Naib, like so many other Afghan players of his generation, learned the game in refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan. ©AFP
Eleven years ago last month, Afghanistan were in Jersey playing the Bahamas in the second round of World Cricket League 2. To remind yourself of that is to remember just how far and fast they have come in the intervening time. That is a story well told but it does rather put into perspective their performances so far in this World Cup. They may have earned their place at this tournament but they are still the new kids on the block, elevated rapidly to a position of intense scrutiny and pressure. Gulbadin Naib knows all about that.
Like many of the Afghan players, Naib’s story is a remarkable one that started back in 2008 in Jersey. Then, as a fresh-faced 18 year-old, he took five wickets for six runs against Bahamas, including a hat-trick, helping his team to a comprehensive victory. Afghanistan went onto win that tournament and two years later were playing in the World T20. Naib probably expected to be a fixture in the team. Instead, he found himself on the outside for the best part of nine years.
Naib, like so many other Afghan players of his generation, learned the game in refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan. War and conflict had driven his family away from their home. The camps were safer but basic needs such as electricity, water and sanitation were constant struggles. There wasn’t much of a choice, though. This was the only escape from the Taliban, bullets and conflict. Naib would eventually return to Afghanistan but he was formed in Peshawar.
Cricket and bodybuilding gave him an outlet, something to take his mind off the daily grind. He had some talent, evident early, but he hardly got a look in after those five wickets in Jersey. Of Afghanistan’s first 19 matches with ODI status between 2010 and 2011, he played just one. In the following five years, he played just 16 ODIs. There were a few more T20Is but was never a regular in either side. Even when he felt he was playing well, he was left out. In the grand scheme of things, he had faced far greater challenges but it still hurt.
Afghans aren’t a people to be underestimated, though and Naib, body chiselled from granite, is a strong man, outside and in. He kept working and finally became a regular in Afghanistan’s ODI side in 2017.
Since then he has played 45 matches, missing just six. His record in that time is fine but no more, but he’s still there. But given he has only recently cemented his place in the team, and as a solid player rather than a star, it was a surprise that he was given the captaincy in April. From what he has said since, he still can’t quite seem to comprehend it.
Asghar Afghan was removed just before the World Cup in a move that made little sense either for reasons of timing or squad harmony. Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi didn’t agree and said as much on social media although that was no reflection on Naib. They just wanted stability before a big tournament. Political, familial and tribal allegiances all play a part in Afghan cricket and this decision looked motivated more by those than any cricketing reason.
Before the World Cup, Naib said he still thought of Afghan as his captain. He still wanted the support, still wanted to be guided by a man who had led Afghanistan through so much. The inference was that Naib wasn’t quite comfortable in the position he had been given. But if the mark of a good leader is someone who will lead from the front, give his all, be outwardly calm under pressure, step up when needed, then Naib is a natural.
He started the tournament against Australia batting at six but after Afghanistan’s batsmen have continued to collapse like a game of Jenga in an earthquake, he moved himself up to open, taking on that responsibility. In two of the last three matches, he has bowled ten overs and in the other he bowled nine. Against England, when the ball was flying to all parts, he bowled his full quota. He wanted the ball. Against India’s much vaunted line-up, he wanted the ball. He has taken seven wickets in those last three games.
As the flak has flown and disappointing performance has followed disappointing performance, Naib has stepped up, done more. He has fronted every press conference despite struggling at times with his English.
There are rumours that things are not well in the Afghan camp, though. Mohammad Shahzad went home injured and then moaned that he wasn’t injured at all. The Chairman of the Board has been talking trash about the coaching staff and Phil Simmons, the head coach, has said he will reply once the tournament is over. Team selection has been strange and muddled. Their performances have rightly attracted criticism. As captain, Naib has had a role in some of that.
If anything, though, his performances have improved. Today, he bowled better than his figures suggest, took the responsibility at tricky times. He nearly had Shakib Al Hasan caught off a leading edge early on. He also bowled a maiden at him. Nobody puts Shakib in the corner. But Naib did. For six balls anyway. He bowled when Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmadullah were just starting to kick on with ten overs left. He grabbed the ball for the last over of the innings, too.
With the bat, he gave Afghanistan a solid start. He blunted the new ball, protected a middle order which has the rigidity of a blancmange. He didn’t score quickly but frankly, his team just need some solidity from their openers right now. When he was dismissed, rather limply it must be said, his team lost seven for 96. No wonder he’s digging in.
Naib is not a perfect cricketer although he is world-class in the rig department. He bowls right arm medium-fast with a big heart but plenty of cricketers can do that. When he bats he digs in but is limited, unable to rotate the scoreboard against high-class operators like Shakib. A host of domestic players around the world would do better. There are other candidates to captain this team too. Nabi, more experienced and a classier player, has done it before. Khan possibly could. Afghan arguably should.
But what Naib has given his team in this tournament is his very best. He’s chipped in, taken the blows so his team didn’t have to, remained calm in the face of a seven game losing streak and internal politics. But Naib is used to facing challenges. He has never backed down from one in his life. For a team that is short on quality and experience, that’s not a bad trait to have in a captain. He may be an imperfect cricketer leading an imperfect side but he’s been no less impressive for that.