A Royal at heart, Zahir hopes to play the IPL next season

After a shoulder injury cut short Zahir's Indian Premier League sojourn, the Afghanistan teenager is on the road to recovery and hopes to embrace the big stage soon.

Afghanistan's Zahir Khan at the CSS-Whatmore Centre for Cricket at Sri Ramachandra Medical College in Chennai.   -  Shayan Acharya

There is many a slip between the cup and the lip. The age-old adage could well hold true for Afghanistan spinner, Zahir Khan. The 19-year-old chinaman bowler, who was bought by the Rajasthan Royals for this edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), had to give up on his dreams of playing the star-studded tournament after sustaining a shoulder injury during a practice game.

While his other Afghan team-mates are taking the IPL by storm with their performances, Zahir — one of the talented spinners from the country — is spending time at the rehabilitation centre at the CSS-Whatmore Centre for Cricket at Sri Ramachandra Medical College (SRMC) campus in Chennai.

Even though he is out of the tournament, Zahir has made it a point to keep in touch with his team-mates at the Royals. Speaking to Sportstar, Zahir talks about missing the IPL, Afghanistan's Test against India and more.

Excerpts

You were one of the four Afghanistan cricketers who were picked up in the IPL auctions. But how tough is it to accept the fact that you are out of the tournament with a shoulder injury?

It is a big league, and everyone wants to play here. Even I had a dream of playing the IPL, so I was elated when Rajasthan Royals picked me. But then, this is how life is. I was doing well in the practice match and the coaches even told me that I would play a few games. But little did I know that a normal dive during a practice match would lead to such a grave shoulder injury. The doctor said that I won’t be able to play for five to six weeks. That was disappointing. My aim is to recover and hope for the best.

Read: Our spinners will challenge Indian batsmen, says Stanikzai

The IPL gave you a chance to come closer to some of the best players in the world. How were the couple of weeks that you spent at the Rajasthan Royals?

The coaches were good. I met (team mentor) Shane Warne also. Unfortunately, I had picked up the injury before he had joined the camp, so he could not watch me bowl. But he had seen my videos, and told me that I am a good bowler. He wished me a speedy recovery. Captain (Ajinkya) Rahane supported me a lot too. It was great to be with the boys. I hope to get selected next year.

What are your thoughts on Rajasthan Royals' form this year?

I hope the team wins the remaining matches and qualifies for the play-offs. I am still a part of the Rajasthan Royals’ WhatsApp group. I keep messaging the team-mates any they are equally responsive.

With the Royals having some of the big names, did you ever feel out of place as a junior cricketer?

In the dressing room, I would never feel like a junior. Rather, it looked as if I am a senior. I was close to (Jos) Buttler, since we have played together in the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL). My English is not that strong, but he is someone with whom you can communicate even without knowing the language. Even Rahane has been supportive, so has been (Jaydev) Unadkat. All of them made me feel at home. There were moments when I thought I was with the Afghanistan team.

Zahir Khan (right) with Rajasthan Royals captain Ajinkya Rahane.   -  Instagram (Zahir Khan)

 

So, how did you strike the chord with Buttler and other foreign players?

English was a big problem, but then, Buttler is a friendly guy. He would make it a point to talk to me. He has a good personality and that’s something I like about him. He has never behaved indifferently, and he is a fun-loving guy.

Before the IPL began, Mujeeb Zadran and you were being considered the players to watch out for. Half-way into the tournament, Mujeeb has impressed, while you have missed out. Does that hurt?

To be honest, I am not thinking it that way. The coaches at Royals supported me throughout. My practice was perfect, and I thought I would do well. But that was not meant to be. I will try again next year.

How crucial is the next one year?

It will be very crucial as we have some big tournaments lined up. The Sphageeza League, the Afghanistan Premier League, the Bangladesh Premier League are lined up. This time too, I will play for the Rangpur Riders. I have already signed contracts with them. The talks are on for the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) as well, but they are keeping an eye on my injury.

Afghanistan makes its Test debut next month. Do you see yourself donning the whites anytime soon?

Test match is a big thing, and everyone wants to feature in it. Playing against India is a big deal. Even I want to play the Test and I am recovering from the injury. The trainers have also advised me to stay here for another couple of weeks and then it will be alright. Let’s see, if I can recover 100 per cent, then I still have a chance. Even if I miss out on this one, we still have 14 Tests till 2022, so there will be chances. My only aim now, is to recover fast. I have missed quite a few tournaments due to injury, so I need to bounce back first. I am feeling confident, hopefully things will fall in place.

Also read: Afghanistan to host Bangladesh T20s in India

Most of the Afghan cricketers stay away from home for most time of the year. With violence striking back home every day, how do you people concentrate on the game?

The people in Afghanistan have got used to it. People are crazy about the game. If you go there, you would not even realise that things are not right there. Our family has come to terms with it. 

Since you spoke about the family, tell us a something more about them. Did they support you initially?

My brother has a mobile phone shop in Kabul. I am the only one who is into cricket. In the entire province of Paktika, cricket was not at all popular at one point of time. When I went to play the game, many thought I had gone mad. They advised me to do something meaningful and not waste time in cricket. It had reached such a point that I decided not to attend any marriage functions or any other social gatherings to avoid questions on why I was playing cricket. People would rebuke me for taking up the game. I would only stay at home. My family supported me throughout. Interestingly, today, those people are sending their wards to cricket academies.

Zahir Khan (left) with Rajasthan Royals mentor Shane Warne.   -  Instagram (Zahir Khan)

 

From being rebuked to playing for Afghanistan U-19 team. How did this happen?

In 2013, I came to Grade-A, then gradually got into the U-19 camp. A few years later, the national team played a four-day match against Papua New Guinea and I was not in the initial squad. But even then, I travelled with the team and played the game as (Rashid) Khan’s visa was delayed, whereas, my visa was ready. So, I was called-up by the team management. That time Inzamam ul Haq was our coach. As I reached, captain Asghar Stanikzai encouraged me and said that I will be in the final eleven. It was tough initially, but in the post-lunch session, I took seven wickets. Thereon, I was part of all the four-day games that Afghanistan has played.

How is the friendly rivalry between you and Rashid?

(Laughs) We are very good friends. In four-day games, sometime he would take eight wickets, while I would grab seven. It was fun, playing along side him.

Coming back to the IPL, how do you plan to spend the money that you earned here?

I will only get 25 or 30 per cent of the total money, since I did not play the tournament. I want to use that for the family. Had I got Rs 60 lakh, I would have built a home, but our national contracts are also good. With the money that I earn from IPL, I want to buy a shop for my brother in Kabul and would like to shift my family to Kabul.

Lastly, what is that one thing that has impressed you in this IPL?

The attitude of the coaches! They would never tell you negatives. The Rajasthan Royals coaches gave me a lot of confidence, as a result of which, I was bowling really well at the nets. Even Mujeeb, Rashid are getting that confidence from their respective coaches and captains. I speak to them daily and they are also happy with the way things have gone so far.