Noor Ahmad chuckles nervously. The 18-year-old Afghanistan left-arm-wristspinner who plays for Gujarat Titans in the IPL is worried about his English-speaking ability as we sit down for a chat. He is learning the language on the fly, on the road, as he travels the world playing in T20 franchise leagues in both hemispheres.
Noor went to sleep around 6am the day we met. He did not forget to say his fazr prayers before shutting down, he says, and now he says a quick prayer before our interview begins too.
About a minute into the conversation, any concerns he might have had about his English melt away as he settles fluently into talking cricket. His eyes twinkle and his face, which has hints of a beard, lights up with big smiles.
The previous evening, playing a home game in Ahmedabad, Noor, along with his mentor and senior Afghanistan and Titans team-mate Rashid Khan, threw a wrench into Mumbai Indians' plans soon after the powerplay. As they chased a steep 208 to win, Mumbai only managed 29 runs for the loss of opener and captain Rohit Sharma in the first six, and were 58 for 3 at the halfway stage.
In the next over Noor took the wickets of Mumbai's Aussie-made weapons of mass destruction, Cameron Green and Tim David, sending the home crowd into raptures. Mumbai's last hope lay in Suryakumar Yadav.
Though Suryakumar took 15 runs off the 12th over, from Rashid, off the second ball he faced from Noor in the 13th, he attempted to push at one that was turning in, having pitched on good length, and popped a return catch.
"That was like a dream wicket," Noor says. "I wanted to take that kind of batsman's wicket. I decided to pitch back of length because he is very good at sweeping and slogging."
Noor managed to take the low catch before, full of excitement, trying to throw the ball up to celebrate, losing hold of it, and catching it more securely.
In addition to the three Mumbai wickets, Noor's tally for the season so far is: Sanju Samson (Rajasthan Royals), Nicholas Pooran and Krunal Pandya (Lucknow Super Giants), and Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Rinku Singh (Kolkata Knight Riders). Having made his debut as an impact player, Noor is now part of Titans' first XI.
It was in 2018 that the first turning point of Noor's career arrived. He participated in an open selection trial in Kabul, organised by the Afghanistan cricket Board to pick grassroots U-19 talent. Former Afghanistan batter Raees Ahmadzai, who headed the board's Under-19 wing and was a coach-cum-selector, realised Noor was a bowler with the X-factor he was looking for. "I wanted to have a left-arm wristspinner who could offer a different bowling style and different variation," Ahmadzai says. "The way he bowled, the way he showed confidence in what he did, he impressed me."
About 125 youngsters attended the trial. That group was culled to 75, then 40, and finally a squad of 15 was shortlisted, based on cricketing and physical skillsets. Noor made the cut.
In 2019, when he was 14, he threw his name into the hat for the IPL auction the first time. He went unsold that year and again the following year, but he did not stop serving notice of his talent.
At the Under-19 50-over Asia Cup that year, he starred in a thriller against India, who escaped with a narrow win. Defending 125, Noor finished with 4 for 30 in his ten overs - among his victims were India captain Dhruv Jurel (now with Royals) who was trapped lbw, and Tilak Verma (now Mumbai Indians), bowled.
Ahmadzai, who was Afghanistan's head coach for the tournament, speaks of his Indian counterpart, Rahul Dravid, being impressed by Noor at the time. That same year, Noor made his first-class debut.
Two years later, early in January of 2021, the day he turned 16, Noor played his second game in his debut BBL season, representing Melbourne Renegades. He had never bowled on such a big stage, against some of most destructive batters around, including Liam Livingstone. Renegades lost that game to Perth Scorchers, but Noor made his birthday special, taking Livingstone's wicket, stumped. "It was a googly and he didn't pick it. I bowled a little away from his [batting arc]. There was some bounce in the wicket and that helped me," he remembers.
At the mega auction ahead of the 2022 IPL, Titans picked Noor up for his base price, Rs 30 lakhs ($40,000 approximately). It was a memorable day for the teenager, who had grown up watching the IPL, to be faced with the potential of bowling alongside his idol, Rashid.
Noor didn't play last year, and got his first IPL match, against Royals, a couple of weeks ago, when he was brought in as impact player with six overs to go. Royals needed 77 from 36 deliveries. Sanju Samson smacked the fourth ball of the over, a googly wide outside off stump, for a six. The next ball, a legbreak well outside leg stump, was happily dismissed for an easy four past short fine leg.
"I was sure he will try to hit a six again," Noor says. "So I thought, if I try bowling a little bit away, there's a chance he might mistime. And that's exactly what happened.
"There was pressure in the first match, but I just wanted to enjoy it because it was a totally new experience for me. I know IPL is a very big stage in cricket. The more I enjoy, the more I will succeed. I want to bowl to the top players and have got some of them out. I am just enjoying bowling to these guys."
If Noor was nervous and excited on his IPL debut, his family was no less so, back in Afghanistan. "The amazing thing was in the first match when I got the Samson wicket, one of my brothers got up and punched a door and broke it," Noor says, laughing. "The whole door!" I asked him why. He said, 'I was not having control over my emotions.'"
Noor is the youngest of eight children - four boys and four girls. The family live in Lakhan district in Khost in south-eastern Afghanistan. Noor was good at studies growing up, and his father, Mohammad Amir, wanted him to stick with them rather than take a punt on cricket.
"I had topped grade ten in school, and that's when I started professional cricket. [Dad] said I was in a good position at the school and he was afraid I would not reach a high level in cricket."
Pressure to think twice before embarking on a cricket career came from outside the family too. "Sometimes the school teachers, including the principal, came and spoke to my father and told him, 'He is a good kid in school, he is talented, so please don't let him play cricket. Bring him to school.'" It is a common predicament for every talented Afghan athlete, Ahmadzai says.
If Noor has one person to thank for playing a key role in convincing his father to allow him to play cricket, it is his brother Mohammad. "He was trying to convince my dad all the time and he supported me in playing cricket."
These days the family enjoys watching Noor every IPL game. His father, Noor says, is "very happy". "After the match when we talk, they tell me they don't have any words to describe their emotion."
Like other Afghans, Noor too started out playing tape-ball cricket. That was where he learned the basics of spin bowling. "It was the start of my legspin bowling," he says. "And by the end I was bowling the ball that goes away,"
Noor's teenage years coincided with the arrival of Rashid onto the global stage. As Rashid mystified batters in T20 leagues around the world, youngsters like Noor watched and grew enamoured of his magic. Though he is a left-arm wristspinner himself, Noor realised he could pick things from Rashid's bowling to incorporate into his own. "I saw him and wanted to bowl like him."
The legbreak, googly, and a slider that is more of a quick legspinner, are the variations Noor currently uses. The mystery comes from the different grips he uses to deliver them at varying speeds. He has a brisk approach to the crease and a whippy action. His bowling speed is one of his strong points. At the 2022 Under-19 World Cup, where Afghanistan finished fourth, Ahmadzai was head coach and remembers keeping to Noor in training. "He was very quick, like a medium-pacer - he was bowling at 115-120 kph. I felt like that. I knew this guy would not be easy to hit, especially if he doesn't bowl short or give any width to play the cut or pull. If he bowled in the right areas, it wouldn't it be easy to hit him."
Noor thinks his pace helps in that it leaves batters short of reaction time. "The batsman won't have so much time to play the ball. Pace and a bit of turn is a good combination," he says.
He looks to pick up cues from batters to help with his bowling plans. "My aim is, I should be able or at least try to read the batsman's mind - what is the situation, what the team needs, what the batsman will do. It is all about me staying confident."
If there is one person who is as happy about Noor's success as his family, it is Rashid. Speaking to the broadcaster after the win against Mumbai, Rashid was effusive about Noor's performance. "That little kid, he just wants to learn," he said. And he's working so hard. Last year he was working, bowling lots in the nets, and kept asking questions.
"Even when I was having gym, he was coming to the gym and saying, 'Let's just bowl here in the gym.' At 1am, 2am, he was coming when I was in the gym during Ramzan, and he was bowling with me in the gym. That much he wanted to get better, that much he wanted to perform.
"He has got the opportunity now and he has been delivering. I am so, so happy he has been delivering. It's great news for GT as well as for Afghanistan cricket."
It was Rashid who handed Noor his first IPL cap. Noor looks back at the conversation then. "He [Rashid] said, 'Finally you get a chance to play at this kind of big level, which is every player's dream. It is your hard work and your determination which gives you this place.'"
With a laugh, Noor confirms what Rashid says about him picking his senior team-mate's brains about bowling whenever he wants to. "It is true - even when we are eating food together, I am asking questions to him. I always ask questions whenever I am with him. He is like Google for me!
"I have learned so much from Rashid, both on the field as well as off the field, about life. One of the most important is to have the belief in yourself anytime and face the challenge coming in front of you - never give up."
Noor says he now understands that he needs to use a lot of his body to drive the pace and he is learning the nuances of that by talking to more experienced spinners as he plies his trade in the T20 leagues.
He has played just the one ODI, against Sri Lanka on the tour there late last year, but Ahmadazai believes it will not surprise him if Noor is picked for the ODI World Cup later this year in India.
He has also shown batting smarts in pressure situations. "He is a brave person," says Ahmadzai. "I remember the way he played against Naseem Shah and other fast bowlers in the Under-19 Asia Cup on a green top in Sri Lanka. He made 17 crucial runs and we won that match."
Noor thinks his IPL experience will strengthen his case for inclusion in Afghanistan's squad for the World Cup. "It's always been my dream to play for my country. Win matches for my country. So I am really looking forward if I get a chance. Inshallah."
The IPL started three years after Noor was born. He came to grow fond of Royal Challengers Bangalore over the seasons. His two favourite players were AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli, before Rashid came along. These days, he is playing alongside his idol and bowling against the likes of Kohli. What will he like to take back from his maiden IPL season?
"I want to see myself become better and have some star players' wickets," he says.
Star players like Kohli? "Of course, I want," Noor says.
I wish Noor the best for his future. "And best of luck to my future English," he says with a laugh.