February 19, 2013

The refugee who became a star

Mohammad Shahzad was born in a refugee camp in Peshawar; now he's Afghanistan's leading batsman

Displaced from war-torn Afghanistan at an early age, Mohammad Shahzad's life started in a refugee camp in Peshawar. An Afghan Pathan by ethnicity, he grew up watching Pakistan's national cricketers in the early '90s and playing tape-ball cricket on grubby streets near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Shahzad is a flamboyant opening batsman who loves to play his shots. He swatted back-to-back hundreds in his second and third ODIs. He also made an unbeaten double-hundred as Afghanistan chased down an improbable 494 against Canada in the 2009-10 ICC Intercontinental Cup. His philosophy of batting is an elementary and often-repeated one: "Hit the loose ball and respect the good ball." Shahzad is 25. His family are from Nangrahar, a fertile valley around Jalalabad, and were dislocated in the wake of the Soviet war and forced into a refugee camp near the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, close to the Pakistan-Afghan border in Peshawar. Shahzad was born in the camp, adjusted to life in Pakistan, and took up Pakistani pursuits like playing cricket.

"I had a keen interest in cricket since the age of six or seven," he told ESPNcricinfo. "In fact, it was the only thing for the youth in those days to do - either we sleep or play cricket.

"It was everything. I slept with thoughts of cricket." So passionate was he about the game that he used to wear his keeping gloves all the time, even when he was not playing.

"I remember, I used to go with my captain in the evening every day to set up a match with random teams next to our street, and it was the most exciting moment of the day," he said. "We bet on a plastic trophy bought with the money collected from the two sides, and winning it was a great motivation at that time. After we won the trophy, we use to go street by street in a group to show people that we had won it.

Life in a refugee camp was hardly pleasant for Shahzad. "Cricket was the only thing I used to enjoy and I was terribly in love with it," he said. "I grew up watching the likes of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad on land that wasn't mine. I wished I could be a star for my country, but how could I - that was a million-dollar question for me. The scope of my life was limited, and the journey of my life with cricket was in an unknown direction."

Shahzad's parents thought he could do well outside of cricket. Not that he agreed, caught up as he was in the belief that he was the next Rashid Latif or Moin Khan, and that cricket was the centre of his existence. "I wrote 'Moin' and 'Latif' on the back of my two shirts and used to play cricket pretending I am a superstar. But my parents wanted me to study.

"I had no example of what I would be doing after studies, but in cricket I was following various Pakistani cricketers who are successful, like Imran Khan - he was famous and people talked about him.

"With my persistence, my parents let me go free, to do whatever I was doing. Now after ten years I am representing my own country. I didn't let them down. They are happy and are supporting me in every part of my life."

Shahzad started playing for Afghanistan in 2009 and hit the top level quickly, becoming an integral part of the rising team. He is currently Afghanistan's leading scorer in ODIs (743 runs from 21 matches), has the highest batting average, 37.15; the best strike rate among their frontline batsmen, 90.06; and the most hundreds (three). He has played 12 first-class matches against various Associate teams, in which he has compiled 1059 runs at 55.73, with eight half-centuries and two hundreds (including a double). Shahzad was shortlisted for the 2010 ICC Associate Player of the Year award, but lost out to Ryan ten Doeschate of Netherland.

Latif and Moin may be his childhood heroes but now his inspiration comes from the other side of the Pakistan border. He is friends with India captain MS Dhoni, and is even called MS by his team-mates, thanks partly to his initials.

"I have been following Dhoni since 2007. I met him for the first time in West Indies in 2010. He was staying on the fourth floor of the hotel and invited me to have tea in his room. It was actually an awkward moment for me - a big superstar serving me tea. I said I would help myself but he insisted and poured the tea for me, saying that he is the host and I am the guest.

"He is a great cricketer, a cool captain and a wonderful person. I always wanted to sit with him, talk to him, discuss cricket. He has talked to me about how to maintain yourself as a cricketer, how to handle the pressure. My helicopter shot is for Dhoni - to acknowledge that I am his big fan.

"I felt so good when he once introduced me to someone as a friend of his. I was flattered. His behaviour and attitude have increased my respect for him."

One of Shahzad's defining features is that he is a resolute, self-made man who has built a reputation of his own. "A lot of work has been done and work is still in progress," he said. "As far as I am concerned, I think I have developed myself into a cricketer who can play any form of cricket. I have scored ample runs in every form so far, and I'm desperate to climb up to play Test cricket."

"It was actually an awkward moment for me - Dhoni serving me tea. I said I would help myself but he insisted and poured the tea for me, saying that he is the host and I am the guest"

He thinks his team is closing the gap between themselves and the Full Member teams. "We guys all have the ability to play at bigger stage. We can bowl fast, we can spin, we can bat, and the fitness level of our players is high, thanks to the rough life we spent in the refugee camps.

"But there are some limitations, as we back home are deprived of cricket facilities and are dependent on the other countries at the moment. We have made a perfect unit and we are heading in the right direction. The people of Afghanistan have accepted us; they are supporting us and want us to win, so that the world reads something good about Afghanistan. The time isn't too far from here in our journey to become the best full cricketing nation."

Shahzad is a colorful character, with an aggressive mindset. "I am an emotional guy. I can easily be provoked. It's natural, as Pathans usually listen to their heart," he said. "My coaches talk about my aggression and how to control it. They have pointed out that I should try to learn how to keep my cool. I feel offended if any bowler bowls me a bouncer. I feel like hitting him out of the park."

He recently defied Pakistan's allrounder Shahid Afridi on Afghanistan's recent Pakistan tour. In the game against a Hyderabad-Karachi team, he smacked a six off Shahid Afridi that prompted a heated exchange of words between the two. Afridi conceded 29 runs in two overs, thanks largely to Shahzad, who smacked 58 off 35 balls.

There is an impish swagger to his tone as he narrates the incident. "He said something after the six, which didn't sound good, and I asked him to repeat it. He didn't, and I hit him for a few more boundaries, and he didn't return to bowl after his two overs.

"He may be a Pakistani star but I am also a professional cricketer. If he is good with the ball, I am good with the bat. I square off everything right there in the middle."

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent

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