Peace, the driving force for Afghanistan's rise

Former Afghanistan coach Kabir Khan chronicles the country's growth from refugee camps to Test cricket.

Kabir Khan has been one of the key men behind the phenomenal success of Afghanistan cricket.   -  AFP

If you look up for Kabir Khan on Google, the search engine would tell you that you have actually typed out the screen name of Bollywood icon, Shah Rukh Khan, in the iconic film, ‘Chak De! India’.

An inspirational flick, ‘Chak De!’ is a story of how a low-key Indian women’s hockey team clinched the World Cup title under coach Kabir Khan.

And quite coincidentally, there exists a real life Kabir Khan who scripted a real life sporting fairytale — in cricket, with the Afghanistan team.

Kabir, 44, played four Tests and 10 ODIs for Pakistan. The former Pakistani cricketer has been one of the key men behind the phenomenal success of Afghanistan cricket. Taking over as its coach in 2007, Kabir helped the country earn the ODI status, and also helped the team qualify for World T20 events thrice.

READ: 'Spinners have made Afghanistan a dangerous side'

During his time, the Afghan side also qualified for its first ever 50-over World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2015.

Though he quit the job in 2014, Kabir still follows the team closely, and is looking forward to its debut Test against India in Bengaluru next week. Speaking to Sportstar from his home in Pakistan, he walks down memory lane. In a rather emotional conversation, Kabir chronicles the moments of Afghanistan’s cricketing journey.

 
"They knew that the only thing that could spread peace inAfghanistan was cricket. That was only possible if they could do something good at the top stage. For that, performance was important... Every other day, there would be attacks somewhere or the other and despite knowing all that, they would take the field for a match. They knew if they could break into the top league, it will, to some extent, bring peace to the country. That would unite the nation."
 

 

Excerpts from the chat…

You took over as a coach at a time when no one knew about Afghanistan cricket. How challenging was that journey?

It was tough. They never had their own stadium and it was tough to practice. They had a ground there, which has now been changed into a proper cricket stadium. At that time, it was just a ground. They would travel to other countries to practice and prepare themselves for the tournaments. Facility-wise, it was tough. But then, the boys were really talented. As a coach, it was a good challenge. As a coach, one would love to train a team which is dedicated and talented and willing to learn. The best thing was that the players responded perfectly. The players would do anything to improve. They never complained, and since I was looking at the bigger picture, I did not complain either.

Where would the team practice?

They did not have facilities in Kabul then, so they would play mostly in Peshawar, which is closer to Afghanistan. During the war, there were many refugee camps in Peshawar, so people started playing there. The language was the same, and they used to practice there. As soon as they qualified for the international level, they started practising at Sharjah — which later became their home ground.

The IPL has helped Afghanistan players like Rashid Khan become superstars.   -  AFP

 

Now, the team has superstars like Rashid Khan. But during your time, it was all about the first generation cricketers. With the country always on the boil, how was it motivating the players?

At that time, Nawroz Mangal was the captain and he was a true patriot. Mohammad Nabi was their role model and then there was Hamid Hasan. Those two-three guys were role models for the boys. They knew that the only thing that could spread peace inAfghanistan was cricket. That was only possible if they could do something good at the top stage. For that, performance was important. They were talented and needed someone to guide them. The players were already hard-working, all they needed was direction and a pathway.

READ: Series sweep for Afghanistan

They could do anything. They wanted to show the world what Afghanistan was actually all about and that was only possible by winning in cricket. That was very clear to them. They used to be very happy when their national anthem would play during the tournaments. That was the passion which brought them to this stage. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult. There are so many things going on back home, and it was not easy for them to perform regularly under so much tension. Every other day, there would be attacks somewhere or the other and despite knowing all that, they would take the field for a match. They knew if they could break into the top league, it will, to some extent, bring peace to the country. That would unite the nation. They were right from their perspective and as a coach, I saw it from a different angle. But they knew what could bring them together.

You spoke about the first generation cricketers. But would you agree that Afghanistan cricket actually gained popularity because of the home-grown stars like Rashid Khan?

Look, once they qualified for international cricket and got proper funding and support from the government, they started producing players from their own soil. The problem was that initially their cricket was dependent on Pakistan. There was no cricket inAfghanistan and the people who migrated to Pakistan, learnt the game there, and that’s how the process started. They were supported by Pakistan Cricket Board. Up to a level, they were supported there but once they got international status, they knew how to go ahead. Some good people came into the Afghanistan management and they kind of shifted their cricket from Sharjah to India.

Afghanistan is a cricket crazy country and now they have gone to another cricket crazy country — India.

India has supported them with everything. Afghanistan players were talented and they were in good hands to grow up to a level. They managed their domestic cricket as well. Be it Nabi, Hamid or Mangal, everybody will admit that their cricketing skills were honed in Pakistan. They came here and learnt the game, so you can’t say they were home-grown cricketers. With Rashid (Khan) and Mujeeb (Zadran) coming into play, it shows that Afghanistan’s home-grown cricket is also improving.

Who would you credit their success to?

The credit goes to the Afghanistan Cricket Board and the other boards helping them. India is helping them now, and in the past, it was Pakistan. Credit goes to all of them, because without this help, they would not have made it. It was very difficult to get a single match against a Test-playing nation and I can understand how difficult it must have been. And now, India offering them a Test match is a big help to their cricket. I doubt if Australia, England or South Africa would have offered them such a chance. That’s the contribution of India I am talking about. The IPL has also helped Afghanistan stars become superstars.

So, are you trying to say that arch-rivals India and Pakistan actually are to be praised for backing Afghanistan cricket to the hilt?

Definitely. All the Asian countries have helped them. It would be rude not to include Sri Lanka in the list because we had some of our biggest camps there when I was the coach. The biggest contributions, however, came from India and Pakistan. Now, India is helping them taking their game to the next level. As a coach, I was worried about what would happen to Afghanistan cricket once Nabi or Mangal quit. I could not see any talent at that time who could survive. But now, they are in good hands and will survive. They are producing players, their domestic structure is getting better and better. Also, they have good coaches, and their top players are getting polished for international cricket. That’s what a country needs. I don’t see Ireland falling in that category. I don’t see any of their players becoming superstars, but Afghanistan has already started producing superstars.

Afghanistan, led by captain Ashghar Stanikzai, will play India in its maiden Test at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru from June 14.   -  AFP

 

Now, that the team gears up for its first-ever Test against India, would you like to give any advice to the players?

When I used to coach them, we qualified for the T20 World Cup and then the ODI World Cup. I would tell them that they had nothing to lose. If they get thrashed against India, they would still be winners because playing a Test itself is a big achievement. Playing India — the best team in the world — in their first Test is a huge achievement. I hope they will fight well, because the g uys are fighters. If they have got even one per cent chance, they would still go and try to win the game. I know, by nature, they only want to win. As a coach, I see it as a big achievement for them to just qualify for Test cricket. They will learn it day by day. If they perform very well, then its fantastic, but even if they don’t — come on, it’s just their first Test. They should be proud of their achievements. I am happy that most of the senior guys have survived it so far and have seen it all. They should also be thankful to India for giving them a chance to play a Test. I wish them all the best.

You sound quite emotional as you speak. You should be in Bengaluru next week for the game…

(Laughs) I was just a mentor and a big brother. Sometimes, it is good to give them their own space. It’s up to the Board to decide who goes and who does not. It is a memorable day and had they invited me, I would have gone. The pride will still be the same watching the match on television. It would have been a different ball game had I gone and witnessed it, but if I can't watch it from the ground, I will still be as proud seeing my team play its first-ever Test.