Fear, fraternity and cricket in tense Kabul
Video analyst for the last 12 years, Saurabh Walkar was in Kabul when Indian photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui, was killed while covering the Afghan conflict.
Mumbai’s Saurabh Walkar has been a cricket video analyst for 12 years. The job has taken the 36-year-old to many cricket destinations, but nothing can match the fear and fraternity while working with the Afghanistan cricket team at a just-ended 10-day camp in Kabul.
Ancient Olympics was a time of truce, and the latest edition of the modern Games begins in Tokyo on Friday. Afghanistan though is in turmoil. The camp coincided with the withdrawal of the US forces from the country, which has led to a worsened security situation.
Did the alarm bells ring before he left for Kabul? “Yeah, my friends and family asked “is it necessary to go in the current scenario”? I said all support staff (chief coach Lance Klusener and the trainer are from South Africa and physio Prasant Pancade is from Bengaluru) are going, I have to go, can’t say no. During my interview, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) asked if I would be willing to go and work in Kabul, if needed. So, I said: “When I’ve committed, I can’t say no”.”
Walkar left for Kabul from New Delhi on July 9 and returned on July 18. “The ACB provided assurance about my security and I was quite confident of spending 10 days.”
It was like nothing like Walkar had ever experienced. “It was different, not the usual camps we go to; we were travelling in a bullet-proof car—the first time I used a bullet-proof vehicle. Normally when you go to a new place, you go to the market, visit the city. Here our daily schedule was to go to the camp and get back to the hotel because things are happening there (the Afghan government forces are locked in gun battles with the Taliban).”
An electronics engineer by qualification, Walkar had responded to an ad on the ACB website. Klusener selected him after a one-on-one interview. He started his assignment with series against Ireland and Zimbabwe, both in Abu Dhabi. “This time they called for a camp before they decide the team for the Pakistan one-day series, which will happen in Sri Lanka or Oman in August.”
During the camp, the players stayed at ACB’s cricket academy in the stadium premises. The support staff was at a city hotel 10 minutes drive away.
One could feel the tension on the streets of Kabul. There was heavy security, says Walkar, but the cricket team is hugely popular, which was assuring.
“I didn’t witness any incident. You could see heavy security on the roads, and there were check posts. Kabul is safer, the incidents are happening in other parts of the country.”
The former Mumbai player has worked with Rajasthan Royals, Guyana Amazon Warriors in the Caribbean Premier League, Multan Sultans in the Pakistan Super League and in the Bangladesh Premier League and T10 League.
For sheer bonding, Walkar says the Afghanistan team environment is the best.
“The hospitality was simply amazing; from the food, fruits, whatever we asked we got it the next moment. We went to (ODI team) captain Hashmat’s house for dinner and they gave us the Pathani turban. It's the highest honour Afghani people give you.
“There is a dry fruit called tutan in Afghanistan, I had tutan when we were in the UAE, it was really nice. So, the day I landed in Kabul, I enquired about it. The captain went home and sent me a bowl of tutan. You ask for one thing and they will provide you a whole bunch of things with it,” says the Dadar-based analyst.
On his last day in Kabul, Walkar, though it was a risk, took permission from ACB to go out. “I was so eager to explore the city. You can say it was a bit foolish on my part… stepping out without the security. But it was the last day and the Afghanistan players assured me, “don’t worry, we are there with you. We will take you to the local shop and local restaurant to eat”. So, we went out in the evening for three-four hours.”
He recalled the memorable outing with Afghanistan players Farid Malik, Yamin Ahmadzai and Afsar Zazai. “I did a bit of shopping… the players didn’t allow me to pay. Then it was the best food (goat curry and roti) I had ever had in the 12 years of my travel career.”
Walkar was in Kabul when Indian photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui, was killed while covering the Afghan conflict. It caused panic among the family members of Indians who were in Afghanistan. Walkar’s mobile was flooded with messages. “I was getting messages from my Indian friends and relatives asking when was I returning.”
Will he travel to Kabul again?
“If my job demands, I don’t mind (going again). Some of my friends ask if I am being paid extra to take the risk of going to Kabul. I tell them: ‘It's not about extra money. I made a commitment to ACB and went there to honour that’.”