Morgan made 148 off 57 balls. 102 off those came off 17 balls. (Reuters)What’s the Pashto word for four? “Can’t remember, and anyway our boys are more about the sixes,” says an Afghanistan support staff, a day before the game. The word for four is Salooreeza and Eoin Morgan made sure that didn’t catch on as he looted a world-record 17 Shpageeza (Pashto for six).
Gulbadin Naib, the captain, was a disappointed man on the eve of the game. “You guys got a chance to go around the cities when you don’t have games?” he was asked. “Nahi bhai, Mostly hotel, practice, hotel.” Why? “Cricket is the only thing for us and in our country. And we are not doing well here. I am very very disappointed; most guys are. No mood to go out. I have lots of relatives all around this country but I have not gone much. They also would be sad with the way we have played. So I have been just in the hotel mostly. Ek win mil jaaye toh…” He looked weary, almost sad.
As he left towards the nets to train, some words of encouragement were offered that it’s a used pitch and might turn a lot. “Bus, voh ho jaaye na, we shall be so happy. We can attack with our spinners. I will meet you tomorrow with a smile.”
Rashid Khan, one of the world’s best, was ransacked for 110 runs in nine overs. Mohammad Nabi, their crafty off-spinner, went for 70 from his nine.
You would have thought Morgan, born in Ireland, would have been more considerate about a ‘minnow’ team. Perhaps, he knew the best tribute is to respect them by playing his best game.
Every time he hit a six, the face would contort, stretch out into a cry almost, as he made contact. The final push from him to ensure the ball carried over the boundary. Chris Gayle had the record, 16 sixes against Zimbabwe at the last World Cup, and there was not an iota of doubt that Morgan would break it once he ratcheted up 10 of them.
The assault against Rashid and Nabi, in particular, was devastating. They are two of the best out there. If they can be hit, any spinner can be left bleeding. Rashid tried everything, except perhaps hitting his favourite back-of-a-length stuff that he usually pings with such regularity. It seemed as if he was a touch too full or too short – and Morgan, who had learnt his ropes at Rush Cricket club in Dublin where the small ground had netting to stop the ball from flying over, kept smashing them.
And yet, Rashid could have had him before Morgan had hit him for a six. A slog-sweep went towards deep midwicket where Dawlat Zadran dropped the catch. From then on, it was all a violent blur. Contortion of the face, the swing of the bat, and whack.
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Sometime during the day, Radio Afghan Voice, based out of UK, streamed the popular song of the great Afghanistan singer Ahmad Zahir: Laili Laili laili jaan / Jaan jaan dil-i-man kardi wairaan/ Darreen qishlaq na-aamadi/ Waaye Waaye …(Laila, dear Laila, you have devastated my heart/you didn’t come to my winter village/ Alas! Alas!).
It fit the mood – bittersweet. His voice swirled at Old Trafford as a group of fans sang it, flags twirling – a bit disappointed that their best bowlers were being bossed around, but happy to be there in England watching a World Cup match involving their country.
Zahir’s voice is a staple in documentaries about the country, people swirling away in desert to his tunes, but he lived before the Taliban entered mainstream. A time when people didn’t lock doors, danced to his tunes and before bombs became part of their lives. Also, a time when not much cricket was played.
Sarah Fane founded “Afghan Connection”, an NGO that aims to transform young lives through education and sport. She had gone to Kabul as a wartime-doctor in 2001. Little did she know that she would come to be known as the “mother of Afghan cricket”. She is more than willing to talk about how cricket has changed the lives of kids in the country and the role her organisation has played in this regard.
In 2008, her 14-year old son suggested that Afghan Connection, started in 2002, should include sport and not just education to promote kids’ lives. And Sarah took it seriously. The charity funded the building of 46 schools in rural Afghanistan for 75,000 kids and she received an OBE in 2013. They built cricket pitches in schools, held tournaments, provided clothing and kit and ran coaching camps.
In 2009, her “most emotional” moment came when the Afghanistan national team came to a school for a camp, funded by MCC. “The kids didn’t know they would be there and I can still remember their faces. It was incredible, really. I am amazed that somehow in my life as a doctor I ended up with cricket and Afghanistan. I never even dreamt about it,” Sarah tells The Indian Express.
Jalalabad was flooded that day. “Rickshaws looked like bizarre half-submerged fish as they battled through waters,” says Sarah. Somehow, the kids, about 150, made it to a hall at the venue. So did the cricketers. A moment that those present that day wouldn’t forget; Sarah certainly hasn’t.
“Too much negativity about the country exists. Eight million kids are in school, seven million more than (in) 2001. I haven’t faced any problems with parents sending boys to play cricket. With girls, yes; it’s a conservative society but hopefully things are changing. Kids play cricket everywhere in the country – streets, grounds, front of houses, everywhere. It’s a national obsession. Great source of joy for everyone. Afghanistan doesn’t have popstars or politicians to celebrate. Cricketers are the heroes.”
Tuesday morning broke with a bit of controversy. Newspapers reported an ‘altercation’ at a restaurant visited by Afghanistan players on Monday night. Reports suggested that players took umbrage at being filmed. Naib said he didn’t have any details and when repeatedly pressed by the media, said “I will leave if more questions are asked about it”.
But they found a hero even on their worst day at the cricket World Cup. Hashmatullah Shahidi, who hit a gutsy 76, was knocked on his head by a vicious 141 kmph bouncer from Mark Wood and it seemed he would have to retire. Physios from both camps ran out. Security guards even. Wood looked a bit concerned. “You okay? You okay?” Morgan would ask twice and Hashmatullah nodded. The first ball after resumption was another bouncer that he fended away.
Hashmatullah would later reveal that the physios told him, “let’s go. Back to dressing room”, but he stayed. The reason? “I lost my father last year and I know my mother just be watching this at home. I didn’t want her to be worried. That’s why I got up quickly from ground. My brother was also at the stadium.”
Not only did he carry on but actually shifted gears – going from being a strokeless accumulator to a hitter. Wood ran in with a short-leg in place, waiting for a feeble poke but was thrashed for a four and a six over long-on. A flat-batted whack over long-on, his eyes on the disappearing ball as he walked down the track.
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Wood bounced at him, so did Archer, but Hashmatullah carried on. He bashed Adil Rashid twice to the boundary and kept batting on and on, even as the top order slowly deserted him. He moved away from his stumps to blast Archer to the straight boundary and perhaps anticipating a short-and-furious response, shuffled across the stumps next ball but was beaten by a slower one that disturbed his stumps. The game, though, was done a long while back, as England continued their imperious march.
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