India v Afghanistan, only Test, Bengaluru June 13, 2018

The stirring journey of a team of nomads

Afghanistan's players have surmounted incredible odds to change the image of their country in the lead-up to their maiden Test in Bengaluru

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Afghanistan set for new chapter in dream year

See them move along the road in search of land divine
Beggars in a goldmine

Not many know that during their time in India, the Beatles wrote a song about Dehradun. They must have travelled to Dehradun and put together this ditty when they spent time in the nearby pilgrimage town Rishikesh, in the foothills of the magnificent Himalayas. They never released it, but it is clear Dehradun to them is a consciousness and not a town: "Many roads can take you there, many different ways. One direction takes you years, another takes days."

It literally takes days to get there now. Dehradun could have been a great Indian town. It has two of the best schools in the country, the prestigious Indian Military Academy and the Forest Research Institute, an institute crucial to our knowledge, and conserving our forests. Ironically, deforestation has been rampant here to meet the needs of commercialisation. There are buildings and roads everywhere, neither of them good. In the month of June - summer vacation in schools - everybody from the north Indian plains wants to go to the hills, which can take only so many travellers. Those who are sent back base themselves in Dehradun. The town is polluted, hotels are full, roads are blocked, everything is slowed down but not in a pleasant way.

It is here that an odd cricketing love story is taking shape. It is Afghanistan's new adopted "home", like Sharjah and Greater Noida. The only hotel that is suitable and available is 18.2 kms away from the ground, which is in such wilderness auto-rickshaw drivers have seen leopards - another result of human-wildlife conflict - on that route.

Two of Afghanistan's teams are preparing here: one to play "home" T20Is against Bangladesh, the other to play the away Test against India, Afghanistan's debut in the format, in Bengaluru. There are two training sessions everyday, on the same pitches with different coloured balls. Four players playing both formats are concentrating only on T20s as of now, but coaches are spending four hours a day on the narrow, dug-up-for-construction Dehradun roads.

Dehradun tortures the Afghanistan players. The hills in the distance and the long upright trees remind them of home. The pollution, especially the "noise", yanks them back, but then the crowd reminds them of home again. The response to Afghanistan during the T20Is is phenomenal. Close to 20,000 come in for the first match, on a Sunday; on the final night, Thursday, gates are opened to the public. They come for Rashid Khan, and stay for Mohammad Shahzad's hitting and celebrations, Samiullah Shenwari's big sixes, Mujeeb Ur Rahman's trickery with the new ball, and Shafiqullah's magical last-ball save to whitewash Bangladesh.

Dehradun tortures the Afghanistan players. The sight of the hills in the distance, and the long upright trees remind them of home. The pollution, especially the "noise", yanks them back, but then the crowd reminds them of home again

The reality of it is not lost, though: at the end of the day, it is a "camp". Granted it is an air-conditioned, luxurious camp, but it is not home. A sport smuggled in by refugees has to now be fine-tuned in a "camp" in another country. Beggars in a goldmine.

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Tarana means song in Farsi. The main melody of a tarana is repeated many times in the song. Many taranas have cropped up for Afghanistan cricket and cricketers. There is one for the team, one for Mujeeb and one for Rashid.

The tarana for Rashid has taken the form of a devotional song that is typically sung without accompanying music. The lyrics are full of praise for Rashid. It is fitting one of Rashid's first teams was called "Kochai", which means nomad. They are still nomads.

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While in Dehradun, despite being in travel, these nomads are fasting because it is Ramadan. They go to sleep at around 4am after sehri - sunrise, beyond which they cannot take food or drink until sunset, around quarter past seven in the evening in these parts - and the Test batch starts training at 10am. The T20 players train in the afternoon, and you can see the bodies are being pushed to their limits because of the fast. Some Pakistani players, involved in a Test series in England at around the same time, fast only on training days but not all. Three players in Afghanistan's opposition camp, Bangladesh, are fasting.

Asghar Stanikzai and Rashid Khan lead the Afghanistan lap of honour © Associated Press

There are provisions in Islam when it is permissible to not fast, and during travel there are allowances. This is the advice tried on this team, but they won't hear any of it. One of them says you will have to make up the number of fasts you miss later anyway. Another questions the definition of travel: if you are in a place - even if it is not home - for more than 15 days, is it really travel? Another: "This is not rigorous travel. We are staying in air-conditioned hotels and travelling in air-conditioned buses. This is not what the exemption was meant for."

Coach Phil Simmons joined the team at around this time last year. They were playing in the West Indies, and insisted on fasting even then. Wanting to be one of them, Simmons tried it himself. He gave up after two days. "Fasting and playing and training is the hardest thing I have seen in this game," Simmons says. "When it comes to the night and it is time to eat, they can put away some food."

Simmons doesn't interfere with the religious beliefs, though. There is good reason for it: the players are clearing fitness tests, they are not shying away from any training, and they are winning matches.

If this is not a junoon, a madness, an obsession, then what is?

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In the same month, sinister acts are being carried out back home. A line is crossed when a Ramadan night cricket tournament in Jalalabad, the nursery of cricket in Afghanistan, an annual "peace" event is targeted. Cricketers and the crowd had offered namaz (prayers), broken their fast, and were at the ground when an explosion killed at least eight and injured 50. The T20 specialists in India were looking forward to taking part in the final stages of this tournament when they got home. Instead they saw Karim Sadiq, an Afghanistan international hoping to make the Test squad and then retire, in cellphone footage carrying the wounded to ambulances.

What is your problem again? Too many fans taking selfies?

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This is not just any attack. This is an attack on hope. They could have got a national player. They have got a potential future international. They managed to get Hedayatullah Zahir, the promoter of this tournament.

There is an anger the players just don't know how to express. Simmons remembers a time when they were in Noida - another "camp" before they moved to Dehradun - and there were three blasts back home in a week. "We were just pushing them as hard as we could," Simmons says. "We could see on their faces - 'Geez what happened back home?' - but when we started practising, they practised hard. Some of them would talk about it, some wouldn't really. With all that's going on, there was still that sense that we still want to do well here."

They are finding their own ways to protest even though it is not wise and easy with their families in Afghanistan. Rashid, playing for Sunrisers Hyderabad in India at the time of the Jalalabad attack, tweets a tribute to Hedayatullah, using #peacecup and #blast heartbreakingly next to each other. Sadiq tweets pictures of open defiance during Rashid's next IPL match: he gathers people, sets up a TV on the pitch in the same ground that was attacked, watches the match there and tweets a picture without expressly saying anything. It is hard to find a cricketer who has sent out a greater message: we will not be scared, we will still gather and do things as a community.

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This revolution is being led on a small device: the smartphone. Rashid is tweeting on his phone, the poignant pictures from the attack are seen world over through phone footage, Sadiq is using the phone to take those moving photos. The smartphone is a great equaliser for developing countries in south-east Asia. It is affordable unlike big computers and cheap data empowers people with information, and you don't any longer need to be from a certain section of society to make your voice heard.

As with anything so powerful, it can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Journalist Matiullah Abid has reported how videos on phones lead the recruitment drive for organisations such as the Taliban and ISIS. Every peace-loving parent is worried about impressionable young children watching these videos on their phones. The only thing fighting for memory space on their phones is cricket.

Afsar Zazai, wicketkeeper-batsman in longer forms, says every other phone's back cover is a photo of the owner's favourite cricketer

Afsar Zazai, wicketkeeper-batsman in longer forms, says every other phone's back cover is a photo of the owner's favourite cricketer. Mujeeb has mastered the carrom ball watching YouTube videos of R Ashwin, Sunil Narine and Ajantha Mendis on a slow-motion app on his phone. Every Afghanistan cricketer is conscious of the need to use his social media pages to spread a positive image of Afghanistan. Sadiq tweets a photo where kids have gathered in an open field in the middle of the night, mounted a phone on a mono-pod, connected it to speakers and are watching Afghanistan beat Bangladesh in faraway Dehradun. Beggars in a goldmine.

Mujeeb Zadran celebrates Virat Kohli's wicket © BCCI

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Nazir Khan is happy. He is in Dehradun to watch Afghanistan play. The Afghanistan Cricket Board has sponsored his trip, arranged a visa and has put him up in the team hotel. He has a jovial, grandfatherly face. He wears a colourful brocade jacket with small mirrors on it. Underneath it is a traditional shalwar kameez. He carries a big Afghanistan flag.

Nazir is not your typical super fan. He doesn't understand cricket at all. He didn't know any of it when he started following cricket matches. He just saw it was something that made his countrymen happy. Made him happy. For years he travelled to domestic matches in Afghanistan. Like many of the players, he couldn't have been sure the team would play international cricket, forget breaching the deepest bastion of this exclusivist format, Test cricket. He started doing this because in desperate times it gave him something to feel good about his country. The first words he speaks as I escort him to the stands - he doesn't know the language well and can't find his way - is "Hum Talab nahi hain (I am not a Talib)."

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Gulbadin Naib: Players from the Bahamas team told me they were scared of us. Once they sat with us, talked with us, they wouldn't let us go. They were enamoured

There is a good reason for Nazir's words. Gulbadin Naib is one of the stars in the seminal documentary "Out Of The Ashes" that covered the meteoric rise of Afghanistan team through the World Cricket League ranks. He is part of the T20 side. "On our first tour, in Jersey in 2008, people were scared of us, our names," he remembers. "'He belongs to Afghanistan, it is a terrorist country.' I have seen it myself that other players in that tournament used to change tracks when they saw us coming. They avoided saying hello to us.

"Players from the Bahamas team told me they were scared of us. Once they sat with us, talked with us, they wouldn't let us go. They were enamoured."

Ten years is a very short period when it comes to changing the image of a country. Ten years later, a man already one of the best bowlers in the history of the Test cricket, R Ashwin, is amazed at how quickly the Afghanistan players have learnt. Correction: taught themselves. Dinesh Karthik calls them an inspiration for everybody. From being thought of as terrorists to being seen as inspiration, cricket has been their only vehicle.

"People have started to realise we are a country outside terrorism and drugs," Gulbadin says now. "When our friends travel, when people come to know they are from Afghanistan, they talk about how good our cricket team is. The immigration officers at airports talk to them about cricket. Now we are not wary of telling people we are from Afghanistan."

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

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Even those who only cricket know can't figure for the life of them how Afghanistan have learnt their cricket. Shahzad - at first look, too big to be a wicketkeeper - didn't even realise when he started those ultra-quick MS Dhoni-like stumpings. All he knows is he wanted to be like Dhoni and watched tonnes of footage. Mujeeb just watched Ashwin, Narine and Mendis, and tried to bowl like them until his fingers said no more. Naib says nobody showed him the science of wrist positions and different releases for different swings until former South Africa quick Charl Langeveldt joined them recently as a bowling coach.

Gulbadin Naib takes selfies with fans © Peter Della Penna/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

One look at how Shapoor Zadran runs in, 22-step run-up, long hair bouncing this way and that, and you know whom he watched a lot. The whole country loved Shahid Afridi until he started making political comments recently, but it is Shoaib Akhtar the team is properly reminiscent of. Shoaib acquired pace by bowling with bricks and heavier balls in his street. Shahzad learnt by hitting stones thrown at him by his younger brother. Others learnt bowling with a taped tennis ball. With no coaches.

"Other kids in the street used to think I was mad," Shoaib told the Cricket Monthly of the days when he used to bowl with bricks. Anyone who has had anything to do with Afghanistan cricket will tell you they are madmen. But it is important to be mad, Shoaib said. Then it is important to find a method once you have found that madness.

"We are mad people," Naib says. "If we make up our mind we have to have something, we find a way to get it. Our fans are the same. If they decide they have to meet so and so player, they will find a way to meet him."

Almost all of them are Pashtun, or Pathan. I tell him the joke that Pathan is not a qaum - a people - but a kaifiyat, a state of mind. However, the composition is changing. The rest of Afghanistan is falling for the sport. Last year, a Turkmen Haji Murad Muradi captained Amo Region in the domestic tournament.

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As they approach Test cricket, Afghanistan are still on the way to finding method in that madness. Copybook coaches Andy Moles and Peter Anderson were not everyone's cup of tea but their work has not gone unappreciated. Anderson, in particular, was much loved. While other coaches stayed in the fortified Kabul International Hotel, Anderson, the former Queensland wicketkeeper, used to stay with the players in the residential wing of the Kabul International Stadium complex.

Afsar is someone who has worked a lot with Anderson. "I would like to specially thank Peter Anderson," he says. "He treated me like his son. I respect him. He worked so much with me, on my keeping, on my batting. Andy Moles told me that at the highest level you get very few opportunities to hit sixes. You have to think about building your innings. Ones and twos. Hit the loose balls only. And there are too many hitters in the Afghanistan team anyway."

Afsar says he has been sad for the last couple of days because Anderson is ill and is on his way to the USA for treatment. Yet he has one eye on what is happening in India. He has been texting wishes for Afsar and Afghanistan.

"Once they sat with us, talked with us, they wouldn't let us go."

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"The thing that I have to mostly harp on a lot is the fact that it's a long game. It is a game of patience, like a chess match." © AFP

Simmons is the best of both worlds for most of the team. They feel Simmons understands them because they play like West Indies. A month before the 2012 World T20, Afghanistan played a four-nation preparatory tournament in the Caribbean, involving them, Bangladesh, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados. They were playing T&T's second XI in an exhibition game before the tournament when T&T coach David Williams snuck into the stands. When Williams introduced himself to the Afghanistan team after the match, then manager and now CEO Shafiqullah Stanikzai asked him what he had gleaned now that he was scouting them.

"How can I glean anything from the way you play?" Williams asked. "You all hit sixes, from No. 1 to 11."

The love affair with the West Indies style of play has continued in the way they celebrate and their friendship with the West Indies players

"I think that is fair to say they play like us," Simmons says. "It is a case of them enjoying what it is they do. There is a fun about the way they are. They enjoy whatever they are doing."

However, Simmons finds a closer link with Pakistan. The way they have taught themselves, similar challenges, similar geography, similar resources or lack thereof, similar ways of talking about the game. And take it from Simmons: he has played against Pakistan when they were the only team able to challenge West Indies.

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Afsar's father is a taxi driver. He drives all over Kabul, not necessarily to earn a living but because after a life full of hard labour he finds it tough to stay at home. It leaves Afsar worried, especially when he is away playing. "We [regular Afghan people] leave ourselves in the hands of God when we go out for work," Afsar says. "But we can't run away from this. This is our nation. We can't leave it."

Afsar could well have added "again" to that sentence. Like many, Afsar and Naib both grew up in Pakistan. Naib knows how to read and write Urdu but is only still learning Pashto and Farsi. Their family had a prospering clothes business in Peshawar but he saw his father yearn for his homeland all his life. It was cricket, his selection, and future instructions from the Afghanistan government that finally gave them the courage to come back, in 2010.

"I used to think it might be better to live in another country," Naib says. "But what did I end up with? I don't even know my own language. My father took us there for survival but I am happy my son is growing up in Afghanistan, studying in Afghanistan."

When they are away some players use their sources in intelligence to warn their loved ones against going into certain parts. Nabi, whose father was once kidnapped and released after two months, Samiullah and Naib live in the same highly secure residential society so they are a little relieved. They all know that these measures are neither foolproof nor available to all.

Chris Gayle poses with the Afghanistan players after the match © IDI/Getty Images

"Last year, we were in West Indies, again during Ramadan, and 400 died in an explosion," Naib says. "When they attacked the cricket this Ramadan, it felt like everything was coming to an end. Despite all that hope turns up. People get back to their lives. Whatever they do, we won't give up living. It gives us strength too."

"The sense of where they come from, what happens in their country, and for them to be enjoying as much as they are, day in, day out, it gives you a sense of their passion for cricket and for life," Simmons says. "They are hurting from what's happening in their country, but they know they hurt now, 'but for the next two-three hours we have to go and play, and then we come back and sit in prayer'. It is a case of knowing what is to be done when."

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Two days before the Test, with just a few days to go to the end of Ramadan, Afghanistan have stopped fasting. There is realisation that you can't go to sleep having eaten after 3am and then wake up for a 9.30am start and go through a gruelling Test match on no nutrition.

There are so many things you can't do in Test cricket. Two dots won't bring the big shot on which you capitalise as Mujeeb does in T20s. Two boundaries won't send Ashwin scurrying. They are coming off fairly ordinary preparation for Test cricket. The Test team practised on T20 pitches, which were so slow at times the coaches had to take them to an indoor academy - owned by Bengal player Abhimanyu Easwaran's father - so that the batsmen could get some confidence going. A ground custom-built by Easwaran to help his son play cricket coming to the rescue of a team of nomads.

Watch them in the nets and you know one of the reasons they have come along so quickly. Nabi especially spends a lot of time talking to batsmen after every ball. All youngsters acknowledge the knowledge passed on by the seniors who have had the privilege of playing in highly professional teams. On the field Shahzad can be seen talking to his players animatedly. None of their wisdom is withheld.

Simmons' worry is not the skills. He hopes the emotions don't overwhelm them when the paraphernalia of Test cricket comes around. The new whites, the photos in blazers, the world media. If it seems premature to give Afghanistan Test status, if it seems their preparation is not ideal, if there are doubts over how they will cope, don't worry about them, they have done things much more special than play Test cricket; they have already climbed mountains no Test cricketer should be asked to climb. Give them some time, they will be all right.

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Mohammad Shahzad and Samiullah Shenwari celebrate Afghanistan's win © Associated Press

For coaches in top-flight sport, the biggest challenge is to rid their players of insecurities. Insecurities don't come with a tag. You have to identify them. "The main insecurity with some of them is being dropped, being left out, not being able to play cricket," Simmons says.

"Ones that are left out you have to let them know this is not the end. You have to work as hard as possible to try and get back. They are hungry, they want to be a part of what's happening. The fear in that case is not being part of what is happening. It's not just being left out. Of history."

Nawroz Mangal, Noor Ali Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Dawlat Zadran and Sadiq are some of the players who have made big sacrifices to bring Afghanistan to this historical juncture. Sadiq has been desperate, even making a plea that he will retire if he gets to play this match. He has just not been in form, though. It is somewhat similar to Shahzad missing the 2015 World Cup after playing a big role in helping them qualify.

"Simple example," Simmons says. "Martin Luther King did all the fighting for black equality in the States but he didn't live to enjoy it. That's how things are. People who fight for somethings sometimes are not the people who get to enjoy the fruits of it. That's just how it is.

"West indies teams, all the Sirs who played for West Indies, Sir Garry, Sir Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Sir Frank Worrell, Walcott, Weekes, all of them didn't live to enjoy all that happened in West Indies cricket with Clive Lloyd at the helm. But they sat back and they enjoyed that phase of the cricket because they were part of us getting to that stage. That's what Karim and others need to do. Sit back and enjoy this Test match."

Preferably as a big group in an open field. In defiance. And tweet that photo. "Whatever you do, we won't give up living."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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