Kabir Khan believes it would be a good experience to play in the Asia Cup 2014 © AFP
Afghanistan coach Kabir Khan said, “The thing is that the generation that is playing with me has been through a lot of troubles and they became tough. Most of them were in refugee camps in Pakistan or other countries. And, you know what life there is in a refugee camp! It is very difficult. You have to fight for food or even water sometimes. All those difficulties have made them very tough.” Nishad Pai Vaidya spoke to Kabir about Afghanistan’s rise and what makes them so hungry to succeed.
Kabir Khan, the coach of the Afghanistan team has been with the side throughout the memorable journey. From the lower divisions of the World Cricket League (WCL), this team made it through to the ICC World T20s, gained One-Day International (ODI) status, qualified for the ICC World Cup 2015 in Australia and New Zealand and is gearing up to play the Asia Cup 2014 for the first time. Since he took over as coach in 2008, coach Kabir has seen everything.
As Afghanistan prepared for the Asia Cup, CricketCountry caught up with Kabir in Sharjah as he was in the city to help out the under-19s. He looks back at the eventful journey and talks about Afghanistan’s aims, aspirations and lots more:
CricketCountry (CC): What were your thoughts when you took up the coaching job of Afghanistan?
Kabir Khan (KK): It was a challenge to be honest. Working in Afghanistan, it is quite a tough environment there. Facilities were next to nothing at the time when I started off in 2008. But, now if you see, the office has done a lot of work. They have built about eight to nine grounds. There are two proper stadiums and six to seven academies. The facilities are growing day-by-day, and so is funding. The game is about finances. Without financial support, you cannot help the game grow in any country. So, they started playing cricket and started winning and in the meanwhile, the government got involved. The International Cricket Council (ICC) also came in. The Asian Cricket Council (ACC) also put their part in. So, there was a nation that became a cricketing nation, which nobody would have imagined 20 years ago.
CC: What were the challenges you faced when you took over? You were in the lower divisions of the WCL then.
KK: I’d say it was a package of challenges. There isn’t a single thing I can point out. Finances were a challenge, so was administration. Getting players disciplined was. They were talented but didn’t know how they should play the game. They were naturally attacking and wanted to attack. They used to play 50 overs or Twenty20s [T20s] with the same style. They needed to be calmed down and that took a bit of time. These guys were very talented and hungry to learn as well. That helped a lot. Talent is one thing, but the hunger to learn is very important. That is the thing they have got in this nation. They want to improve, they want to challenge you as a coach. They think that anything they cannot do is a challenge and they try to do it. They are tough. That made it very easy cricketing wise. As I said, it was a total mess regarding administration and the finance side of it. There was no ground and facilities as such. And, we had to depend a lot on Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka to have our camps and to support us.
CC: Yes, even this ground (Sharjah Cricket Stadium) was your main venue. Playing away from home, how difficult was it for players?
KK: It is always difficult. Now we think we are very close to the top level. Rankings wise, we are around 11 or 12 in the world, just below the Test playing nations. Due to the conditions in the country, you cannot play at home. There are no matches there. We are thankful to Mr Bukhatir, who gave us this ground to use it as a home venue. We are using it for the last four years. The offer came from Sharjah when we were an ODI nation. It wasn’t that difficult time, but a time when we needed a home. The Afghan nation is thankful to Mr Bukhatir for being generous and letting us use this facility here. Things are changing. The more cricket we are playing, the facilities at home are getting better. Hopefully some teams can come. There is no point in building stadiums if there is no international cricket around. We are willing that if any team could come, obviously we would give them very good security and very good facilities. For the younger generation, and for the game to grow, they need to see top level cricket at their home in Afghanistan. We need to have home cricket.
There is quite a bit of domestic cricket being played. You would be amazed to know that even for those games, thousands of people come and watch it. What would happen if an international team would come? We aren’t looking too big; we aren’t looking at Test nations to come there. At least, we want some of the Associate nations to come over. That is very important for our basic cricket, for our young boys to move towards cricket. I remember when I used to go and watch all the stars playing in front of my eyes, it used to give me a boost, more courage and more determination that I want to play cricket. You can see with Pakistan, they haven’t played at home cricket for five years now. You can see that domestic cricket is getting affected and there are no new players coming in.
CC: You are from Pakistan. Everyone in the Afghanistan team wouldn’t have been fluent in English or in Urdu. How did you manage on that front when you took over?
KK: I was lucky, as I live in Peshawar. It is near the border of Afghanistan and we speak the same language — Pashto. Luckily I can speak very good Pashto. I learnt a bit of Persian as well, because it is another language they speak there. It was actually an advantage for me to go there. It was very easy for them to understand me or for me to convince them, talk to them etc. If you speak in English and they don’t understand the actual meaning, then it is very difficult. And, coaching is all about getting people motivated and pumping them up, and stuff like that.
CC: Afghanistan have been in two ICC World T20s and a few ODIs. There were times where a few teams had tough moments against you. Can you tell us about that competitive nature in the team?
KK: I would say that these are things that are inbuilt or they are born with. The thing is that the generation that is playing with me has been through a lot of troubles and they became tough. Most of them were in refugee camps in Pakistan or other countries. And, you know what life there is in a refugee camp! It is very difficult. You have to fight for food or even water sometimes. All those difficulties have made them very tough. That is something they cannot forget, as they have done it so many times that it makes them very tough and resilient. That is the main reason I would say. They wanted to prove to the world that they are good enough. They could do anything. You just tell them, “Run 20 laps of the ground.” Stupid thing, and they’ll do it if they think whatever the coach is saying is good for them and would make them better cricketers. They took it as a challenge. Some of them are still playing and you ask them and they will always remember their old days. They are not satisfied [with what they have done] and they are still hungry. Most of the players say, “Sir, we have qualified for the World T20 twice. We have enjoyed it and the nation has enjoyed it. But, that’s it! We are now regularly qualifying for World Cups, now it is time to win games.” That is the sort of mentality they have got. Which is very good to see as a coach. These are those players who want to go and perform there.
CC: You have qualified for the World T20 thrice. But, how big is your qualification for the 50-over World Cup?
KK: It is big, but it is very challenging as well. None of our players have played in Australia. All of us know that Asian players do struggle there. But the top professionals do adjust there easily. It would be our first time and our pool is not easy. [We’ll be] batting on some bouncy tracks against quality sides, some of the best of the world. On the one side, everyone is happy and have enjoyed it, but it is a much bigger challenge to play there in those circumstances. They are quite used to pitches here, so it would be a new experience for them there. I as a coach, have got one year in my hand after the World T20 to prepare them for that.
In the long term, we have introduced cricket as a subject in the schools. This will spread the game. We may select players from 60 percent of the population, we will now take the game to 100% of it. There might be very good talented boys over there
CC: Now you have the Asia Cup and the ICC World T20 2014, both in Bangladesh. How are you looking at these twin tournaments in Bangladesh?
KK: I’ll come to Asia Cup first. It is our first time. We haven’t played so much of 50-over cricket in recent years and against the top quality sides. So, it would be a good experience for us in the Asia Cup. We achieved this place in the Asia Cup after six or seven years of hard-work. We don’t want to show to the people that “they said too much and that they can’t do anything.” We want to play good cricket and give them tough time as well. Winning or losing is something else. We might not be able to win the Asia Cup, but we are good enough to give them good fights and maybe an odd match when we are in control, we could win it. The good thing about it is, coming to the World T20 — people take me wrong sometimes that I always target Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, the lower ranked teams. But, let’s say if Australia or India were in our group. So, we had only one chance to beat that team and go through to the next round. We have played two World T20s now. We have never been to the second round. So, our next goal is, automatically, go to the second round.
We have played twice, so that pressure would have been released now. T20 is more or less our game. So, why not try to go to the second round? If we have to go there, we have to beat Bangladesh. Otherwise you cannot. It is the same as our Under-19 team. They had to beat Australia and Bangladesh to come to the second round. This shows the depth of our team as well, in junior cricket we have got quality players as well. That is what we want to show in our national team as well. Now, everything is organised, finances are okay, players are getting paid, maybe not as much as others, but there is something coming in. Now, this is the time to prove yourself that we can move to the next round. To go there, we have to beat any team in our pool.
CC: The philosophy is clear — you want to raise the bar. Afghanistan did it very well throughout the WCL. But, this next jump: how challenging would that be?
KK: It is a difficult one.
CC: Most challenging?
KK: It is the most challenging step. The good thing you said that we have been consistent with what we have been doing. But, when it game to the top level, we didn’t do it that much. We came close sometimes. We took our T20 match against Pakistan to the last ball. Against India (in 2012) we sensed a chance of winning. In an ODI against Australia, we thought we were in a good position at one stage. We might beat a Test playing team in an odd match. But, what I aim to, like if we played Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, or any lower ranked team, no disrespect to them: If we played 10 matches, and if we don’t beat them five times, it means we are not good enough. One odd match you can beat any team. People have done it before. Upsets happen. But, I personally think that we don’t want to do it once in a blue moon. If we are good enough, we should be doing it consistently. That is a bigger challenge. We don’t want to be happy by winning one game. The aim is to raise the bar and be consistent. At our level we have been consistent, but at the top level we haven’t shown that much.
CC: Apart from that, are there any other external challenges?
KK: In cricket, there is always room for improvement. But now, the administration side is much better. The office is running smoothly, the players are getting paid, no issues with money or salary; everything is smooth. Lot of development work is going on. Money which is meant to be spent somewhere is going there. Afghanistan is becoming a cricket crazy nation now.
In the long term, we have introduced cricket as a subject in the schools. This will spread the game. We may select players from 60 percent of the population, we will now take the game to 100% of it. There might be very good talented boys over there. We never think about the short term things. The technical, coaching and administrative staff are thinking towards the bigger picture. The bigger picture is the future and not now. ‘Now’ is very important and we are working on it, but it is always the future. We have got plans, we can see the plans: how junior players are coming up? How domestic cricket is coming along? Every match is televised there. People are coming to the grounds and most of the times, on a good day, you have a full house. Sometimes, even if you put tickets on it, it is still a full house. People want to watch the domestic games, with few of the national stars. It is improving and it is going towards the right direction. Even the top cricket boards in the world have challenges. We are not the best cricket board in the world, but we have achieved a lot and there is room to achieve a lot more. That is the only way going forward.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_44)