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I'd first met Mohammad Nabi in England in the summer of 2007. I had driven from Stoke-on-Trent to Arundel to play a three-day match for MCC against Sri Lanka A. If you're playing league cricket in England, first class matches are fairly hard to get by and hence I was excited about the prospects. After all, it was my first first class match in England. It was Nabi's first class debut as well. Nabi had preferred to not speak much until I arrived, for he wasn't too fluent in English. We ended up chatting a lot during the course of the match.
He was spotted by the MCC during their visit to Afghanistan and was given a scholarship for the summer. MCC sponsored his stay in England and also gave him opportunities to play cricket at a decent level. He was made to go through a rigorous fitness regimen during the weekdays and would get to play matches for a local club in London on weekends. In between, there were a few matches for MCC like the one we were scheduled to play in a few hours.
Nabi was anything but nervous on his first class debut. I realized that I was more keyed up for the match than him. After all it was my only first class game in the summer and my lone chance to send out a message to the touring Indian team. For him though, it was just another game of cricket. And voila, Nabi knocked everyone for six, and literally. He opened his account with a whopping six on the scoreboard and carried on in the same vain to score 43 with three sixes before trying one too many. I'm pretty sure not many players can boast of getting off the ground in their first class career with a six. If that was not enough, he opened his account in the second innings with a six too. A record of sorts there.
I happened to be at the other end this time around. He came in and was visibly struggling against some disciplined fast bowling. He scratched around for a while before exploding. He dispatched the fast bowler way over the midwicket fence to get going. It didn't take long for Thilan Samaraweera, Sri Lanka skipper, to put most of his men on the boundary ropes. This is when I told Nabi to just take singles and milk the bowling. But his reply left me bewildered.
"I will hit fours and sixes if you tell me to, but singles are not my cup of tea", Nabi told me rather naively. He simply couldn't do it. Perhaps, he was never taught to, and nobody around him ever batted an eyelid on his inefficiency. I realized he needed to be left alone. Eventually, he holed out in the deep for 18, inclusive of two sixes.
I felt sorry for him since he had built up his game differently. More so, because no one had ever told him the importance of rotating the strike. Taking singles might be an art but not too difficult to acquire. I'm sure that if you could hit fours and sixes with ease, taking singles wouldn't be too tough either. But he needed guidance and perhaps so did every cricketer in Afghanistan.
I chatted with him a bit more after the end of the days play. He told me how most Afghanistan cricketers actually live on the Pakistani side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They would cross the border to play cricket on concrete surfaces, long to become a part of the mainstream cricket and how they narrowly missed out in their last attempt.
I'm happy to see Afghanistan finally managing to breakthrough and appear on the map of world cricket. I am even happier to see Nabi in the team. I'd be backing him to hit his quintessential sixes and also hoping that he's learned to rotate the strike since the last time we met.
Keywords: World Twenty20
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.