Sport has seen an abundance of great underdog stories in the last couple of years and one such story has been the rise of Afghanistan cricket. One of the chief protagonists of Afghanistan's success story has been all-rounder Mohammad Nabi. From growing up and playing tennis ball cricket in hostile surroundings amidst fears of missiles and bombs to captaining Afghanistan in the World Cup, the tall well-built all-rounder has defied the odds to help his nation take a flight on the international scene. And en route, there have been records galore. He holds the record for fastest fifty in T20Is and joint-fastest fifty in ODIs for Afghanistan. He became the first Afghanistan player to secure an IPL contract. His experience of playing club and domestic cricket in England, Pakistan and Bangladesh has brought ample experience to the table.
Firstpost caught up with Nabi in Pune ahead of Sunrisers Hyderabad's clash against Rising Pune Supergiant to talk about Afghanistan's rapid rise, whether the nation is ready for Test cricket and the areas in which the team can improve.
What was the feeling when you got the IPL cap and captured your first IPL wicket?
I was really happy because I was the first Afghan to get selected in the IPL. Then my happiness doubled when I got to play in the match. It's IPL, such a big tournament and I am playing my first match. When I came to bowl, I got smacked for a six first ball so that piled on the pressure. But then in my second over I got the wicket of Eoin Morgan and from then on their batting collapsed. So it was a really satisfying experience and I dropped a catch too....(laughs). It was a great feeling, inshallah, I want to contribute with my bat too as and when I get a chance.
Afghanistan cricket has undergone a rapid rise in the last 2-3 years. They have not only won hearts but started winning matches too, what has sparked this transformation?
You've seen that the Afghanistan team has undergone a tremendous rise in the last few years. Now the aim is to get the Test status. (The reason for the rise) is that the talent that we have back home is natural. When we started back in 2000, there was nothing called cricket back home, the refugees from India, Pakistan and Europe brought the cricket talent with them. But the talent that is being produced in Afghanistan right now is the one who are watching us play international cricket on TV. Right now, Domestic, club cricket, Grade one, Grade two, T20, Four-day, First-class is starting off in Afghanistan. There are international grounds being made in Nangarhar Province, Khost, there is one in Kabul, India is building a stadium in Kandahar and they are in process of development in other cities too. This is the formation of the base and these are the signs that Afghanistan will the next (big) Asian team. The way our players are playing in different leagues around the world, like BPL, PSL, IPL, I and Asit got selected in CPL. These are signs of talent in a nation that is madly in love with cricket and has the 'junoon' for the game. And specially the biggest thing is that when every time we play a match, the entire Afghanistan watches it.
What has been the biggest change you have witnessed in Afghanistan cricket in last five years?
The biggest improvement is that the youngsters have perfectly fit into the team after the retirement of senior players. Our winning points from 2010 to 2013 have gone up from 40 percent to 60-70 %. Against Test nations like Zimbabwe, Bangladesh (also we played well). During the World T20 in India, when we played against top teams, it didn't feel like an Associate team is playing. It felt like a proper Test nation is playing, giving a tough time to the opposition, trying to maintain a stranglehold. And when we beat West Indies, it was a big thing for us and a great moment.
Is Afghanistan ready for Test cricket?
Inshallah! We are ready. If you see in four-day cricket, we have played three intercontinental cups and have lost just one match and that too the final against Ireland. So these are the signs that we are not only good in T20s but also in four-day cricket. We are on top of the Intercontinental Cup and recently beat Ireland in two and half days. This is one of the biggest plus points to make the team a Test nation. Four-day game is extremely important, the more you accumulate points the more you play well, the more ICC will take notice of the quality of the team and consider it good enough.
We have seen teams like Kenya rise to the top and then fade away in oblivion, what does Afghanistan cricket need to do to achieve sustained consistency?
The Kenya team had reached the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup, we used to look up to them but when we started playing against them, the Kenyan team wasn't the same one as before. Now when we look at the progress of this team to the top, it is with a good domestic level and a lot of talent coming up from U-16, U-17 and U-19's, the A team. So our cricket board needs to get the domestic structure stronger. The more academies and grounds you build the more talent will emerge.
What are the specific improvements that need to be carried out by the board?
Whatever funds flow in, they have to be invested in cricket and not other things. The more you invest in cricket the more interest. That's my main point, whatever money you involve, use it for cricket. We are associate players and we don't have so much funds but Inshallah when we get Test status there will be more funds, grounds, and academies.
How's the First-Class structure back home?
There are five regions which play home and away. There is a three-day and two-day tournament once a year. There is grade two tournament and T20 Leagues. There are currently two Leagues in operation - Peace and Million. This is the grooving of cricket back home and they are all telecast live. They are trying to make sure, that they telecast as many matches live as possible. People have this wish that they show all the matches live.
What needs to be done to strengthen this First-class structure further?
To make it strong, you need strong players. There should be strong competition with the national players participating along with the local team players. When (international and experienced) players like us play with the teams from the five regions in the domestic competition, they will improve further and the experience that we share will make the first-class structure stronger.
How much has playing against the big nations in ICC tournaments helped Afghanistan cricket?
Earlier when we used to play, there was a sort of fear in our hearts that we are playing against international sides....whether we will win or not. There used to pressure. But 70-80 percent of that pressure has vanished now. We play with them, provide a fight, give them a tough time and sometimes end up winning too which gives us further motivation. All the series we have played with Zimbabwe, we have won them of late. So this is a plus point which we can show to the ICC that we are ready for Test cricket.
And it helps immensely in personal and team improvement as well?
Very much. We have benefited a lot from our players playing in the different leagues. Playing in front of big crowds, under pressure in different situations (makes a difference). You are batting, bowling and fielding under pressure in IPL, BPL, PSL and hence you feel normal when you play international matches.
Is there frustration of not getting enough chances to play against top teams? How much is the craving to play against top sides?
The craving is there. There is a constant effort to play against the big sides. The more we play with them, we get used to it which makes it easy and the fear goes away.
How difficult is it for someone to take up sport as career in Afghanistan?
I tell everyone that along with sport, studies are important. From the entire nation, only 11 or 14 players get selected, and no matter how good a player you are, if your luck doesn't favour you then its very difficult to come up. Cricket is something that can leave you behind especially in the atmosphere of Afghanistan where there is not much money in the game along with unfavourable environment. It's not like India, Australia or New Zealand. So its a little bit difficult to give full time to cricket. I always tell the young talents - " First studies, then cricket."
What are the areas where Afghanistan cricket needs to improve?
If we play against a Test nation then we will practice like a Test nation, carry out fitness like them and then we can ultimately reach that level. All the efforts are in this direction.
What kind of support do you expect from ICC and other Test playing nations?
The kind of support we want from the Test nations is that we should get more and more chances to play against them. which will help us improve and the young talents will be instilled with energy considering that our team is playing against big nations. And the fan base will only increase.