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Trott: 'To play at this level with their upbringing - it's truly mind-blowing'

It is commonplace for national teams to be coached by foreigners but Trott, who has been in position for almost two years, is yet to even visit Afghanistan

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
12-Jun-2024
Sitting in the lobby of a Trinidad hotel, a former England international is wearing a San Francisco 49ers t-shirt and watching South Africa play Bangladesh on Long Island on TV. His next assignment is a coaching meeting ahead of a match against Papua New Guinea. His team is hoping to eliminate either West Indies or New Zealand from the men's T20 World Cup.
"The face of the game is changing," says Jonathan Trott, to this cosmopolitan backdrop. "It's always been very much a colonial sport, but the world is changing now. Maybe it'll follow football and start to become global?" Trott should know: he coaches an Afghanistan side who have risen from nowhere to break into cricket's established powers.
They were tipped by many as genuine contenders at the T20 World Cup and proved why on Friday night, inflicting an 84-run thrashing on New Zealand in Guyana. Having cruised past Uganda in their opening game, Afghanistan have the best net run rate (5.225) in the tournament.
It means they can effectively seal their place in the Super Eight by beating PNG on Thursday. "We've still got a lot of work ahead of us," Trott cautions. "It's just about the guys keeping their feet on the ground and not getting too carried away: things can go well quickly, but they can also go south quickly. Our focus is just on that PNG game."
But after last Friday's win, he encouraged his players to recognise their achievements. Mohammad Nabi, the veteran allrounder, has represented Afghanistan for two decades: this was the first time he had beaten New Zealand. "I wanted to make the point that what they're working at is paying off… There's so much franchise cricket now that the specialness and the pride in playing for your nation is sometimes a little bit lost."
Trinidad's World Cup fixtures are being staged at the new Brian Lara Academy in Tarouba, but the historic Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain is being used as a training base. Trott's side will visit on Tuesday and Wednesday and he will soak in the history at a venue synonymous with regional pride during West Indies' periods of dominance: they were unbeaten there in Tests for 20 years between 1978 and 1998.
"One of the things I've always enjoyed is going on tours to places where other teams have been before, and walking in other people's footsteps, other teams' history," Trott says. "When I used to go on tour with England, you'd see pictures from the old MCC tours: I remember being at Adelaide Oval, and walking around the Bradman Museum. I found it fascinating."
He never toured Trinidad with England, making his debut five months after their most recent Test at Queen's Park Oval. "Coming to the Caribbean, you watch the footage of [Michael] Atherton and [Alec] Stewart getting absolutely clattered on an uneven pitch… It's a shame we're not going to Jamaica and seeing the old ground. I love coming to each island with its own history."
That view has informed his attitude to letting Afghanistan's players celebrate their wins - including at last year's 50-over World Cup, when they turned over England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Netherlands. "I want them to sit down together for an hour and realise they are creating history for other players, who are going to wear those shirts one day and walk in their footsteps."
Despite Trott's pride in those victories, there is a lingering disappointment that Afghanistan missed out on the semi-finals in India. He does not need reminding that they had Australia 91 for 7 chasing 292 to win in Mumbai before Glenn Maxwell's sensational double-hundred: "We were so close to achieving something that nobody expected."
It is commonplace for national teams to be coached by foreigners but Trott's role is unique: he has been in position for almost two years, but is yet to visit the country itself. Afghanistan's volatile security situation means they have never hosted a full international and instead play 'home' fixtures in the UAE, where many of their players are based.
"I've learned a few words and phrases [of Pashto] but I get stuff translated. Team meetings take a little bit longer, but it's something I've learned as well: that art of communication."
Trott on dealing with language barrier
Trott still lives in Birmingham, where he first moved in his early 20s from his native South Africa. "I'm never leaving," he says, laughing. But he is proud of how his players have coped with their own sense of dislocation: "It could feel like they were a bit rudderless, but my boys are great about it. They know the UAE like the backs of their hands."
The language barrier can occasionally pose him problems. "But the younger players then go into franchise cricket and the universal language of English is used there," Trott says. "I've learned a few words and phrases [of Pashto] but I get stuff translated. Team meetings take a little bit longer, but it's something I've learned as well: that art of communication."
Throughout Trott's tenure, Afghanistan has been governed by the Taliban. Cricket Australia has withdrawn from two bilateral series against them, citing restrictions on women's education and employment opportunities, and the ECB has expressed a similar stance. It means there are awkward questions to ask: there are concerns that the Taliban is using the nation's cricketing success to legitimise its oppressive regime.
"I try not to get involved in that side of things and to keep it away from the players," Trott says. "Everyone's got their own ideas, but I keep everything about cricket. If there's something that needs attention - like during the [50-over] World Cup, there was the earthquake - then everyone is focused on that and donations to charity, and that's great.
"But otherwise, I try to keep the attention here and keep all the political distraction away. You speak to a lot of the guys about growing up and they don't need to be reminded of things. There are some stories which make me feel very lucky with the upbringing I had and the opportunities I was afforded… I find it remarkable, these players' upbringing and to play at the level they are now. It's truly mind-blowing."
Trott believes that his players' backgrounds have informed the traits that make them a force at this T20 World Cup. "We've got guys on the coaching staff who are amazed at how far our boys can hit the ball. They've played so much tape-ball, street cricket, where they have to absolutely belt the ball for it to go anywhere… so the hard ball absolutely flies off their bats.
"We're blessed, and maybe ahead of the curve in some ways. But there are some areas of our batting that we may need to work on and that haven't been coached as much at a young level as they would be in a more developed Test nation. Hopefully, we are starting to see what we can achieve."
He was particularly pleased with their maturity against New Zealand, led by Rahmanullah Gurbaz's innings of 80 off 56 balls. "After ten overs, we were 55 for 0. In previous times, we might have just panicked and had a bit of a slog and got out. But Gurbaz played exceptionally well, and showed his skills against one of the best bowling attacks."
Afghanistan's bowling attack has always been geared towards their spinners - and captain Rashid Khan in particular - but it has been the left-arm seamer Fazalhaq Farooqi who has led the way in this World Cup. "He was at the IPL, not playing but around fantastic players at [Sunrisers] Hyderabad. I've noticed a bit of a difference: there's not as much joking around at training."
Farooqi has also benefited from the presence of Dwayne Bravo, who is with the squad for the World Cup as a bowling consultant. "I was looking at his stats the other day: over 500 T20 games for about 43 different sides," Trott jokes. "He's come in and worked really hard, along with our other coaches. The ingredients are all there, we're getting the right cooks to put them together."
No team would relish facing Afghanistan in the Super Eight. "We don't have that experience of playing the major, powerhouse nations - but I think that works in our favour," Trott says. "When you play against the same opposition all the time, you can line them up a bit. They've played against some of our guys in franchise cricket, but as a collective group, it's a different story."
I ask what would constitute a success for Afghanistan at this World Cup - and whether they could even win it. "I don't want to put a marker down," Trott says, smiling. "But with the position we're sitting in now, yes, I'd like to get out of the group stage. And when we leave St Lucia next week, we can have another chat about it then."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98