Instability in Afghanistan has been a long-standing thing, off the field or on the field. For some, cricket was the only thing; for others, it was the last thing on their minds.
In such a polarised world, the Afghanistan team was out there in India to give some respite in the form of entertainment to the ones back home. But the expectations were quite grim. Not just from the outside but also from the inside, given that the Afghanistan team had just one ODI World Cup win against their name.
That solitary win came against Scotland. The 2019 World Cup was a blank for the Afghanistan side, who were mere tourists. If that wasn’t enough, they were also hammered to all parts of Manchester when England smashed 397 runs, and Rashid Khan went wicketless, conceding 110 runs.
To make matters worse, Afghanistan began the 2023 World Cup on similar lines, with defeats against Bangladesh and India. Then, England came calling in Delhi, where Afghanistan found solace, and by the end of the clash, they had earned themselves a home at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in Delhi.
26,440 people witnessed it. 22-year-old Rahmanullah Gurbaz lived through it. It was his swashbuckling knock that started a ‘belief’ for the Afghans, who put a gun against the throat of the English team.
“Just unbelievable. Beating England and then beating Pakistan at that kind of level is incredible. It wasn’t expected,” Rahmanullah Gurbaz told Cricket.com from Dubai, where he plays for the Dubai Capitals in the International League T20 (ILT20).
“There wasn’t that much expectation back home and from the team as well, honestly, I can say. We didn’t have that much confidence that we would beat England. And winning wasn’t in our mind, but once we started the game, the situation was tailor-made for us to win,” he added.
But you know where these stories head afterwards, right? Afghanistan picked faith and momentum just after the win over England. They carried on the impetus to shock Pakistan with the result that would last a lifetime at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.
If not for the multiple missed opportunities and a once-in-a-lifetime knock from Glenn Maxwell, Afghanistan could have bettered their tally, beating the five-time World Cup winners Australia, which would have topped all the other wins.
“Surreal, it has been nice. In the World Cup, if you beat teams like England, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka and then gave Australia a very tough time, it is quite a result. It was amazing. But yes, it is all about hard work,” Gurbaz added.
One of the major inspirations and architects behind Afghanistan’s metronomic rise was, ironically, an Englishman - the 42-year-old Jonathan Trott. Without too much coaching experience behind him, Trott was an inspirational figure behind Afghanistan’s much-improved performance at the global event last year.
“Jonathan (Trott) is one of the best coaches that we have worked with,” Gurbaz credited the Englishman for their rise.
“He’s a really hard worker and strict. I love that he is strict with us because that helps us improve. He just tells everyone to work hard and practise well. So, yes, he is a very good coach, and I can say that he is why Afghanistan cricket is at this level,” he added.
Throughout their campaign in India, specifically in Delhi and Chennai, the Afghanistan side had managed to convert a lot of support in their favour, turning all the neutrals into blues. In Delhi, the crowd had rallied right behind the Afghans, which pumped them up to a level where they produced the first real shocker of the tournament.
“That’s true (it felt home), we get a lot of support from the Indians everywhere. Even if we have games outside, there are a lot of Indian fans who support our team. I can only hope that they keep supporting us in the future,” Gurbaz looked back at the support.
Gurbaz isn’t quite as alien to India as some of his other teammates in the national team, given he has spent quite some time in the Indian Premier League. While the 22-year-old’s IPL career began at the Gujarat Titans, it was only after a trade to Kolkata Knight Riders that he found more opportunities with the bat.
While he didn’t have quite a stellar season, Gurbaz was insistent on what makes the league so special, citing the pressure.
“IPL is very special, you know, once you play in the IPL and perform there, every other league will become so easy for you,” Gurbaz said.
“I have played all over the globe; the IPL is a very different experience. It has helped me a lot in my cricketing career. Because of the crowds and the quality of cricket, IPL has everything. IPL is nice; it is a very special place for me.”
Luckily for the 22-year-old, in his seven-year career, he has already brushed shoulders with Hardik Pandya, Andre Russell, Rinku Singh, and David Miller, amongst others. At the ILT20 this year, Gurbaz also had the opportunity to share the dressing room with one of the all-time greats, David Warner.
“It is nice to be with them, with the legends. I haven’t spent a lot of time. I’m learning as much as possible from them and improving my cricket daily. We haven’t discussed a lot yet. I have some things to improve, and I constantly work on them to improve my skills,” he added.
Gurbaz has had several memorable partnerships with batters, but one name stands out for him: Rinku Singh. The two have scored 115 runs as a pair, at a strike-rate of 142, and Gurbaz can’t quite keep calm about the Uttar Pradesh batter.
“I always mention his name (Rinku Singh) in all interviews. He’s one of the best players, a special kid from India, especially in death overs as a finisher. He has also finished many games for India in recent times. Something special for India; I hope he continues doing his hard work. He’s a good cricketer and a very good human being.”
Without the IPL, it would have been nearly impossible for Gurbaz to chat with the 42-year-old MS Dhoni. Dhoni has been heralded to have greatly influenced several cricketers who have grown up playing cricket in the last two decades.
Incidentally, Gurbaz didn’t just have a conversation with Dhoni but also got a chance to talk to Virat Kohli, which he calls a ‘special moment’.
“I will just say they were amazing. Every thought and every discussion with Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni was amazing. It has helped me a lot in my cricket; it was very special. Both are legends of the game; that was a golden opportunity and moment for me to talk to them. They are just amazing people,” Gurbaz added.
Expectations from Afghanistan have quickly changed post the ODI World Cup, where they won four games, with people even calling them the ‘dark horse’ ahead of the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean and the United States of America later this year.
“The most important thing for us is to be focused and trust our processes and how and where to work hard. It is in our control to keep the team unity in the highest spirits. The 2024 T20 World Cup is very far, but before that, we have a series (against Sri Lanka), we have to focus on that and play our best cricket. After that, we will see how we will go about our cricket.”
Gurbaz has over 1000 runs in both ODIs and T20Is; he has been a central figure in his country’s epic run at last year’s World Cup, but they weren’t even remotely close to the most heroic thing he had done in India. In the early hours of November 12 (Sunday), Gurbaz was spotted in the streets of Ahmedabad, distributing money to people needing basic amenities.
“I can say that we all humans have to work towards humanity. I don’t know how it has come out. I have been doing this since childhood, but not for a special reason. I just wanted to help people, everywhere I find people struggling, I will help them,” Gurbaz said.
“Allah says that if you help the ones in need, you will also be helped in the future, so I’m doing everything because we are there for a reason.”
With that gesture, Gurbaz has proven he is a true winner on or off the field.
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