Cricket

ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: The trials of Gulbadin Naib; how Afghanistan's captain has been undone by his own best qualities

Gulbadin puts his hand up. It's what he does.

When Afghanistan are under pressure in the field, runs flowing, catches falling, heads dropping and every other bowler is trying to avoid eye-contact with the skipper, Gulbadin Naib wants the ball. When Afghanistan were at the bottom of the pile at the World Cup qualifier, struggling to consistently get 200 on the board against associate opposition, onto their fourth combination of openers and looking for a fifth, Gulbadin had his pads on.

In and out of the Afghan team for almost a decade, bowler, batsman, bit of both but never the best, Gulbadin has been playing for Afghanistan on and off since the days they were playing Jersey or Japan without ever nailing down a place in the side, nor defining a role within it. He's batted every position from one to nine, opened the bowling and bowled at the death, in the middle overs, or not at all. The only fitting description of his job to date has been "whatever needs doing." Until six weeks before the World Cup of course, when it became "captain."

Gulbadin Naib was appointed Afghanistan captain in place of Asghar Afghan ahead of the World Cup. Reuters

Gulbadin Naib was appointed Afghanistan captain in place of Asghar Afghan ahead of the World Cup. Reuters

In retrospect, this was probably a bad idea. In fact there were plenty who called it a bad idea at the time, not least his team-mates Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, and most of the Afghan cricket press. The circumstances of Naib's elevation were extraordinary, but at the same time entirely typical. His predecessor's ouster was controversial to say the least. After returning from appendicitis to lead his side on an extraordinary comeback campaign through the qualifiers, Asghar Afghan was turfed out over the objections of senior players, whilst enjoying the best form he'd shown in years, apparently as a result of disputes over selection.

Amidst the outcry, Afghan himself remained stoical. He ducked out of his side's preparation tour to South Africa, and made no public complaints even as behind the scenes it was clear that all was not well. The head coach, Phil Simmons, was apparently not involved in the decision, which was taken by the selection panel chaired by former fast bowler Dawlat Ahmadzai. Simmons has since made his displeasure known, promising to "tell the Afghanistan people about the part that Mr Dawlat Ahmadzai had to play in our preparation and his part in the dismissal of Asghar Afghan" after the World Cup, whilst Nabi and Rashid did not wait that long to express their objections. Naib himself seems to see it as a mistake, saying he still sees Afghan as "his captain."

But for all the rancour, there was still a job needing doing. Gulbadin put his hand up.

Few captains in any sport could have started their tenure in a worse situation. Before his elevation, there were plenty of voices questioning his own place in the side. There were plenty more questioning the make-up of the side he would lead to England. But Naib knuckled down and did the job. He took three wickets in a nervy win over Scotland in his first outing. He took six more against Ireland ten days later, the best return in ODIs for an Afghan captain, the fourth best figures for a captain in ODIs, in fact.

It didn't last. Afghanistan arrived at the World Cup as champions of the qualifier, a new full member, with the best spin attack in the game. Expectations were high, at least among those who had not been following the teams closely enough to detect the turmoil beneath the surface — those who, for example, repeatedly make reference to this as Afghanistan's "first World Cup." Six losses later they were eliminated, only the perversity of the format keeping them playing in the tournament after their hopes had been extinguished.

Gulbadin Naib would be remebered for his expensive over against Pakistan but he led the Afghanistan valiantly at the World Cup. AP

Gulbadin Naib would be remembered for his expensive over against Pakistan but he led Afghanistan valiantly at the World Cup. AP

The doomed campaign had been in a state of perpetual disarray, the Afghan camp lurching from one crisis to the next. Most prominent of course was the dismissal of wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad, who was put on a plane back to Kabul on grounds of injury and where he duly gave an emotional press conference protesting that he was as fit as he had ever been. Ahmadzai himself appears to have overplayed his own hand now, falling victim to the perpetual shambles that has been Afghanistan's World Cup. He has been demoted from chief selector to picking the junior side, with former coach Andy Moles returning to the panel alongside Mujahid Zadran, who was named as head coach even before Simmon's official departure Even as the ACB reshuffled the seats on their board as those whose luck in politics had run out were pushed out.

Amidst all this there was still a World Cup going on, and Naib was left to lead his side out and try to win matches against mostly better teams, even as his team fell apart around him. Veteran fast bowlers Hamid Hassan and Dawlat Zadran predictably struggled with fitness, before Aftab Alam compounded the seam shortage by becoming the second player to be sent home, apparently on disciplinary grounds.

So Naib keeps doing what he has always done, soldiers on uncomplaining, gives his all, does what he can, tries to do what he can't. And he does it with frankly astonishing good humour. Four losses in and he was opening the batting again, against England, to set off in pursuit of 398. He didn't do half badly either. When he took Jofra Archer for 15 off the 6th over one might almost have imagined something special. In fact he has not done half-badly all tournament. He's nine runs off being his sides' top-scorer with the bat, he's their joint highest wicket-taker. But it's not likely that's how his tournament will be remembered, not after the Pakistan game. Not after that over.

It was inevitable, in hindsight. That over. That defeat. Someone probably should have stopped him really. But it's what he does. Gulbadin backed himself when the heat was on. No matter he'd gone for in his previous over. No matter Shinwari still had overs left, or even Rahmat Shah, whose perfectly adequate legspin had been ignored all game. Six to defend off the last over, and Naib wasn't looking for anyone else to put their hands up. He bowled it himself, it lasted four balls, the third saw him fumble a simple run-out chance, the last a full toss eased through the covers by Imad Wasim to end Afghanistan's best shot at a first win in the tournament, and perhaps Naib's run as skipper. Afghanistan have a game to go of course, another dead rubber against the West Indies with both teams' fate already decided. A chance at consolation, but not redemption, at least not for their unlucky, unlikely captain.

Maybe that match will be the last the world sees of Gulbadin Naib. Maybe he's not quite good enough. Maybe he never was. Maybe Afghanistan will be looking for someone to take the blame for their shambles of a World Cup.

Naib, one suspects, will put his hand up.

Somebody ought to stop him.

For all the latest news, opinions and analysis from ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, click here

Updated Date: July 01, 2019 22:07:45 IST

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