From Bati'Kot to the big time
Hamid Hassan turns 22 in June. For a young man, he has already achieved the sort of dreams that many of his peers in Afghanistan might dismiss as outlandishly ambitious. Even foolish. Not only has he visited Europe and stayed in "lovely, lovely" Britain, he has reached cricketing nirvana by playing at Lord's. His aspirations jut as high as the rocky peaks of Bati'Kot in the eastern province of Nangarhar, near Jalalabad, where he grew up.
Afghanistan's improbable rise has been well documented. Less obvious is which among them have the talent to succeed for years to come. Hassan's career has only just begun, but his whippy action and pace have already impressed the likes of MCC's Head of Cricket, John Stephenson, and Mike Gatting and Robin Marlar, all of whom were won over by his natural ability to bowl quickly, and rushed him on to the Lord's ground staff in 2006. He has been clocked at 90mph and, a few days ago was too quick for Ireland in the World Cup Qualifiers. Four were bowled in Hassan's 5 for 23, his best figures, in Afghanistan's greatest win.
Like the once-potholed roads of Jalalabad, Hassan's path has been predictably bumpy. As many of his team-mates have, Hassan's family sought refuge in Pakistan - a journey trod by thousands, exemplified in its treacherousness in Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns.
"We moved from Jalalabad when I was five or six. It became too unsafe. Really unsafe, with bombs and so on. Our house was shot at, too, but we all escaped. So, we moved to Peshawar. I saw cricket for the first time in Peshawar, in Tehkal. Boys playing on streets and roads - everywhere. And I just picked up a bat and started hitting balls. I didn't know how to hold it, but I just wanted to play - hitting it like a baseball bat. From then on, life was cricket, cricket, cricket."
School got in the way, or tried to. His family were all bored by the game and unimpressed by his seemingly foolish ambition to forsake education for cricket. "I had to play in secret," he says, with detectable pride. "My father always hated cricket. In an exam, I'd just write my name at the top and the date and throw it down and run away. My dad heard about me failing one or two papers, so I began revising from 2am until midnight.
"But eventually my mum said 'Okay, it's your life, I won't tell you any more.' My father was always angry, but now he phones me and says: 'Hi son. I am so proud of you.' He phoned me last night after my five wickets changed the game [against Ireland], and he was so happy. 'Do it again for Afghanistan, son. Do it for me.'"
So impressed were his once-apathetic family that a few days ago, sweets were handed around his tiny hometown. "Our village boy took five wickets!" they sang. "They bought a huge lamb and gave it to all the poor people," Hamid said." They spent 100 dollars on it and then handed little bits around to everyone, as many poor people as they could. All in my name. It was incredible."
Like all parents, Hamid's only want what is best for their son. They may not know or care that he learned reverse swing from one of his heroes. And his mother would certainly be more alarmed than proud that one of her sons nearly broke toes of several opposing batsmen a couple of years ago.
"We played against MCC in Mumbai, March 23, 2006. I remember it well. It was the biggest day in my life. The ball was 20-overs old and I came on in training shoes. Flat shoes. Not spikes.
"So I pitched it short, and the keeper went back a bit. And he kept going back. I pitched it up and hit some of them on the toes - four were injured. I finished with something like 2 for 8 from six or seven overs. When I finished the game, this friendly old man called me over. 'Come here, son. How old are you? What are you doing?' he asked. I was 19 or something. He said: 'Why are you bowling in these shoes? You have to try spikes'. I had only ever bowled in flat trainers. And he said I should come and learn cricket in England.
"I didn't know who he was. Maybe he was just a fan, just some Englishman watching the game. I thought he was just joking. Then I heard other players talk to him. 'Hi, Mr Robin Marlar', they say. And then I realised he was president of MCC - a big man. I was shocked.
They invited all the players for dinner, and he called me over. 'Hamid, come here, I want to talk to you alone.' We spoke for 30 minutes about what I wanted from my life, if I wanted to play in England, and I said, 'Of course, I'd love to.'"
And so in 2006 he came to England and met his hero, Andrew Flintoff, while England and Pakistan practised at Lord's. Even mentioning Flintoff's name has Hassan shaking his head. "I learned reverse swing from him over those four days. When I first saw him, I was in shock - my mouth wide open. He had big hands - a heavy, huge person and brilliant bowler. A brilliant body and a good face, too - everything just like an English hero. So friendly, always smiling, always encouraging. 'Good ball, buddy,' he'd say.
"I hit Monty Panesar on the helmet and broke it. He said, 'You owe me 200 pounds, these things are expensive'. Well, I didn't have any money, but luckily he was joking."
So impressed were they by his pace and control, MCC organised, and helped pay, for him to play Lancashire League cricket in 2007, with the help of Asif Mujtaba to translate, after Afghanistan's maiden tour of England in 2006.
"It was a trial game. The keeper was standing quite close. Mujtaba was umpiring and an MCC person was nearby. And the keeper said, 'Yeah, not much pace here. He's a bit slow.' So Mujtaba turned round and said 'Right, come on boy. You are Afghan. Fire up.' So I fired in a quick one which smashed the wicketkeeper's hands, and he threw off his gloves. I was timed last year at 90mph."
England, he says, was not unlike the small district of Peshawar where he moved to as a small boy. Fruit is abundant in Tehkal, a green and lush land, where olive trees grow wild.
"We saw England in films and movies, but it was so different. When I arrived, it was like seeing a film in colour for the first time, having watched it in black-and-white. Different people, culture, styles, everyone so nice. English people are very kind and friendly. I was playing in Rochdale: small hills, rolling little hills - green, so green everywhere. Lovely, lovely place. I spent five months there. I would love to go there again."
His family no longer hate cricket, now that they have begun to see the world through Hassan's wide eyes. And Hassan's ambitions are predictably lofty. "I want to be a future big international cricketer. I want the world to know me, to be famous. 'Look, it's Hamid,' they might say."
Mostly, though, his mission is to spread the good name of Afghanistan, to break down the barriers of prejudice. "Everyone knows the country has had 30 years of war, with the Russians, the Americans. And still the Americans carry on…" A silent pause confirms his distaste for the current situation.
"But hopefully we are showing the world we are a good team and a country of friendly, peaceful people. We are not what people say, when they say we only fight. We are also good cricketers and [have] good talent, and want to prove to the world Afghanistan is a country full of people like us. Insh'allah we will do that."
A few hours later, Afghanistan's World Cup hopes lie in tatters after they are thumped by Canada. The team lay out prayer mats just inside the boundary rope, and most of the squad kneel in silent reflection while the Canadians whoop and cheer.
Afghanistan may not reach the 2011 World Cup, but Hassan's own personal future seems far more assured.
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo