It was a strange feeling for Dawlat Ahmadzai as he walked into the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on Thursday morning. The venue looked all decked up for Afghanistan’s debut Test match against India, and suddenly it brought back so many memories for Ahmadzai.
When he fell in love with the sport, years ago, Ahmadzai never even thought that someday he would play at the highest level.
But when Afghanistan secured a spot in the ODI circuit in 2009, Ahmadzai — the team’s strike bowler then — featured in three ODIs and two T20s. But his international career lasted for a year, and soon, he took over coaching responsibilities.
"When we started playing, it was really challenging. There was no facility and also there was no financial support. We would pay from our pockets to buy bats, spikes and other gears,” Ahmadzai told Sportstar.
Then, there was pressure from home. “Nobody understood what we were up to. It was in 2000, and we were under the Olympics Federation. Even they did not know how to go about it. And now, we are playing Test,” he said, with a smile.
A former captain, an erstwhile national selector, and the present coach of Afghanistan’s U-19 side — Ahmadzai has been a silent warrior.
But that’s not all. He has another major contribution to the game, and that is finding out a young talent called Rashid Khan. Being a national selector, Ahmadzai was the man who spotted the spin sensation some six years ago.
While scouting for young talents at Jalalabad — Rashid’s hometown in the province of Nangarhar — Ahmadzai came across this well-built youngster, who impressed him with his spin.
“Rashid’s brothers have also played cricket and he is the youngest of them all. When I saw him in 2012, I picked him at the U-19 level. I knew this guy could make it big,” Ahmadzai said.
While he was convinced that Rashid will be an asset for Afghanistan cricket, the other selectors were not too convinced of the youngster’s future.
“In the trial camp, he appeared a bit nervous. After all, he was a kid then. He went on bowling too many leg breaks and the other selectors were not too happy with him,” Ahmadzai said.
“But I knew I would take this man in the squad. We needed a leg-spinner and someone who could bat. Rashid fitted the bill,” the coach revealed.
Once he was in the U-19 squad, Ahmadzai ensured that Rashid was properly honed for international cricket.
“He is a real talent. I would tell him that one day he would be a superstar. Rashid, then a teen, would laugh it off. But look at him now.”
'It has happened because of the IPL'
Ahmadzai feels that the Indian Premier League (IPL) made Rashid a big star. “It has happened because of the IPL,” he said.
But the journey was not easy for the spinner. In 2015, Ahmadzai and Afghanistan Cricket Board’s CEO, Shafiq Stanikzai, had to push Rashid into the senior team.
The then coach, Inzamam-ul Haq was not too sure how Rashid would be. But then, Asghar Stanikzai and the Board CEO came forward and spoke highly of Rashid.
The young gun was flown down to Zimbabwe to join the squad. And once he was in the scheme of things, there was no looking back.
As Rashid walked around the ground in whites, it opened a floodgate of memories for Ahmadzai.
“He has been trying to play it like a Test match. This is the first time, so there has been a bit of mental pressure. The line and length was not right in the first two sessions,” the coach said during the tea break. He was quick to add: “Don’t write him off yet, he can comeback in this Test as well.”
His prediction was absolutely right.
After a forgettable outing in the first two sessions on Thursday, Rashid fought back in the final season.
“I will meet him in the hotel (in the evening) and tell him to enjoy and have self-belief. This is an interesting format where each team will have its moments,” the coach said.
This being Afghanistan’s first Test, there is a possibility of the young side folding up within three or four days. But Ahmadzai believes that whatever be the result, this will be a great learning curve for the team.
“It will prepare the side. This is not just an experience but it is also an education for the team. The flaws can be worked on. This will help us in the future. We will have to find out how can we improve in the longer format,” the U-19 coach pointed out.
Interestingly, this Afghan side comprises of cricketers like Mohammad Nabi, Stanikzai, who have been Ahmadzai’s contemporary and guys like Rashid, Mujeeb Zadran and Wafadar have been his students. So, soon there will be a time when the senior cricketers will have to bow out. What would happen then?
“There will be a transition phase and we have to handle it with care. The selection committee and the ACB are working on it. Thankfully, a lot of talented players are coming up in the domestic or U-19 level,” he said.
'This is one thing I will regret'
When they started playing cricket, the likes of Ahmadzai did not even dream of coming closer to Test cricket ever. And even as he walked into retirement years ago, the longer format of the game looked like a distant dream.
But then, as he saw his friends and colleagues walking into the ground, donning the whites, Ahmadzai could not help but control his emotions.
“This is one thing I will regret. I wish I could don the whites today and be in the middle,” he said, softly adding: “But one can’t get everything in life.”
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