Nawroz Mangal August 26, 2011

'Even those who don't understand cricket pray for our success'

Afghanistan's captain is happy to be back in charge and leading the team to one- and four-day wins in Canada

Have you achieved the goals you set for the tour of Canada?
Yes. We were very focused coming to Canada. We're the Intercontinental Cup champions and intent on always playing like champions and remaining champions. We did that in Canada.

Playing a team like Canada is of great benefit to us. Everyone knows Canada has just played in the World Cup, and now we have beaten them. I only learned after arriving here that cricket is actually a very old sport in Canada and has been played for years. It is therefore a great achievement for us to come here and win the Intercontinental Cup match and the ODI series. This raises the profile of Afghanistan cricket.

Afghanistan does very well in four-day matches, often winning games comprehensively. What do you think is the reason for this?
I'm glad you've said this because people always said we were just a Twenty20 team, but we do perform well in four-day matches. The reason is that our players are always enthusiastic about playing cricket. We want to be on the field, and because of that enthusiasm, our temperament and our confidence, we do well. Whatever cricket we get to play, we are grateful for it.

Many members of your team have experience of playing first-class cricket in Pakistan. Does that also contribute to your performances in four-day matches?
Absolutely. As I said, we're always eager to play, and the experience of playing in Pakistan or for other clubs is very important.

Who were your cricketing heroes growing up?
As a refugee in Pakistan, I took up playing cricket after Imran Khan won the World Cup for Pakistan in 1992. I loved Wasim Akram. I really enjoyed the way he played the game, whether he was bowling or batting - he was a hero of mine. When I actually started playing cricket seriously as a batsman, Sachin Tendulkar became my hero. I would carefully watch how he batted and learn from that.

Do people in Afghanistan who have not been to Pakistan know what cricket is and do they care about the team?
When we went back to Afghanistan from Pakistan and played cricket, the local people did not like it and did not understand what we were doing. They actually disapproved. But when we started to win matches overseas and progressed through the ICC divisions, they started to take notice and care. They began to feel pride in our success. Now the name of each player is known in every street and alleyway of Afghanistan. And as players we want nothing more than to be successful for our country. Cricket is so popular now that people feel proud naming their babies "Karim Sadiq" or after some other Afghan player. People stay up all night listening to our matches on the radio. Even people who don't understand cricket pray for our success.

Your generation came through having learned and played cricket in Pakistan. How do you think the future is for the next generation of Afghan cricketers, who may not have a similar experience?
The future of Afghanistan cricket is bright. Our junior team and A team are always improving. Our Under-19 team has just qualified for the World Cup in Australia, and that tells you that we have talent coming up. Once we have a proper cricket ground in Afghanistan there will be even more progress.

All of Afghanistan's ODI cricket has been against Associate teams. Do you feel you're ready to take on the full-members in ODIs?
Yes, for sure. But the more experience we gain, the better we'll play.

Afghanistan has had something of a dream run in cricket, so in that context, was the 3-0 loss to Pakistan A earlier this year an eye-opener?
Yes. But that Pakistan A team was very strong. They had picked the best performers from Pakistan domestic cricket for that series and they played as well as the Pakistan national team. We hadn't played any ODIs in seven to eight months and were rusty in the first two games. We did better in the third game, but what we learned from that series is that we had to improve our fitness levels.

You gave up the captaincy for a while. What was the reason for that and the reason for becoming captain again?
The cricket board had chosen a new captain because they thought there was a lot of pressure on me, but they decided to reappoint me because of all my experience as the leader. They understand that I know the players very well and that's good for the team. I am grateful for the confidence that the board has shown in me.

You've been Afghanistan's captain for most of the team's remarkable rise. How was the experience of not being captain for a while?
I was very relaxed and happy to just be in the team as a player. There was nothing to focus on but my own game. Once I was captain again I started thinking about the Canada tour and preparations for the team. On the field the captain is always switched on and thinking about things. I like that too.

Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures

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