The man who gave Afghanistan their mojo
Taj Malik will not be in Australia and New Zealand when Afghanistan play their first World Cup next year. But Afghanistan might not have gotten that far without Malik.
The story of Afghanistan's first, glorious attempt to qualify for the World Cup - the transformation from a side praying for rain to spare them from playing Jersey to one defeating Ireland in the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in 12 months - was immortalised in the documentary Out of the Ashes. Taj Malik was the film's hero. Temperamental, bombastic and with insatiable enthusiasm and self-belief after spending 16 years as a refugee, he had no time for realists who thought that his dreams of Afghanistan reaching the World Cup were incredible.
It is a remarkable tale - and there is no better guide than Malik. "I started playing cricket in 1987, when England was touring Pakistan during Mike Gatting's captaincy. We used a tennis ball," he says. "When we were refugees in Pakistan, we got interested in watching international matches.
"And then we started playing with a tennis ball and then slowly got more interested and established a refugee team in the Kacha Gari camp and then started our dream to have an Afghanistan team." This refugee side, which Malik named the Afghan Cricket Club, served as a platform for future Afghan stars, including Karim Sadiq (Taj's brother) and Nawroz Mangal, a former Afghanistan captain.
During his time as a refugee in the Kacha Gari camp, Malik turned the Afghan Cricket Club, through sheer force of will, into a formidable side. Afghanistan's cricketers can hardly claim to have been lucky, but it was fortunate that their years in Peshawar coincided with the game flourishing in that part of Pakistan;.Test players including Umar Gul and former offspinner Arshad Khan are recent products of the system. When the Afghan Cricket Club was invited to play against clubs in Peshawar, it was a formidable education for the side.
When he finally returned to Afghanistan, Malik vied with Allah Dad Noori for control of the nascent Afghanistan cricket team. While Malik was in Pakistan, Noori had formed the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (which later became the Afghanistan Cricket Board) in 1995 with the Taliban's approval. Eventually, they hit upon a compromise: Noori assumed the presidency of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation while Malik became the general secretary and national coach.
In 2001, the ICC awarded Afghanistan Affiliate membership. Afghanistan's first official fixtures came when they were invited to the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy in 2004, a tournament featuring 15 teams. Afghanistan finished sixth, and were soon to embark upon their remarkable cricketing surge.
Malik credits much of their success to the experience of playing in Pakistan. "We started to beat the strong Peshawar clubs," he says. "The ACC teams were very easy for us so that's why in 2008 I was pretty confident, if you watch Out of the Ashes."
That is - uncharacteristically for Malik - an understatement. He used to boast that Afghanistan would score 400 runs in their 50 overs, and threatened to throw himself into the Atlantic if Afghanistan failed to progress to Division Four of the World Cricket League.
Thankfully he did not have to stick to his word: Afghanistan beat Jersey by two wickets in the Division Five final. "All the matches were very interesting, especially because the conditions were against us," Malik says.
But the tournament's aftermath was less kind to him. Some players felt Malik was putting too much pressure on them. His default reaction to any collapse was to chain-smoke. After a disappointing performance in the ACC Trophy in 2008, he was relieved of his post as coach.
It still rankles. "Up to Jersey, there was no government involvement in cricket, and there was no support from any department," he says. "When cricket became more popular all people got interested, all the nation got interested, and the government removed me from my post.
"They told me, 'Now we are going to the big stage and you are a low-level coach.' But I'd done the most difficult job to help the team play with a hard ball, and I gathered the team and motivated them."
Malik was replaced by Kabir Khan, a former Pakistan Test cricketer. And though he could be considered a foreign coach, Kabir could not be called a carpetbagger. Like many in the Afghanistan side, Kabir was born in Peshawar. His father was Afghan. Kabir will lead Afghanistan in the World Cup: he resigned in 2010 citing interference from the cricket board during a tour to Scotland, but returned in 2012 after receiving assurances that he would be able to get on with his job in peace.
Under Kabir, Afghanistan progressed to the final stages of the 2011 World Cup qualifiers in South Africa, in 2009. They just missed out on qualification. As their World Cup dreams ended, Malik was at home, listening on a crackly radio stream.
But soon he would return, as assistant coach to Kabir. "I give thanks to Allah that again I show my performance and we qualified for the World T20 held in the West Indies," Malik says. His his return didn't last long, though.
"There is no justice," Malik says. He says that the problem was one that many cricketers could relate to - greedy administrators.
"We had a conference and we decided that the prize money should go to the players because everybody had economic problems," he says. "When we went to the cricket board administrators and the chairman, they refused. They said this money should go for other things." The board eventually relented but Malik was not made aware of it by the players. "I resigned and then the cricket board changed and then they hired me as the Afghanistan A coach."
He left that position two and a half years ago and since then Malik has focused on Islam; he is now in Tableegh, a religious movement.
"I worked for seven-eight years with these players when we had no facilities, no money," he says. "Now some of the senior players want to come and talk with me. I'm not the kind of person to have bad behaviour with them." The current captain, Mohammad Nabi, recently described Malik as "a great man", saying "I meet him from time to time when I go back to Afghanistan. We don't talk about cricket."
Malik is pleased with the quality of life now enjoyed by Nabi and his side. "I'm happy that they're playing on a good level, they have good salaries, they don't have economic problems. They have cars."
But he doubts the ability of women's cricket to gain acceptance in Afghanistan. "It's very difficult in the country because Afghanistan is a Muslim country and Islam does not allow women and girls to participate, especially in Afghanistan," he says. "They cannot move without Islamic rules - to walk from home. So how can they play?"
Although he has moved on from cricket, Malik has lost none of his bluster. The words rattle out of his mouth like machine-gun fire. While he remains a staunch supporter of the side, he believes that professionalism has come at a price: the essence of Afghanistan cricket has been lost.
"Afghanistan has a distinct playing style. A lot of the national coaches working with the team tried to change their playing style," he laments. "Like in Pakistan and India, there is a lot of spin bowling and defensive batting to rotate the strike, getting ones and twos. This was not our style. Our style was just like the style which West Indies have. We have big hitters and score a lot of runs hitting sixes and fours. In this style we won so many games from 2002 to 2009 everywhere in the world."
One such occasion was against the UAE in the ACC T20 tournament in 2009. "In the last two balls, ten runs were needed and we all felt like we had lost the game. Our last pair was at the crease, Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan, and the UAE captain was bowling full tosses. I shouted at Hamid Hassan to not go down the track, stay at the crease and hit it far. He hit the first ball for four and the last for six and we won and that match was telecast live in Afghanistan. That was my favourite match in Afghanistan's history."
Malik thinks that a bit more of that spirit would make Afghanistan ever more successful today. "If I was there, I'm sure, with the help of Allah, we would be the No. 5 or No. 6 team in the world today." As Afghanistan's rise continues, Taj Malik does not deserve for his role to be forgotten. And if he has anything to do with it, there is no chance it will be.