Becoming Afghanistan's cricket hero: Rashid Khan outlines his route to the top

SAJ SADIQ: After defying his family to play the sport he loves, the legspinner charts his journey from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most recognisable faces on the planet

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Since bursting on the international scene aged 17, Rashid Khan has been a constant in cricket's top tier.

A talisman for his country, a regular in franchise and domestic competitions around the world and a master of his craft, there is little doubt the legspinner is among the sport's modern-day superstars as well as a box office performer.

But it hasn't always been this easy. Cricket didn't present the same career path that it does now in Afghanistan. Rashid is the poster boy for the current era.

Another opportunity to showcase his talent will come in the upcoming Indian Premier League for Sunrisers Hyderabad. The Cricketer spoke to him about his journey and what it all means.

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Was the dream always to become a professional cricketer?

No definitely not. My family didn’t want me to play cricket and wouldn’t give me permission to play cricket at all. Back then, at that time, they were right because the outlook of Afghanistan wasn’t very bright and people didn’t really know what the future of the nation would be and whether cricket would even be played there.

It was tough for me as I wanted to play cricket but my family were dead against it. But when people started to tell my family that I was actually pretty good at cricket, their mindset changed and they started to support me which was huge for me. Once you have your family behind you regarding your chosen career, then that makes a lot of difference and makes things a lot easier.

Were there any other professions that appealed to you?

To be honest, the alternative and probably first choice profession was to be a doctor. There were no doctors in our family so my elders were keen for me to be the first doctor in the family. I was a good student, but once I started playing more and more cricket, then it was really difficult to combine studies and cricket, so I had to choose between one of my preferred professions and I chose cricket. 

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When you had to escape the turmoil of Afghanistan and live in Pakistan, did you ever think that one day you would be playing cricket at the highest level?

Never mind back then, even now I have to ask myself whether all this is just a dream and not reality. It was a difficult journey, but it’s always a stark reminder for me to keep my life simple and not to over-complicate what I want to achieve. All this love from fans, awards, recognition by the ICC, the chance to play all around the globe, it feels like it’s all a dream at times and sometimes I do think about where I came from and where I am today. 

Have you helped change the image of Afghanistan?

It’s a great feeling and I’m very proud if people think that I have achieved this. There is a lot of work to be done in Afghanistan cricket and sports in general in the country and there are still a lot of changes and improvements required, but we are all trying our best to turn things around. The image of Afghanistan is definitely heading in the right direction and it’s great to see that I am making a small contribution to this change of image. 

How does it feel to be a sporting icon and role-model for people wanting to choose sport in Afghanistan?

Many young people in Afghanistan are keen to follow in my footsteps and improve the image of the country through sports, which makes me really happy and proud. I think more and more people especially the younger generations in Afghanistan are realising that playing sport is a way to improve the country’s reputation and be known throughout the world and become successful.

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Rashid already has two Test 10-fors to his name

How do you feel when you and your team-mates are recognised as your nation’s ambassadors?

It’s true that Afghanistan’s image has not been the best over the years, but the cricket team that I am part of is an example of how things are being improved and turned around. Nowadays, if you mention Afghanistan, a lot of people will think of the cricket team and its players rather than the negative aspects which were previously connected to the nation. 

Our people and nation have been through some tough times and if we can bring smiles to the faces of our people wherever they are in the world, then that makes me feel like we as cricketers have achieved something. 

We get messages from our fans in Afghanistan, in Europe and other parts of the world, wherever we play and it means so much to them to see the nation competing on the world stage in cricket. 

For a nation like Afghanistan surely you are more than just a cricketer and a role-model?

At all times I say to myself that I am not just playing for a franchise or a county team, but also representing Afghanistan. Whatever I do, whatever I say, every ball I bowl or shot I play is seen as something that is being done by someone from Afghanistan. That is so important to me as I want to be seen as someone who has brought a generation of youngsters into cricket and drawn them to playing cricket and appearing on the world stage.

What can be better than if these young cricketers from Afghanistan are trying to emulate me, follow in my footsteps and wanting to show the world that the people of Afghanistan can indeed compete in sports around the world?

Your role-models were Anil Kumble and Shahid Afridi. What appealed to you most about those two leg-spinners?

I loved how they bowled and how they were quick through the air and I liked their aggression. I always wanted to be an aggressive leg-spinner who was quick through the air and became a big fan of Afridi and Kumble. Their mindset when they bowled was very similar to how I wanted to bowl and I watched a lot of matches and videos of both bowlers to understand what they were trying to achieve. I couldn’t get enough of watching both of them bowling and they were the bowlers who were my role-models and inspired me.

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The legspinner burst onto the international scene against Zimbabwe in 2015

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

You get a lot of advice from captains, team-mates and coaches, but the best piece of advice that I have had is from several team-mates and coaches and that is not to over-complicate what I am trying to achieve. They have told me not to clutter up my mind by thinking about too many things. 

People have paid me some very nice compliments about my skill and talent and they have always said to me to never change that, rather just bring improvements to the natural talent I possess. They have said to me don’t change your action, your pace or your run-up, keep what is natural to you and what you are comfortable with and what has brought you success and makes you different from other leg-spinners. 

Based on this advice I have always tried to let my natural talent flourish and not make too many changes. My mindset is just to keep what I have and work on improving the basics which I possess.

Who is the best batsman that you have bowled to?

That’s a tough question to answer. It’s always a great pleasure to bowl to the likes of Babar Azam, Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson and in a strange way, I actually enjoy bowling to such batsmen. Bowling to these batsmen makes the competition very tough and interesting. I always know that when I am bowling to these batsmen I have to be at my best and there is no option to bowl any loose deliveries because if I do, they will smash it. 

I never think about who I am bowling to, instead I am thinking about what I need to do, the length, the area and the line is all that matters to me. Sometimes the batsmen will hit your good balls for four or six but at the same time I always believe that you shouldn’t think about too many things when you are bowling. I always prefer to think about the conditions, the type of wicket, where I want to put the ball, rather than who the batsman is that I am bowling to.

Gaining Test status and subsequently beating Bangladesh in their own back yard in Afghanistan’s third Test match must have been a huge moment for you?

It was massive. Beating Bangladesh who have had Test status since 2000, and that too away from home and in their own conditions was a fantastic achievement. It was a tough ask for us but I have always believed that we have all the skills and the ability for the longest format, but we just need more opportunities to play Test cricket against the strongest nations.

We went there with just one thing in our mind and that was to do the basics right and most importantly enjoy the moment and the fact that we were playing Test cricket. We had some great preparation in Abu Dhabi ahead of the Test match in Bangladesh and that really helped. I just hope that the win against Bangladesh is just the start of our journey in Test cricket and that we have many more great days such as that one. 

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Adelaide Strikers has been Rashid's home in the Big Bash League for four campaigns

Can Afghanistan compete in both white-ball and Test cricket?

We just need more opportunities to play Test cricket and play against the best teams. By playing more Test cricket, our batsmen will realise what improvements are needed by them for five-day cricket, they will learn to be patient, our bowlers will learn the art of bowling in Test cricket and our fielding will definitely improve too. It’s all about opportunities and chances to play Test cricket, the more chances we get, the better we will become.

What needs to be improved in Afghanistan to help cricket grow and for more cricketers to come through the system?

Currently, our cricket relies mainly on natural talent. Our cricketers have a lot of skill and natural flair, but the opportunities aren’t always there to go out there and express themselves. We would benefit from more academies, more proper grounds and a greater number of qualified coaches or trainers, so our young cricketers get the right advice on preparing for matches. 

To me, preparation is the key for a sportsman and at the moment some of our cricketers are not able to prepare properly due to a lack of facilities and coaches. Natural talent is a great thing to have, but it can only take you so far. 

As soon as facilities are improved in Afghanistan, when more coaches and trainers are available and there are more grounds, then everyone will see some fantastic classical batsmen, even more spinners, improved fast-bowlers and better-prepared cricketers coming through. We have so much talent amongst our cricketers and once these areas are improved, there will be a lot more cricketers who are well-prepared for international cricket coming through.  

How do you handle the pressure of greater expectations whenever and wherever you play?

I don’t think there is any additional pressure on me, well I certainly don’t see it that way. Yes, everyone expects a lot from me every time I play which makes things a little tougher and people expect me to perform and I enjoy that challenge.

I never go into a match worrying about the expectations or how many wickets I need to take or the number of runs I need to score. I just focus on getting the basics right, the positive aspects of my game and ensuring I give 100 per cent to the team wherever I am playing.

I have self-belief, I believe I have talent, so it’s up to me to ensure that I am utilising that talent, rather than worrying about things that I cannot control. I am always relaxed, I enjoy the experience, I like to smile when I am playing cricket, keep it simple and do not concern myself with expectations. I combine self-belief, talent and my skills and that’s why I believe the results are mostly positive.

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Rashid is worshipped in his homeland

How big an opportunity is the T20 World Cup later this year appears for Afghanistan to show its talent once again?

I think we will be very well prepared for that tournament. We are known as being hard-hitting batsmen and I think we have great skills for the 20-over format. It will be a great opportunity for our youngsters to show the world what they are capable of and will be a boost for the careers of many of our cricketers. 

Playing in such tournaments can only be a good thing for Afghanistan as a cricket nation and also for our players. We are fully prepared and we know we are a very good team in the 20-over format as we have the bowling skills and the big-hitting batsmen. We just need to have the self-belief that we can beat any side as long as we play good cricket. 

At the 2016 Twenty20 World Cup, we had a good tournament where we had a few opportunities to win matches but our lack of experience showed in the end and we couldn’t finish off matches, but this time around we will go into the tournament as a much more experienced squad. I firmly believe that we will deliver in this tournament.

Do you still hope to one day lead Afghanistan in front of a home crowd?

That’s the dream. You can play all over the world, but playing in front of your own people, in front of your own beautiful crowd, in your own conditions, at your own venues is just something completely different. This is the advantage we are missing as we aren’t playing any of our international matches at home.

I dream for the day when this happens and it will be a huge achievement when this occurs. It will be a day to remember for the nation of Afghanistan, it's cricketers and all the people of Afghanistan and I hope that day is not too far away, and I wish that I am a part of that wonderful day

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