown on cable TV in Afghanistan, and the semi-final was shown by the national broadcaster. Despite the matches starting well past midnight in Afghanistan’s winter, the tournament had a strong following.
Afghanistan have had a strong preparation as well, as a matter of policy. They arrived in New Zealand in mid December, three weeks before the tournament’s first game. And they arrived as Asian champions, having won the Asia Cup. Before that tournament, they spent two-and-a-half weeks in Chennai and Noida, playing matches against first local sides and then their senior team, who changed their schedule to accommodate the colts. “One thing that ACB (Afghanistan Cricket Board) do well: we invest a lot of money in getting these guys to play cricket outside of Afghanistan,” says Moles.
Even before that, Afghanistan went to Bangladesh in September 2017, and that tour showcased the team’s development as well as Mujeeb’s. Afghanistan lost the first game badly, prompting talk of a whitewash from the opposition captain. They then came back to win the series 3-1, with one game rained off. Mujeeb took 17 wickets in five matches. In the Asia Cup, he did even better, with 20 wickets in five games.
Afghanistan acted on his talent. Mujeeb made his senior team debut, in a series against Ireland. He was Player-of-the-Match in his first game taking 4/24, also becoming the first male born in the 21st century to play international cricket. “It was my dream to play for the Afghanistan national team. When I put on the first jersey against Ireland, I was so excited, so happy, but I was not under pressure. It was easy for me to handle the pressure,” he says. Either side of his national debut, came appearances in the Bangladesh Premier League and the T10 Cricket League.
“The environment in Afghanistan right now, there is a craze for cricket,” says Naveed Sayyem, the team manager. “From the president and the prime minister to the guy who sells fruit on the streets, everyone follows cricket madly.”
This is not an exaggeration. During the tournament, the Under-19 team actually received calls from the President and the Prime minister. “He told the players that they are the reason the people of Afghanistan are so happy,” Sayyem said. “He told them they are Afghanistan’s stars, that they have kept the nation’s flag flying high.”
The team officials claim that cricket has replaced football as the country’s No 1 sport. More and more parents are looking at cricket as a legitimate career option, especially after Rashid Khan’s success in T20 leagues around the world. But locally too, things are improving.
“At the ACB, we try and ensure that the players never have to worry about not having enough money,” says Sayyem. “There should be no one in the team trying to save their daily allowances to provide for their family – a lot of them come from poor backgrounds. That culture has lessened now, there are no worries at the back of their minds, so they can concentrate on their cricket.”
Mujeeb is from a generation that is benefitting from the work of the pioneers. His is not a rags-to-riches story, but one that traces the progress of his country, and underlines his cricketing pedigree: his cousin Noor Ali Zadran, 12 years his senior, currently plays in the middle order of the Afghanistan team. The haveli Mujeeb spent his formative years in has a cricket academy within its walls (as well as a small zoo).
Spinners who turn the ball both ways are in high demand in T20 leagues, and Mujeeb was already in the sights of a couple of IPL franchises. Playing for Afghanistan was one of his dreams, but so was playing in the IPL. “Big cricket”, he calls it, the thought of playing for the country and becoming only the third Afghan to play the IPL.
So his show against New Zealand in the quarter-final could not have come at a better time. Mujeeb picked up 4/14 against the young Black Caps, turning the ball appreciably both ways. It sealed Afghanistan’s progress to the semi-final, their first ever top-four finish. Coming just two days before the IPL auction, Mujeeb was in a bidding war between Mumbai Indians and Kings XI Punjab. He will eventually make Mohali his home base, picked up for Rs 4 crore.
Mujeeb’s growing stardom, and the high profile that the likes of Rashid enjoy, raises a question: Would either of them feel unsafe while in Afghanistan, or have to take the same precautions that Moles does? The coach hopes not. “The people that have been causing the issues have stated cricket is unifying the public and bringing the cricket together. Hopefully from that point of view players can be out of danger.”
Afghanistan lost their semi-final against Australia. Then, they finished fourth, behind Pakistan, after their third-place match was washed out, because Pakistan topped their group. This, despite beating Pakistan in the very same group.
Still, it would be hard to call their tournament anything other than a success. Especially when keeping in mind the role they play in providing joy to a people that have had to become numb to violence.
As for Mujeeb, not yet 17, his life seems to be coming full circle before even beginning. From being inspired watching Afghanistan in the 2010 WT20, he will now be on TV himself. No doubt the tape-ball competitions in Khost will soon be flooded with Mujeeb clones.
From watching Ashwin bowl on YouTube, he will now bowl alongside him in the same team. He’s never had to haggle for money, and now he never will. As for words, he might need to pick up a few English ones, considering the international company he will soon keep. He might get to meet Ranbir and dance with Ranveer. And he will certainly get plenty of his favourite dishes.
Chicken biryani and fish.