Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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It was December 22. The second day of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) draft was taking place in Lahore. Afghanistan were going to start their limited-overs series against Zimbabwe in three days in Sharjah. Afghanistan allrounder Mohammad Nabi was sitting with the rest of his team-mates in his room in Dubai, closely following the draft. Nabi was one of three Afghanistan players listed in the Silver category at the draft (fast bowler Shapoor Zardan and batsman Samiullah Shenwari were the other two).
"I was watching it on TV. It was the last round of the silver category. Considering I was not picked in the first three rounds I was a little upset," Nabi says, sitting at the team hotel on Friday, recollecting the events. "I thought I would not be picked in the last round. I had, in fact, spoken to Peshawar Zalmi's owner Javed Afridi. He had promised me he would pick me. But then Quetta Gladiators picked me and I was damn happy," Nabi says with a smile.
Fakhr [pride] is a word Nabi uses a lot during our half-hour conversation. "I am proud both for myself and for Afghanistan that I am playing in the PSL. It is a big thing," the 31-year-old, says. This will be his second Twenty20 franchise-based tournament, having played a couple of seasons in the Bangladesh Premier League, where he has represented Sylhet Royals and the Rangpur Riders.
Nabi, though, admits the PSL is special: apart from everything else he gets to play alongside his one-time idol Kevin Pietersen. "He is my favourite player. Yeh mere liye fakhr ki baat hain [This is a matter of pride for me]. I am lucky because he was my hero once and now I am playing with him in the same team," Nabi says.
Incidentally Nabi's fascination for Pietersen started when he bowled against the former England batsman in the nets while playing for the MCC Young Cricketers in the summers of 2006 and 2007. "I bowled a lot at him, but it was very difficult to get him out. He was such a confident player," Nabi says.
Neither has Nabi reminded Pietersen nor does the latter recollect the young Afghan player who bowled at him at nets. "I don't blame him because even I would have forgotten, especially considering we are so busy with our training and nets and it is easy to forget. But he remains my favourite."
Nabi still recollects fondly the way Pietersen dealt with Australia legspinner Shane Warne in the 2005 Ashes, his shot selection, his confidence in sweeping at will and just playing gung-ho cricket throughout the series. Pietersen continues to influence Nabi's thinking.
On Thursday, in the PSL opener against Islamabad United, Pietersen suggested to Nabi, who is an offspinner, a few field changes, especially against Misbah-ul-Haq. "I was bowling against Misbah with a short midwicket. Misbah was playing the reverse [sweep] a lot. So [Pietersen] suggested that why not vacate the midwicket area and add an extra point fielder. I agreed and we had a short thirdman and a point. And that helped," Nabi says.
Nabi also earned a pat on the back from his hero for taking three catches in the Islamabad innings. "He told me 'You have safe hands, mate,'" Nabi says happily.
Then there is the Gladiators mentor Sir Viv Richards, with whom Nabi is still getting acquainted. "He was surprised that an Afghanistan cricketer was in PSL," Nabi says, widening his eyes. Richards was curious to know more about Afghanistan cricket then. "I told him we had won our last ODI series and T20 series against Zimbabwe. He was shocked. I told him Afghanistan cricket has improved a lot and we are in the top-10 in ODI cricket. Bahut khush huan, yaar [He was very happy]. He said more talent should emerge from Afghanistan." Such interactions with great players, Nabi stresses, will not just help him, but also the careers of young Afghanistan players.
An established hero himself, when he is back home in Kabul, Nabi is thronged by fans - old and young - asking him to share his insights, experiences and delights of playing the game. "So whatever little I can learn from all the big players in PSL I can then take it to Afghanistan. It is a big thing because if they open up and share from their heart, then I can keep that with me for life. I can then tell our players in Afghanistan this is what is international cricket.
"My fans love me. When I go to our academy in Kabul the junior players respect me. If the two or three things Pietersen said, two or three things Viv Richards told me, if I can take those to the youngsters and share them, it would only help Afghanistan cricket."
There is one more thing Nabi is curious to understand which he wants to ask the pair of Pietersen and Richards: how to deal with pressure. "I want to know from these big players how to handle pressure. As I go into the field there is pressure at least the first few balls. I want to learn, as I feel it is important. Top-level cricket is all about handling pressure and if I can manage that, it would reflect in my individual game and my leadership."