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'If you had told me I would be the Afghanistan captain, I would never have believed it'

Gulbadin Naib is the joker of a team that laughs a lot - despite their circumstances. He talks about how cricket offered him hope, like it did a lot of his team-mates

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Gulbadin Naib celebrates dismissing Aaron Finch, Afghanistan v Australia, World Cup 2019, Bristol, June 1, 2019

Gulbadin Naib: "We are a different people. If we decide to go for something, we don't stop at anything"  •  Getty Images

Afghanistan's captain in this World Cup first came to know he was an Afghan at the age of about 11 years.
You will remember him as the bodybuilder rookie in the documentary Out of the Ashes. It was filmed during the 2008 ICC World Cricket League Division Five in Jersey, a tournament Afghanistan won out of nowhere to kick-start their qualification process for the World T20 in 2010.
Gulbadin Naib was 17 years old then. Eleven years later, you might have seen him celebrate getting Aaron Finch out in the team's World Cup opener with a flex of his massive biceps - which don't really show until he draws attention to them.
Gulbadin has hardly aged at all. He continues to be the joker in the team - pro tip from Mohammad Shahzad: avoid sitting next to Gulbadin on long flights - despite having taken over in less than ideal circumstances. Asghar Afghan was sacked just before this World Cup, and Gulbadin promoted. Senior players such as Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi tweeted openly against the move, though that admittedly had more to do with the treatment meted out to Asghar than their lack of trust in Gulbadin. He and Nabi, in fact, are good friends and live in the same housing society in Kabul.
It must be difficult to come in as a leader at such a time but Gulbadin has ridden the ups and downs of Afghanistan cricket for almost as long as the others. He has probably faced the lows - or at least felt them and processed them - more than the others.
As a kid in Peshawar, he didn't know where he was from until he started studying about Afghanistan in school. When he did, he began reading up more, asking his parents more. He learned about the war but always wanted to go back and start doing what his family had been doing for generations: importing and exporting clothes and fabrics. They had been doing this even before Pakistan existed. Now they found themselves in Pakistan. His father had almost given up on the one thing he lived for: a return to his homeland.
Cricket came later. "Pakistan were the kings of cricket from around 1995 to 2000," Gulbadin remembers of his childhood. "Everywhere I went, everybody would be playing cricket. I also started playing with the tape ball then."
Gulbadin was told he was good by a teacher, and that he should pursue the game, but he never took it seriously. He didn't even know there was an Afghanistan cricket team until they toured to play Grade 2 cricket in Peshawar in 2003. It really hit him only when a neighbour in Kacha Ghadi, the refugee camp in Peshawar where they lived a tough life, struggling for basic needs such as electricity, drinking water and sanitation, was selected for the Afghanistan Under-15 side. All they could ask the boy - full of disbelief as they did - was, "You will go to Dubai now?"
"People used to be scared of us. Not just people but players who were in the same hotels. They used to turn away. 'They are from a terrorist nation'"
It was a ticket out of misery for people who had to choose between possible death back home and destitution as refugees in Peshawar. Now Gulbadin began to work harder for a cricket career. Going back to Afghanistan was not in the picture yet but getting out of Kacha Ghadi was everybody's goal. His trip to Jersey was an eye opener. "People used to be scared of us," he remembers. "Not just people but players who were in the same hotels. They used to turn away. 'They are from a terrorist nation.'
"Once they came to know us, though, they wouldn't stop talking to us. 'You guys are very sweet,' they would say, and that the media has painted the wrong picture."
Cricket also paved their way back into the country. As the geopolitics of the region changed, as Afghanistan began to move away from Pakistan and towards India, the board demanded the players move back to their country. Gulbadin's father got his wish. He now owns a shop in Kabul where he sells clothes.
Gulbadin is aware and proud of his identity. He can make jokes about Pathans, but he also rates their natural ability higher. He narrates the story of Geoffrey Boycott at the tournament in Jersey, where he said in an interview that Jersey were favourites to win the league. A few days later there was another report quoting Boycott as saying Afghanistan were favourites. Boycott said that he had now seen Afghanistan and reckoned they were half there already.
"You look at our history," Gulbadin says. "We are a different people. If we decide to go for something, we don't stop at anything. Even our fans, if they decide they have to meet us, they will find us."
He says Afghan Pathans are more special because of their resilience. Despite all the war and all the attempts of superpowers through history to rule over them because of their strategic location, no foreign power has ever succeeded in colonising them.
"You see there will be a bomb blast in a market and within hours the shops will be back up. People have decided they will not leave their home again. Whatever it is, it is our country."
Gulbadin's two brothers live in Canada and France, but he will not give up on his country. He is not proud that while he can read and write Urdu, he can't write Pashto, his language. He is happy his sons will grow up learning Pashto and as Afghans in Afghanistan. He doesn't want to lose that identity.
We met last year in Dehradun when Afghanistan were playing Bangladesh in a T20I series and were also preparing for their debut Test. Gulbadin is not a Test player, and he was looking forward to participating in a night tournament during Ramzan in Nangarhar. Then a bomb in the stands took away more than ten lives and ended the tournament there. "It was like we were losing everything we had," Gulbadin says. "But then we had to pick ourselves up. We are the ones who can put a smile back on their faces."
Gulbadin travels - and it can't be advisable - far and wide in his country, and has seen people who had nothing to do with cricket until 2010 now love the cricketers because they bring joy to the country. Nazir Khan, their "super fan", over 70 years old, has seen cricket only for 10-15 years of his life. He still doesn't understand the sport properly but he goes wherever he can afford to go to watch.
Gulbadin remembers he once travelled to Dangam district in the Kunar province in north-east Afghanistan. It is an area where the Islamic State is powerful. People kept asking him why and how he went there, and told him he shouldn't. "I said, I play cricket and I have nothing to do with politics and other things," Gulbadin says. "And that's where I realised how beautiful my country is. Why do we need to go to Switzerland when we have this?"
Once, driving back from Khost to Kabul, he and Nabi pulled up in wilderness where there was nothing around for miles except about a dozen boys playing cricket. They went and played cricket with the boys, who stopped short of pinching themselves.
Gulbadin finds himself pinching himself these days. "The career I have had, in-out, in-out, out even after performing, out when not performing obviously - I have seen a lot of struggle," he says after Afghanistan's defeat to Australia in the World Cup. "If somebody had told me I would become the Afghanistan captain, I would never have believed it. This is a matter of such pride. Even playing the World Cup is a big enough honour; being captain is something else."
How far that goofy boy has come, you might think, but Gulbadin says he hasn't changed. "You won't believe it, but sometimes I forget I am the captain," he says. "There is no ego in the team. I keep laughing and having fun as before. Nor does any player feel that anything has changed with me becoming captain."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo