Near-death experience won’t stop Indian cricket commentator from calling the game in Afghanistan

Devender Kumar fell in love with commentary and wanted to find a career in it. So, when passion met opportunity in Afghanistan, no circumstance was going to make him turn away.

Devender Kumar’s love for commentary took him to Afghanistan and, despite difficult situations there, he intends to keep going back.

Devender Kumar’s love for commentary took him to Afghanistan and, despite difficult situations there, he intends to keep going back. | Photo Credit: Twitter/Devender Kumar

Devender Kumar fell in love with commentary and wanted to find a career in it. So, when passion met opportunity in Afghanistan, no circumstance was going to make him turn away.

It was a Friday afternoon and Devender Kumar was engrossed in an interview with Ramiz Alakbarov, the deputy at the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, during the innings break of the Sphageeza League match between Pamir Zalmi and Band-e-Amir Dragons at the Kabul International Stadium. 

Suddenly, the ground beneath him was shaking and before he could gather his wits, Devender heard a deafening noise. Within seconds, the scene turned chaotic with five-thousand spectators running helter-skelter and security personnel rushing towards the stands. The Afghanistan Cricket Board later confirmed that 13 civilians were injured and there were two fatalities. 

“I realised that a blast had occurred barely 10 yards away from where I was standing,” Devender tells  Sportstar

Devender was the only Indian in the commentary panel of the Afghanistan Cricket Board. “This was my fourth visit to this beautiful country, but this is the first time I witnessed a blast inside the stadium. In 2017, there was a blast during the tournament, but it happened outside the stadium. It was a harrowing moment for all of us,” the 36-year-old says. 

Reuters, quoting a spokesman for the Kabul Commander, reported that it was grenade explosion. “As soon as I heard the explosion, the security officers rushed us to the commentary box. The players, too, were shocked, but senior player Shapoor Zadran appealed to the crowd to vacate the stadium, after which the area was cleaned up and the match resumed,” Devender says. 

 Shapoor Zadran (File photo)

 Shapoor Zadran (File photo) | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

With the players and the officials still reeling from the shock, the second innings was curtailed to 10 overs. “Once the crowd was dispersed, we ensured that the broadcast was not hampered, and we even conducted the post-match ceremonies before heading back to the hotel.” 

Despite the nightmarish turn of events, Devender decided not to return to India and stayed back till the tournament got over on August 5. “This is my job, so I wanted to fulfil my professional commitments and then head back home. I feel that death is not in our hands,” he says.  

Devender describes the blast as a “harrowing moment” for all present

Devender describes the blast as a “harrowing moment” for all present | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Back home now, Devender distinctly remembers that evening. “After coming back to the hotel, I could not sleep all night. Amid frantic calls and messages from friends and family, I kept thinking about those who were injured. It is then that I decided to stay back,” he says. 

“I told my parents not to panic. My father is a former army-man, so he knows what one goes through in such a situation, but obviously, the other members of the family were scared,” he says. “But the people and the cricket fans of Afghanistan have always been welcoming and cordial and I wanted to make sure that I do my commentary job sincerely and call an exciting final.”  

When he walked to the stadium the next morning, the security was beefed up and movements were restricted. “But even then, it was a packed stadium. And that proved how much Afghanistan loves its cricket. Later in the day, we heard that some players from Pakistan were heading back home, but I told the ACB officials that I would stay back,” he says. 

Chasing his dreams

Devender, hailing from a village near Jodhpur, fell in love with commentary and wanted to find a career in it. But it was a challenge as he needed to improve his English-speaking skills.  

“There was no English teacher in our village school, even Hindi was taught in Marwari. So, for a long time, I did not understand English commentary beyond ‘Howzzat’. But the voice of Tony Greig and Geoffrey Boycott inspired me to learn the language and start commentary. I am glad I could do that,” he says. 

In a bid to watch more cricket, Devender – just 20 then – shifted to Jaipur in 2006-07. Chasing his dreams of becoming a cricket commentator, Devender initially did not have a place to stay. “Back in those days, there was no money, and my only objective was to watch cricket at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur and hone my commentary skills. There would be days when I would just have one meal a day,” Devender reminisces. 

But that did not stop him from pursuing his passion. Every morning, sharp at seven o’clock, he would walk about 10 kilometres to reach the Sawai Mansingh Stadium and watch the training session of the Rajasthan Ranji Trophy team. 

Greg Chappell had just been appointed the head of the RCA Academy and the Rajasthan team would train under the watchful eyes of the Australian legend. “I would sit at one corner and practice my commentary. Greg sir observed me regularly and a few months later, he gifted me a cap, which I still treasure. Ever since, I would always reach the stadium sharp at seven o’ clock in the morning and watch the training sessions,” he says. 

“That continued for years. I would watch each match at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium and that’s how I got to know Alan Wilkins, Danny Morrison and Harsha Bhogle, who inspired me to chase my dreams.” 

‘Never about the money’

While he was slowly getting opportunities to do small assignments in local polo matches or club cricket, it took Devender quite a while to bag an international opportunity. “In 2017, I got a call from Afghanistan Cricket Board for an assignment for their national and international tournaments. I still don’t know who referred me, but it seemed that the ACB had a fair bit of idea about my work,” Devender says. 

And that’s how his journey with Afghanistan started.

With the international leagues mushrooming across the globe, young commentators like Devender often travel far and wide to gain experience and earn a living. 

“For me, it was never about the money. The first time I travelled to Kabul, the people were so welcoming, and over the years, the bond has only grown stronger,” he says. “This time, too, when I reached the Kabul airport, the immigration officials assured security. The players, the ACB officials were so supportive that in their times of crisis, I could not let them down. Over the last few years, I have travelled to Kabul regularly and have always felt at home. Every time I come back from Afghanistan I return with happy stories.” 

This trip was no different. “Before the blast, I travelled to the interiors of Afghanistan, and it was a fascinating experience. The people were welcoming, and they always treated me as one of their own,” he says. 

Even after the blast when the Pakistan players left Kabul, Devender’s decision to stay back earned him praise. “On the last day of my trip, the ACB chairman and leaders from the Taliban, who now rule the country, came to my hotel along with some international cricketers to thank me for staying back,” he says. “Even Gulbadin Naib and several cricketers took to social media to thank me.” 

Despite the near-death experience, Devender wants to go back to Kabul soon. “The spirit of the Afghanistan people has inspired me over the years,” he says, “My years of hardship have taught me not to give up and with so much love from the people, I would pack my bags and go back again.  Baaki dekha jaayega.” 

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