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Lance Klusener: 'The fairy tale of Afghanistan cricket is what they've achieved with few resources'

The team's head coach on how far they have come, the areas they're working on improving, and his coaching philosophy

"What I can take with me when I leave one day is just to see how humble a team this is"  •  Getty Images

"What I can take with me when I leave one day is just to see how humble a team this is"  •  Getty Images

Lance Klusener, veteran of two ODI World Cups and part of one of the most memorable World Cup matches ever, is back at another world tournament, this time as Afghanistan's head coach. He talks about dealing with challenges on and off the field, and the roles played by the Afghanistan senior players
Afghanistan have beaten West Indies in the warm-ups, ran Pakistan close in the main tournament, and won two games. What do you make of the start?
I think it has been solid. We understand that, with due respect, it's Namibia and Scotland that we managed to beat. Yes, we had a very good game against Pakistan, and we were just a bit unlucky in the end. It's important to have got the points and the run rate that we do have now, but really the competition for us is still to start, with India and New Zealand, which are two world-class teams.
When Afghanistan came up against India in the 2010 T20 World Cup, it was a lopsided match-up. Now, if they beat India, they will be on the brink of a semi-final spot. In a way, does this illustrate the evolution of Afghanistan?
Yes, absolutely. Going back to Asghar [Afghan], that's the leadership with which he has been able to move the team along. The reality is that we're still growing and still have a long way to go. However, the fairy tale of Afghanistan cricket for me has been what they've been able to achieve with relatively few resources - that has been outstanding. And as I said, achieving that and still being humble people, the future is bright.
You've been with Afghanistan as head coach from 2019. What has impressed you the most about this team?
Just their passion for the game, their willingness to learn and their willingness to become better. That's just amazing - how hard they work. So I'm not really surprised that they are achieving what they have done in a short time. Just extremely proud.
What have you learnt as a coach in your time with the side?
I've coached around the world, but what stands out for me is just how humble these guys are, how respectful they are, and how aware they are of their roots and their responsibility to their supporters. That's extremely important, to keep your feet on the ground, which they do.
What's your coaching philosophy? Are you a hands-on coach?
I'm hands-on where I need to be. At this level, it's about creating an environment that will allow all the players to grow. You've got your senior players - Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, for example - who just really need an environment to continue to grow, offering them [help] where and when they need it.
Then you've got your youngsters in the squad who probably need more hands-on guidance, so I think it's a combination of taking a step back when you need to and stepping in and getting your hands dirty when you need to. The trick is knowing and getting your timing right. I think we're lucky that we've got a nice mix of youth and experience; we have a good combination of coaches for this competition as well.
Speaking of the coaches, what have Andy Flower and Shaun Tait brought to the squad as consultant and bowling coach?
Experience and credibility. Andy was the coach of England when they won this competition [in 2010] and it has been good for me to have other senior coaches to bounce ideas off. But it's also nice for the players - they get a different perspective on batting or bowling. I'm quite big on getting outside help. Sometimes, it just [about] hearing the same message from a different voice that can make a world of difference.
You've also had roles at the Abu Dhabi T10 league. Has that helped you in sussing out conditions at this T20 World Cup?
It does help. Last year's T10 was particularly bad with dew, and I think as the competition [T20 World Cup] goes on a bit, the dew will get worse. We haven't experienced any problems so far, so that's been quite good for us. We've probably played more day games here as well, when we were playing Scotland and Zimbabwe at the beginning of the year. We experienced that a little bit where we found the pitch was a little bit sticky batting first in a day game and kind of gets better as the day goes on. I thought the way we negotiated that tricky little powerplay against Namibia was key for us to get over the line.
While most other teams are leaning towards chasing, Afghanistan have won two games batting first and could have won one another one, against Pakistan, if not for Asif Ali's fireworks
Yeah it [batting first] has worked for us, also in the past. It's not that we've got problems doing it the other way around. We haven't seen the need to do differently because of the conditions, so we've just stuck to that. We've been lucky to win the toss, so that has given us that opportunity to decide for ourselves. However, we've spent some time chatting on the fact that if we do decide to chase, or do need to chase, then be comfortable with that as well.
Your batting line-up has a lot of six-hitters, but they've soaked up plenty of dots. How do you find that balance on the batting front?
It's something that we're working on. We want to improve on that and we've identified that as a big growth point for us: we need to run better and work on rotating the strike better. But at the same time, we need to work on our strength, which is boundary-hitting. I think we were particularly good in the last couple of games - the way we rotated the strike has been a lot better compared to in the past. If we can as a team get better with that and squeeze out an extra five, six runs every innings, that's an extra win somewhere down the line.
What kind of work is being done behind the scenes to give your players the best chance to hit those sixes on the field?
That [six-hitting] is a speciality of mine, so it's something that we've been able to work well on. It's also fun to practise boundary-hitting. I don't have to force the boys to do that. Again, not forgetting that a lot of our cricketers come from street cricket, tennis-ball cricket, tape-ball cricket, where that's all you do. There's no real running, so a lot of our cricketers learnt their cricket that way.
Afghanistan had a training camp in Qatar in the lead up to the World Cup, but lacked enough match practice coming into the tournament. How did you deal with that challenge?
From an Afghanistan point of view, every game's an away game. We don't have the privilege of playing home games. Maybe one day we will have that opportunity to play at home. But until then even it's a home series, it's on a foreign wicket and stadium.
At the end of the day, we can sit and make excuses all day, but it's not going to help. We've spoken a lot about putting that aside for a certain while and making sure we get on with putting smiles on the faces of people back home.
That's something that has started to become easier for us. The challenges are there, but the way the boys deal with it and the way the management has dealt with that has been amazing.
Yeah, a little bit short on match practice for some. But some players have been playing in the IPL, some in the Blast and the Hundred and the CPL. We had guys coming in, having had a hit in the Nepal league. A fair number have been playing cricket, so that's good but our focus was to bring people who haven't been playing sitting back home up to speed.
When Covid struck, you were in South Africa and couldn't travel to Afghanistan. So, you had to resort to online coaching.
[Players] have had access to good coaching with playing around the world, so that has taken a little bit of pressure off myself and them to a degree. It was just making sure that I was available all the time for those who were back home that possibly needed a bit of help. The boys were sending videos of what they were doing, asking for drills or whatever it was.
How has Mohammad Nabi held this team together both on and off the field?
He's a great human being and that's a start. He's been part of the team for a long time, part of senior players' groups, so for him to step in has been pretty flawless. He's played around the world, is extremely experienced, and has the support of everybody. We talk about being good human beings as well because of our responsibility towards the people back home, our supporters. Nabi is someone who epitomises that.
Asghar Afghan had an emotional farewell. You were the one who ushered him from the dugout to the change room after that guard of honour.
Yeah, tough day for him. It's always a tough day knowing the reality that it's not going to happen again. I was just extremely happy that the boys put in a good performance for him. But I think the legacy of Asghar is not necessarily his stats, it's in ushering the team through to where they are today and making sure that in the last 20 years they have achieved so much in such a short time. He's played a major, major role in that. That really for me is the mark that he's going to leave here - getting the boys to where they are here today and leading them along with a few other senior players. Hopefully, we're not losing him to cricket, certainly from an Afghanistan point of view.
Hamid Hassan turned up in his first T20I in more than five years and let rip his yorkers. Not too long ago he was doing commentary.
Yeah, he was our bowling coach while he was still injured. I'm just extremely happy for him. He's come a long way with his injuries and he's shortened his run-up, but still has excellent control. I had a long chat with him not so long ago - he's just challenging himself to force himself back. It was pleasing to see the way he took his opportunity. That will do loads for his confidence. He's come a long way and worked extremely hard. We just saw him bowl against Namibia, but I've seen him train for hours and days to be able to put himself into that position.
Afghanistan is not just about Rashid and Nabi these days. A number of young talents are emerging. How satisfying is that for you as a national coach?
I always like to have a team that has that youth and experience. My gauge for that with youngsters is that they're starting to be snapped up by T20 leagues around the world. We've got guys doing that, and let's not forget guys like Qais Ahmad and Noor Ahmad are not in our team at the moment. They've been playing in the Big Bash and the T10. That says we're producing quality.
The knowledge-sharing from those tournaments helps when you start speaking about plans against various players in other teams, as well as conditions. We all find that someone has played at that venue or whatever it is, so it's important for us that we share that. We're pretty lucky that we've got people playing in the IPL, so some of those guys have pretty much played against everybody in the world. It's nice to know what other teams have got, but 85% of the time is just spent speaking on what we want to do to win.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo