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Mohammad Nabi’s rise — From bullet-riddled walls to the ICC World Cup

From being a refugee in Pakistan to leading his homeland to the biggest cricketing event, Mohammad Nabi's journey characterises cricket's journey in Afghanistan as well © Getty Images
From being a refugee in Pakistan to leading his homeland to the biggest cricketing event, Mohammad Nabi’s journey characterises cricket’s journey in Afghanistan as well © Getty Images

Jan 6, 2014

Afghanistan all-rounder, Mohammad Nabi has been lauded for leading the country with a crushing win over Kenya to confirm their place in the 2015 cricket World Cup.

But the 29-year-old’s path to being named captain of the national team last year – before being removed and reinstated – has never been smooth.

Nabi was born at a refugee camp in Pakistan‘s northwestern city of Peshawar.

The war, insurgency and Taliban rule raged on across the border as Nabi and his family were deprived of visiting their homeland.

Since his childhood, he wanted to become a cricketer but his family, including nine chachas (paternal uncles), disapproved. However, Nabi persevered and devoted a lot of time to the sport as a schoolboy, sneaking out to train at a local club after having enough of the tennis-ball cricket. He had the talent and the urge, but, given the missiles, gunfire and sound of bombs going off in Peshawar, it was difficult to concentrate.

“I played cricket from a young age, but given the circumstances and what was going on around us and in Afghanistan, there was no way I would’ve imagined playing for my country let alone captaining it,” Nabi told Al Jazeera.

Nabi learned his cricket on the streets, in a similar manner to every child that plays the sport in Pakistan. Cricket equipment on the streets is often bare and shoddy – a bat, a makeshift wicket and a tennis ball wrapped up in tape. There are no green fields, no turf pitches and no boundary ropes.

The lucky ones get cemented pitches, yet rocks and pebbles on a sandy field are more common. Shoes are for the privileged and so is a branded, smooth bat that doesn’t threaten to give way at impact.

But as Afghanistan was cleared of insurgents, Nabi headed to Kabul to take part in a regional club tournament.

“When I visited Afghanistan for the first time, I was left traumatised,” Nabi said.

“It was distressing to see bullet-riddled walls – a complete disaster staring at me in the face.”

For all the excitement and promise, illness forced him to miss the tournament he had crossed the border for and although he surpassed his expectations at trials held for a grade II Afghanistan side, he wasn’t shortlisted. The promise, the willingness and recommendations came in handy as Nabi finally got the nod and that’s when he truly changed gears, realising it was now or never.

He scored often, bagged a lot of wickets and captained various sides in Pakistan and Afghanistan, culminating in him being appointed the permanent Afghanistan captain earlier last year.

“I’ve been very, very lucky in my journey to the top,” Nabi said.

“Self-learning – very important given the lack of mentors and guides we had in the early days – and the will to improve have been two key aspects of life that have helped me.”

Nabi was also invited to spend three months with the Marylebone Cricket Club as part of its young player programme after being spotted by former England captain Mike Gatting in India.

This opportunity helped him gain valuable experience of playing with and against quality players, at quality venues and being able to train with qualified coaches and using world-class equipment. Afghanistan did not have facilities of its own or even a proper cricket ground.

The team trained in Sri Lanka, Dubai and Lahore before finally settling down in Sharjah, calling it home. “It was unity and passion that drove us. We had formed a close bond in the dressing room – when we had one – and we knew the suffering and agony will pave way for a better future.”

“We were fighters, we were strong and we knew that patience and dedication will help us reach the target.”

The players were able to use world-class facilities to hone their skills, and play exciting and fearless cricket that helped them attract followers from all over the world.

“We are great crowd pullers – in a Karachi Ramazan tournament, the stadium was packed and there was absolutely no room to move so we had people sitting in trees along the boundary line.”

Afghanistan went on to win Division Five, Four and Three before qualifying for the ICC’s World Twenty20 twice and attaining One-Day International status.

In store for them along the steep rise was a welcome win against Pakistan in the semi-finals of the Asian Games.

Although Afghanistan lost in the final, and obtained a silver medal – they progressed beyond anyone’s hopes and expectations.

And then they qualified for the biggest event in cricket.

“Cricket is the fastest growing sport in our country, we have thousands and thousands following us on the radio or the tv and that’s not just in Afghanistan.

“Previously, we had been labelled as mere participants, now we were contenders, rising from the ashes and onto the podium.”

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