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Rahmanullah Gurbaz is dreaming of bigger things

Afghanistan clinched the T20I series against West Indies in November on the back of Rahmanullah Gurbaz's 52-ball 79 in the decider AFP

Afghanistan keeper-batsman Rahmanullah Gurbaz idolises AB de Villiers, so some fans now call him "Mr 360" after de Villiers' incredible batting style. Gurbaz says he does indeed love to watch de Villiers and MS Dhoni bat, but he has no plans "to be like them". All he can do, he says, is grow into a quality cricketer to play for his country.

In Bangladesh right now, playing for Khulna Tigers in the BPL, Gurbaz announced himself with an 18-ball fifty in his first game. A string of low scores thereafter put him out of the playing XI for four games, but, with a place in the playoff on the line, Khulna could do with Gurbaz's attacking strengths in the top order for their last three games.

He has enjoyed the experience of mixing with international players like Mushfiqur Rahim, Rilee Rossouw and Robbie Frylinck in the BPL.

"When you are with good players for four or five weeks, it is a good opportunity for me," Gurbaz said. "I am trying to learn from them. Rossouw and Mushfiqur are experienced players. I talk to them a lot. I want to learn from them. I am trying hard to become an all-format player."

There has been a lot of upheaval in Afghanistan cricket in 2019 and Gurbaz is one of many young cricketers being tried out in a particular format. But he also fills the hole left by Mohammad Shahzad, who has been suspended by the Afghanistan board for a year for breaching the code of conduct.

In Shahzad's place, Gurbaz, 18, made an impact in Afghanistan's T20I side over the last four months - scoring quick runs against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in the tri-series in September and then 79 against West Indies in Lucknow in November.

"My first international series [in Bangladesh] was a good experience. It was a challenging time for me. I had never played in front of a big crowd like I did in that series. The captain and coach told me to try hard and believe in myself. It is how I bat. I won't change my style in one-day cricket. It is my natural style. I will bat this way in every format. I like to sweep and try to play straight."

Gurbaz says that while he wants to play orthodox cricketing shots as an opener, if the situation demands, he will slog. He doesn't have to do it often given his attractive array of drives but there is one shot he likes to play on the on side: the sweep against both pace and spin.

"I work really hard on every shot. When you read the situation, like when you need to slog, you should do it for your country. But as an opener, I don't want to get too excited and want to stick to normal cricket shots."

Playing as a football goalkeeper during his teens in his home town of Khost in south-eastern Afghanistan, Gurbaz came late to cricket, inspired by a first generation of players who took their team to unthinkable heights in a short span of time.

"I loved football before I played cricket. But when our cricket team started to do well, especially players like Nawroz Mangal and Mohammad Nabi, I got inspired. I used to be a goalkeeper so now I have become a wicketkeeper.

"I think they were playing Ireland or Netherlands when I first saw them on TV. Cricket wasn't famous in Afghanistan but at that time my feeling was that I want to play for my nation."

He was first spotted by local coach Mohammad Khan Zadran, who believed that Gurbaz was made for bigger things.

"When I was 13, I used to play village cricket with tennis balls. The Khost province coach spotted me and said I should play hard-ball cricket in the academy. My father didn't agree, but I started to go two or three days a week. Zadran helped me a lot. Within a month I was in the Under-17 team. Then I got into professional cricket through U-19, the emerging team, the A team, and now the national team.

"My father is the principal of a school. He told me to focus on my studies and become a doctor. My family wasn't keen on cricket but now they are proud of me. They also watch my matches."

Things are different five years on because of how rapidly the game has captured the country's imagination. Seeing the national team's success, more Afghan parents are now opening up to the idea of their children pursuing cricket seriously. Gurbaz said if you walk around Kabul or any other city or town in Afghanistan these days, you can spot cricket academies and impromptu matches everywhere.

Gurbaz represents the second wave of cricket in Afghanistan, one that is quickly trying to find its place in world cricket, both internationally and in the T20 market.