'Learned English since I knew I'll have to give interviews'
Mohammad Mujtaba saw it coming and he had prepared for it. The Afghanistan Under-19 opening batsman knew, as a teenager, that cricket would be his ticket to fame. He knew that one of the attendant demands of an international cricketer would be to face the media not just from his country but from overseas too. This was why Mujtaba made a conscious effort to learn English, not just to communicate better but also to leave a lasting impression that goes beyond his cricket skills.
The hours of practice were proving fruitful for the 18-year-old, who had already had the spotlight on him for two matches in a row. His knocks of 75 and 50, against Australia and Namibia respectively, won him Man of the Match awards, and its recipient, as is usually the protocol, fronts up to the media after the game. The confidence which his batting radiated bounced off in the way he articulated himself in a language that's alien to many in his country.
"I was always learning English because I knew that one day I will play for Afghanistan and I will have to give interviews," Mujtaba said. "At home, I would talk in English with my brothers and sisters, and with anyone who could speak the language, in order to improve my English. I even took private lessons."
Private coaching was more important than school itself, for he dropped out at 15 to focus on his cricket. His parents wanted him to balance cricket with studies, but he was "adamant" about his preferred career choice. Therefore, he moved from his hometown of Lashkar Gah, in southern Afghanistan, to the capital Kabul, to further his cricket.
Mujataba stands out from the pack in his family as none of them are into sports. His parents gradually accepted that his stubbornness would lead to something rewarding.
"Cricket was in my blood when I was in school. I wanted to play professional cricket from childhood," Mujataba said. "I started with the tennis ball. When I got permission from my parents I went on to play professional cricket."
Being media savvy is something many sportsmen can take for granted. There are several examples of shy, tongue-tied cricketers who overcame the language barrier over time, some gaining enough confidence to do commentary stints after retirement. A high-profile recent example is Sri Lanka's Dinesh Chandimal, who sat out last year's IPL to work on his batting and media training by working on his English. Chandimal, who hails from a humble background, was made the T20 captain and knew that speeches in presentations and press conference were inevitable.
Mujtaba's bigger impact has been with the bat. His 75 against Australia set up a stunning 36-run win which gave Afghanistan the belief they could make it to the quarter-finals after all, following their sorry showing against Bangladesh. The next opposition, Namibia, may have been easier, but a challenge was thrown open to Afghanistan. Having restricted Namibia to 192, they needed to chase it within 34.4 overs to ensure qualification as it would help them edge ahead of Bangladesh's net run rate.
Mujtaba smashed 50 off 30 balls, 44 of his runs coming in boundaries, and though he couldn't stay till the end, he set the platform for the rest to build on. Afghanistan needed just 25.3 overs to storm into the quarter-finals for the first time in the U-19 World Cup and give Bangladesh a few headaches just a shouting distance away at the Zayed Stadium.
"The coach gave me the message straightaway that this is the target and these are the overs you have to chase it," Mujtaba said. "Whatever it is, if we win the match in 35 to 40 overs we will be out of the tournament so we had to chase it in 31 overs, and just play our shots.
"The plan was to get them (Namibia) out below 150 but their captain (Gerhard) Erasmus played a magnificent innings of 84."
Mujtaba said the relief was palpable that the juniors had done some justice to their ability by making it to the next round. The senior team recently qualified for the 2015 World Cup.
"It feels great because this is the third time we have qualified for the World Cup and we couldn't go past the second stage earlier," Mujtaba said. "This is the first time it is happening so we're feeling good. We are ready for the challenges. The conditions are in our favour. We are competing with every overseas team."
The team recently lost a three-match series in Pakistan in the lead-up to the World Cup and Mujtaba said complacency was to blame in their opening defeat to Bangladesh, against whom they failed to pick up a wicket. He said his side failed to play its natural game.
As the team started winding up at the Nursery Oval pavilion, a few of his team-mates teased Mujtaba while they walked past him during the interview. So long as he continues winning awards, he will remain the team's unofficial spokesperson.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo