Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Afghanistan’s self-taught spin sensation

In many ways Mujeeb ur Rahman has broken the Afghan prototype. He is among the first few homegrown cricketers to make the international side. He was neither born in Pakistan nor did he learn his cricket there. He doesn’t speak Urdu. But he shares one trait with most Afghanistan cricketers. He has taught himself the game. Off YouTube, no less, bowling and bowling until his fingers hurt badly.
Mujeeb does enjoy the privilege of being the nephew of one of the founding fathers of cricket in Afghanistan, Noor Ali Zadran. Noor was born in Pakistan and learnt his cricket there, but, a man of means, he made sure there were facilities at home for future generations. It is not uncommon for families in Khost to own 2000-square-meter farms that house the extended family and have space for guest houses, cattle, and their crop. Noor added his own cricket academy to his family farm.
Mujeeb was nine when uncle Noor was representing Afghanistan in the 2010 World T20. “That’s when I picked up the ball,” Mujeeb says. He started bowling with the taped tennis ball in the streets, and did the natural thing to squeeze it out of the front of the hand, giving it a flick with the middle finger. Sometime around 2011 or 2012, Noor got the nets ready, and Mujeeb began to bowl with the cricket ball for the first time.
When Mujeeb tried to bowl that carrom ball with the cricket ball, it came out as a slow floaty nothing. That is usually when most street cricketers realise what works on the soft tennis ball doesn’t on the hard cricket ball, and try something else. Not Mujeeb. He knew there were others who had made the transition, but he had no access R Ashwin, Ajantha Mendis or Sunil Narine. Nor did he have a coach who could help him.
So Mujeeb began to download videos of the three bowlers on his phone, watch them on an app that would play them in slow motion, and go about trying to do what they did. Nobody told him what to do. He just began to copy what he saw, and bowled all day long. “Just bowl until the fingers couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “I needed strength in my fingers to be able to do it with the hard ball.”
Mujeeb was fortunate that apart from bowling alone in the nets he could bowl to a family full of batsmen. Another of Noor’s nephews, Ibrahim Zadran, plays first-class cricket now. Then there was always Noor batting in the nets when not on tour. He advised Mujeeb to lengthen his run-up. His first manager in domestic cricket, Dawlat Ahmadzai, began to use him as a new-ball bowler in local tournaments. He would tell him how to bowl, how to set batsmen up.
One day at a family gathering – and he was about 15 then – Mujeeb batted against a legspinner who bowled a wrong’un. Yes, they play cricket at family unions in the Zadran household in Khost. And he went to the man and learned how to bowl the wrong’un. When uncle Noor saw it, he encouraged him to bowl it. “The carrom ball and the googly are my strong balls now,” Mujeeb says.