The Taliban, suicide bombings, daily security threats, leg amputation – these are just some of the many adversities that Andy Moles has had to overcome, whilst coaching the Afghanistan cricket team. However, not much fazes the 60-year-old man from Warwickshire. He has made a name for himself by visiting the far-flung corners of the earth to take up various coaching roles.
In a fascinating interview on the Emerging Cricket podcast, Moles attributes his intrepid cricket journeys to his love of enjoying a challenge. In a career stretching back to the late 1980s, he played 12 seasons of county cricket for Warwickshire and Griqualand West before retiring and taking up coaching. Since then, he has done coaching stints in South Africa, Hong Kong, Kenya, Scotland, New Zealand and most recently Afghanistan.
“Each country is unique and brings its own set of challenges. Some nations have good practice facilities for cricket, some must make do with very poor facilities. Ultimately, it all comes down to money. The amount of funding that the associates receive from the ICC is insufficient. If the ICC wants to grow the game globally, they need to fund these countries better,” he says.
Moles has experienced plenty of ups and downs in his 20 year coaching career; most notably the senior player revolt which led to his removal as New Zealand coach. However, his yardstick for measuring success is based on a simple philosophy.
“When we were in Free State together, Hansie Cronje told me that you judge yourself by asking this basic question. When you leave any environment, is it better than when you joined?”
“I am fully committed to everything I do and If I feel that the players or the administration aren’t as committed as I am, then the relationship unfortunately breaks down at times,” he further adds.
Coaching the Afghanistan Cricket Team
Moles is currently based in Cape Town, South Africa and looking for a job. In 2020, after serving six years as the Director of Cricket in Afghanistan, he had his contract mutually terminated by ACB. The national team was playing very little cricket due to the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic; plus budgetary constraints and travelling difficulties meant that unfortunately the relationship had to come to an end.
During those six years, Moles has overseen plenty of cricket development in the fledgling nation. Chief amongst those was attaining Test status in 2017, beating Bangladesh in a test match and gaining automatic qualification to the Super 12 round of the 2021 T20 World Cup. Although, these achievements have been dampened a little bit by Afghanistan’s poor performances at the ODI World Cups.
Living under the shadow of daily security threats
It is actually a surprise that Moles lasted so long given the precarious security state of the nation. As he recalls on the podcast, he had to stay confined to his hotel room for countless hours, due to the high risk of terrorist attacks in public areas.
“For security reasons, you can’t walk out of the hotel, go to the shops and have a look around. You also have to avoid the public areas in the hotel. Because if there is going to be an issue, terrorists might come in spraying bullets in the dining rooms and reception areas. So basically, I had to just stay in my room and order room service,” he says.
During his long hotel stays, Moles would fill his free time by watching Star Sports for hours on end. “Yeah, Star Sports became very popular for me, I used to watch it all the time,” he jokes.
When he was able to go out, he had to be constantly accompanied by armed guards.
“When I did leave the hotel to go to the cricket ground, I had to get picked up by an armoured car. The ground had a strict security perimeter. We had sentries stationed everywhere and armed guards patrolling with AK-47 rifles.”
Moles credits the elaborate security measures for saving his life. He narrowly escaped a suicide bombing attempt in 2018. He was at the National Stadium in Kabul coaching the Ainak Knights in a T20 match, when a suicide bomber blew himself up just 100 meters outside the stadium perimeter. The incident served as a reminder of the real danger of terrorism that the local citizens have to endure on a daily basis.
However, the Taliban reportedly nursed a soft spot for the Westerner, who was only there after all to grow their beloved game of cricket.
“Someone once delivered a message to me that the Taliban said they wouldn’t attack Andy Moles. They saw me coming into the country to help cricket, which was a good thing. But if I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, then that was just unfortunate,” he remarks.
Afghan Youth and White Ball Cricket
Perhaps the most monumental achievement during Moles’ tenure was Afghanistan attaining Test status and Full Membership in 2017. For a nation, which did not even have a cricket team 2 decades ago, it was a remarkable rise up the ladder. Moles has seen firsthand the passion that Afghans have for cricket.
“You hear stories about India and Pakistan, where thousands of locals are playing cricket in the streets. Afghanistan is exactly the same. You have a quick bowling camp in Kabul and there will be 400-500 kids turning up, ready to play. It is amazing to see. Cricket is a religion there!”
Moles states that in order to grow as a cricketer, exposure to multi-day cricket is a strict necessity. With the demise of the Intercontinental Cup and Tests hard to come by, the Afghan cricketers are often forced to get their first-class cricket fix by playing in the domestic Ahmad Shah Abdali 4-day Tournament. It is a good, competitive tournament and gets a decent following amongst the locals. However, according to Moles, the Afghan youth see their future primarily in playing white ball cricket.
“I think the players themselves see white ball cricket as the most important, for understandable reasons. The poverty in the country is terrible. With the war going on, the risk to life is so commonplace. Players have to put up with daily threats. So, their way out of poverty is IPL, BBL and all those sorts of T20 franchise leagues,” he says.
“Some of these players such as Nabi, Rashid and Mujeeb have become genuine superstars of the world game. And so, the youngsters see white ball cricket as the way to make some money and help their families,” he further adds.
Despite its immense popularity, cricket continues to face a lot of social challenges in Afghanistan. The perilous state of security and the ever-present threat of terrorism starves locals of seeing their heroes play international matches at home. Moles is no longer at the helm of cricket operations but remains excited about the future of Afghan cricket. He says that the game will continue to grow and that there is a staggering conveyor belt of talent in the spin bowling department.
“There must be 20-30 leg spinners that could play first class cricket in the country, easily. In Afghanistan, wrist spinners are everywhere and there is some amazing talent amongst them. The biggest difficulty is to keep them hungry, keep them motivated, as there are limited opportunities at the national level.”
Encouragingly, several exciting new talents have emerged in other departments such as batsmen Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran and fast bowler Naveen-ul-Haq. Furthermore, at the last two editions of the U-19 World Cup, Afghanistan have performed superbly finishing 4th and 7th in 2018 and 2020 respectively. The future looks very bright for Afghan cricket.
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