Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
"Meet Hazrat," said Rashid Khan to Chris Gayle. "He is a big fan of yours. Back home, they call him Afghanistan's Gayle."
This was at the Afghanistan Premier League last October. The next day the 20-year-old Hazratullah Zazai smacked six sixes in an over, joining Gayle in sharing the record for the fastest T20 half-century, off 12 balls.
Five years ago Hazrat was getting a hang of playing with the cricket ball for the first time. He had been a tape-tennis ball superstar in and around Kabul for a while. He had already won the title of the Afghan Gayle. Big crowds used to gather to watch him bat in ten-over tape-ball matches. The sixes used to be big. Anything overpitched or short used to disappear.
Then he had to adjust to the cricket ball. Wear pads for the first time. Guards. Gloves. Helmet. Before he did so, he painted the pads and helmet in the Afghanistan colours. He had decided long ago - "Iraada kar liya tha", during the 2010 World T20, when he saw Afghanistan on the international stage for the first time - that he was going to represent the country.
He played three or four cricket-ball T20 matches every week, on barren outfields, on cement pitches. He had never seen a coach or an academy or a green outfield until he was selected for the Under-19 side.
"At club, we didn't have any coaches," Hazrat says. "I just watched TV and videos and learnt and made adjustments. We just wanted to play matches." He played in the day and worked as a watchman at a mobile service provider's tower in the night. He made 10,000 Afghanis a month, 300-400 of which went into the pool for each match for his club, Sulha (the name translates to "peace"). There was no money to be made by playing, not even if you won. They played for the love of it.
Then one day in 2014, Hazrat played an inter-region T20 club match in Jalalabad, where all the cricket in Afghanistan was concentrated. The home team scored more than 250. Everybody was relaxed. Hazrat, though, scored a century and won not only the match but also the crowd over. The Afghan Gayle was now famous outside Kabul too. His team's manager, a future Afghanistan Cricket Board chairman, got him off the job so he could focus just on cricket.
In Sharjah four years later, Hazrat was on the big stage, hitting the veteran left-arm spinner Abdullah Mazari for six sixes in an over. ESPNcricinfo played him a video of it, which he looked at. "I usually like to take a look at the bowler, but the target was 245, so I had to go after every ball," Hazrat says. "He is an experienced bowler but I had to try to hit him.
"He bowled the first ball flat and full, and that is my area, so I went for it." The ball sailed over straight midwicket even though both mid-on and midwicket were back.
"He slowed the second ball down, but it was just a touch too full and I felt I could go for it." He cleared his front leg to give himself room to swing, and put it over long-on. Mazari was bowling from round the wicket to deny him that angle into his favoured leg side, but Hazrat had found a way around it.
The third ball is fired down the leg side. Wide, beating his attempt to place it past short fine. "I was looking to hit this for four, but it was a wide. So he was unlucky," Hazrat says with a smile.
Unlucky indeed in hindsight. Had Hazrat connected, there would have been no six sixes. When did he start thinking of it? "Not until I had hit five."
The third ball was flat and on a length again, and was a few feet in height from clearing the roof of the Sharjah Cricket Stadium.
Mazari now went over the wicket with the same field, but Hazrat went inside-out. His main aim was to clear mid-off, but he connected well enough to send the ball over the rope. Mazari was now running out of ideas. "But he was still looking to get me out instead of trying to give me a single," Hazrat says. "That is why he went for six sixes."
With the fifth ball Mazari might have tried the single trick, but by now "I was looking to score big off every ball". This was smeared into the pads, trying to york him, but Hazrat stayed in the crease, collapsed his back knee to let him get under the ball and then let his hulking forearms do the rest without much of a flourish. This one cleared the roof; a new box of balls had to come in. The six also brought up Hazrat's fifty, but nobody noticed.
Mazari tried to now go wide on the other side, but Hazrat had time to let his back foot shuffle towards the ball and then hit it over long-off for the final six. Mazari watched bemused. The players in the balcony were on their feet. Gayle watched on the field. "He later told me I should keep batting the same way, and that my game was good."
The fandom began eight years ago, when Hazrat saw Gayle score 333 in a Test in Galle - he watched all cricket - and he became a fan. "It was amazing that such a quick scorer could play such a long innings in a Test."
In the way of long innings was Hazrat's fitness. Umesh Patwal, the former Afghanistan batting coach, and also the coach of his team in the APL, says he challenged Hazrat to work on his fitness two years ago. "He had all the shots but he was too big," Patwal says. "He needed to lose some weight to be able to play longer innings." Patwal is pleased Hazrat has put in the hard work. He is still big, mind, but he has gone from Inzamam-ul-Haq to Nasir Jamshed.
In an official career of a little over two years, Hazrat has played 74 innings. The longest has been 161 balls; only two have gone over 100 balls. He has scored six hundreds: three in first-class cricket, two in T20, and one in 50 balls in a List A match. His highest of course is the 162 not out in a T20 international in Dehradun last week - against Boyd Rankin and George Dockrell - but it's List A season right now. He has five ODIs against Ireland to seal a World Cup spot. "I will play my natural game," he says, "but with some respect for the format so I can bat long."
"What will you do if you happen to bat long in an ODI?"
"If I bat 30 overs, I will be close to 200," Hazrat says.
Like many Afghan cricketers of his age, Hazrat has taught himself off the TV and YouTube. He knows how to hit big, but now he has the best of the coaches to teach him how to bat 30 overs. Or more.
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