Gary Kirsten will not remember the first day of South Africa’s 1995 Johannesburg Test against Pakistan. He made a typically gritty half-century before being caught by Aamir Sohail off a burly left-arm seamer. He would not have taken much notice of Kabir Khan then, and Kirsten will hope that the man, who now coaches Afghanistan, will stay anonymous after India’s opening match of this tournament.
Much has been said and written about how Afghanistan’s players have escaped the war through cricket, how the sport is a unifying factor for the warring factions back home and how the players are waiting for a chance to play against their idols. All this is true, but it will count for little once they cross the boundary ropes and the umpire calls “play.”
Understandably, the occasion is a huge one for the team, and the studious and intense captain, Nowroz Mangal, allows himself a smile when he explains why. “Back home in Afghanistan, people only know us by name. They know that someone is a good player because they have seen our scores on the Internet,” says Mangal. “Now they’ll actually see us play on TV. They will see what we look look like and how we make our runs. Hopefully, we won’t embarrass ourselves.”
For the coach, who also doubles up as interpreter and translator since Mangal speaks only Pashto, Afghanistan’s journey from being ranked in the 120s in the world to No. 12 and an entry into this tournament began because of an odd quirk. “Afghanistan falls under the purview of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) and if the ACC wanted they could have appointed the best of coaches from India or Australia or England,” says Kabir. “But there would have been a serious language problem for any of these coaches. Because I was born in Peshawar, I speak both Pashto and Dari fluently.”
Kabir, who played 4 Tests and 10 ODIs for Pakistan alongside the likes of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, had to do more than just coach when he joined the team.
“I had to be like a big brother to them. When we went to a restaurant, I had to show them how to order. If we went to a party or an official reception, I had to tell them how to behave,” says Kabir.
The former Pakistan player has no hesitation when asked what makes his team tick. “These boys have had to fight for everything in their lives – for food, clothes, for a place to stay in the refugee camps on the border with Pakistan. For them, fighting is a matter of survival, and in that situation, losing is just not an option. Today, it’s cricket, and they’re more hungry than any of the other teams.”
The beard’s more luxuriant, and the story more real, but when this Kabir Khan speaks about his team, you’re reminded more than a little of Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Chak de India. Afghanistan’s players are huge fans of Bollywood movies and Indian cricket, and the eternal optimists in their mix will be hoping that in their case, life can imitate film in the ultimate underdog story.