Afghanistan’s captain in this World Cup first came to know he was an Afghan at the age of about 11 years.
You will remember him as the bodybuilder rookie in the documentary Out of the Ashes. It was filmed during the 2008 ICC World Cricket League Division Five in Jersey, a tournament Afghanistan won out of nowhere to kick-start their qualification process for the World T20 in 2010.
Gulbadin Naib was 17 years old then. Eleven years later, you might have seen him celebrate getting Aaron Finch out in the team’s World Cup opener with a flex of his massive biceps – which don’t really show until he draws attention to them.
Gulbadin has hardly aged at all. He continues to be the joker in the team – pro tip from Mohammad Shahzad: avoid sitting next to Gulbadin on long flights – despite having taken over in less than ideal circumstances. Asghar Afghan was sacked just before this World Cup, and Gulbadin promoted. Senior players such as Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi tweeted openly against the move, though that admittedly had more to do with the treatment meted out to Asghar than their lack of trust in Gulbadin. He and Nabi, in fact, are good friends and live in the same housing society in Kabul.
It must be difficult to come in as a leader at such a time but Gulbadin has ridden the ups and downs of Afghanistan cricket for almost as long as the others. He has probably faced the lows – or at least felt them and processed them – more than the others.
As a kid in Peshawar, he didn’t know where he was from until he started studying about Afghanistan in school. When he did, he began reading up more, asking his parents more. He learned about the war but always wanted to go back and start doing what his family had been doing for generations: importing and exporting clothes and fabrics. They had been doing this even before Pakistan existed. Now they found themselves in Pakistan. His father had almost given up on the one thing he lived for: a return to his homeland.
Cricket came later. “Pakistan were the kings of cricket from around 1995 to 2000,” Gulbadin remembers of his childhood. “Everywhere I went, everybody would be playing cricket. I also started playing with the tape ball then.”
Gulbadin was told he was good by a teacher, and that he should pursue the game, but he never took it seriously. He didn’t even know there was an Afghanistan cricket team until they toured to play Grade 2 cricket in Peshawar in 2003. It really hit him only when a neighbour in Kacha Ghadi, the refugee camp in Peshawar where they lived a tough life, struggling for basic needs such as electricity, drinking water and sanitation, was selected for the Afghanistan Under-15 side. All they could ask the boy – full of disbelief as they did – was, “You will go to Dubai now?”
“People used to be scared of us. Not just people but players who were in the same hotels. They used to turn away. ‘They are from a terrorist nation”
It was a ticket out of misery for people who had to choose between possible death back home and destitution as refugees in Peshawar. Now Gulbadin began to work harder for a cricket career. Going back to Afghanistan was not in the picture yet but getting out of Kacha Ghadi was everybody’s goal. His trip to Jersey was an eye opener. “People used to be scared of us,” he remembers. “Not just people but players who were in the same hotels. They used to turn away. ‘They are from a terrorist nation.’
“Once they came to know us, though, they wouldn’t stop talking to us. ‘You guys are very sweet,’ they would say, and that the media has painted the wrong picture.”
Cricket also paved their way back into the country. As the geopolitics of the region changed, as Afghanistan began to move away from Pakistan and towards India, the board demanded the players move back to their country. Gulbadin’s father got his wish. He now owns a shop in Kabul where he sells clothes.