It was in 2012, a ten-year-old Rahmanullah Gurbaz first saw the Afghanistan cricket team go up against Ireland on television. It was far from the star-studded outfit it is today but it was one to ignite a spark of interest in the sport back home.
Little did he suspect that almost nine years on, he would be walking out in national colours and sharing the dressing room with five of those he saw take the field in Dublin. A product of the age group system, his rapid rise mirrored that of his nation’s in a short span of time.
Recognised for bigger things at the age of 13, his coach Mohammad Khan Zadran helped him progress through the age groups after plucking him from obscurity playing tennis ball cricket. His dexterity and willingness to take on the pressure belied his age.
With ten T20I appearances under his belt coming into the series, Gurbaz has already witnessed the highs of international cricket. He finished as the joint leading run-scorer having debuted in the Tri-Series involving Zimbabwe and hosts Bangladesh in 2019.
Set for his ODI debut on Thursday, one believes there would be greater conviction than nerves. ‘I am glad that I’m getting to make my ODI Debut for Afghanistan,’ he tells Emerging Cricket. ‘Inshallah I will try my best and focus to play with an ODI mindset. I have worked hard for this and will play as per the game plan laid out by the coaches and captain.’
With Mohammad Shahzad suspended for a year for breaching the code of conduct, Ikram Ali Khil, a rare positive from a dismal 2019 World Cup campaign, overlooked and Hazratullah Zazai dropped, the buck seems to have stopped at Gurbaz. He is, by no means, an outlier filling in.
Rahmanullah Gurbaz comes in with a lot more promise than his predecessors. As if being adjudged the Man of the Series in his first international outing and following it up with a 79-run knock in a series decider against the West Indies in November wasn’t enough, he became the youngest captain to lead a team to a T20 title in last season’s Shpageeza Cricket League, Afghanistan’s domestic T20 tournament.
But then again, one remembers, this is Afghanistan we speak of. A country adept at producing young prodigies who take to international cricket as swiftly as ducks to water. If anything, the teenagers love the big stage.
Having played 44 T20s and 29 List A appearances for his province, Rahmanullah Gurbaz is undeterred by the change of formats ahead of the series against Ireland with 30 ICC Cricket World Cup Super League points up for grabs.
‘Although cricket is the same sport all around whether it is league cricket or international cricket, international cricket does have a bit more pressure. Mindset is mostly same for both. I will try to play with an ODI mindset and take time at the crease to stay and settle so that it gives me a good result,’ he said.
It is a familiar approach in an age where there is an abundance of white-ball cricket, but one that has been conspicuously absent on a consistent basis in the top order for Afghanistan.
With the ability to score quick runs and bat aggressively, it may seem like Rahmanullah Gurbaz is cut from the same cloth as Shahzad but with a wider array of 360-degree shots in his arsenal. He has a penchant to sweep against both spin and pace through the on-side with a range of drives and scoops to boot.
All the promise on show has not gone unnoticed. Gurbaz left a lasting impression in the minds of Hashim Amla and Andre Russell having rubbed shoulders with them playing for Khulna Tigers in the Bangladesh Premier League and for the Kandy Tuskers in the Lanka Premier League. The 19-year-old opener smoked an 18-ball 50 and a 22-ball 53 on his debuts in the respective tournaments.
‘I have met many great players. Especially Hashim Amla and Mushfiqur Rahim,’ he said. ‘Amla told me that I have great talent and will be successful one day and play around the world if I show my talent well. When I hit a half-century in LPL, Andre Russell, who played in the opposite team, called me and encouraged me a lot.’
It’s one thing to stand tall to world-class bowlers but another to dominate them repeatedly game after game. Whisper it quick but it seems Afghanistan has cast off the shackles of their 2019 World Cup batsmanship where they were infamously deemed as a team of ‘Number eights.’
But Gurbaz aspires to become an all-format player instead of limiting his career to just white-ball cricket. ‘Of course, every player aspires and dreams to play Test Cricket. I aspire the same and will strive to do well with continuous performances including this series to earn selection for the Test team as well.’
At the conclusion of the series against Ireland, he’ll switch bio-bubbles and join Delhi Bulls as part of the T10 league where he will be coached by Andy Flower. He acknowledges that by the weight of his performances there, a lucrative IPL deal could be on the table with one eye on the IPL mini-auction next month.
‘IPL is also every player’s dream since it is a big league where all major players and coaches take part. It will be a great opportunity for me as a player to learn more about the game and apply it when I play for my country,’ Gurbaz concludes.
For world cricket, the next few days will be a window into normalcy. For Gurbaz and Afghanistan, it heralds a new dawn and there would be few who would begrudge him that.
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