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An interview with Hazratullah Zazai

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Hazratullah_Zazai_Afghanistan_CricketAt a time when Afghanistan are still relatively new full-members of the International Cricket Council (ICC), not many would have envisaged their players breaking into the global top 10 rankings so soon. Rashid Khan, the face of Afghan cricket, has been in the ICC’s Top 10 T20I bowlers for a while now. But not many would remember that earlier this year, Hazratullah Zazai broke into top 10 ranking for T20I batsmen.

Zazai's meteoric rise came after his unbeaten 62-ball 162 against Ireland in Dehradun – a knock laced with 11 fours and 16 sixes. Only two months later, the second fastest T20I centurion in the world hit six sixes in an over in the inaugural season of the Afghanistan Premier League (APL) in Sharjah.

“We were chasing a big target in that game,” the opening batsman recalled. “Left arm pacer Abdulla Mazari was bowling to me. He is very good with the new ball and known for picking quick wickets early on. But luckily I was in form during the APL. I had hit a century in international cricket only a few days before the tournament so I was confident of doing well.”

“After hitting the first five sixes I decided to anyhow hit the last ball too for a six. I tried my best and luckily the ball went out of the ground.”

With a strike rate of over 162 from 13 T20 internationals, it is quite evident that the burly left-hander has a penchant for hitting sixes. And so it was hardly a surprise when he got a contract in the Abu Dhabi T10 league soon after the storm of sixes. The ‘Afghan Gayle’ picked up from where he left in the APL, piloting the Maratha Arabians’ win over Bengal with a 35-ball 76 in the 2018 T10. This season, however, Hazrat played only four games for the title winners, as he was on national duty in India.

“In T10 cricket, you get no time to think anything. Har ek ball ko hit karna padta hai (you have to go for a big shot every ball). I have a liking towards hitting sixes so the T10 format has been very enjoyable for me. In fact everyone has been enjoying it – players from West Indies, England, Australia, all of them.”

Having grown up in a joint family of 10, Hazrat, the third-born child, contributed to the family income by working at a communication office in Kabul, while also hoping to pursue professional cricket. The southpaw invested the money he earned from the job in buying cricket equipment.

“I worked as a CCTV camera controller in a communication office in Kabul for close to four years,” he said. “My shifts used to be at night, so during the day I would play cricket. I hardly slept for 2-3 hours in a day. Kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai (To achieve something, you need to sacrifice something else). So I sacrificed my sleep and worked the whole night while playing cricket the whole day.”

A stellar performer in domestic cricket, Hazrat was disappointed at not being selected in the Afghanistan team for the 2018 U19 World Cup. This led to depression and he did not touch a cricket bat for the next three months.

“It is one thing if you are dropped after not performing well. But I was not selected for the U19 World Cup even after performing very well. I stayed away from cricket for three months after that. I did not even touch the bat because I went into depression. But eventually I realised that I could not do without cricket. So I made a return, worked very hard, scored lots of runs in domestic cricket and eventually got a national call-up in the T20I series against UAE which was played in Dubai.”

While Afghanistan are now slowly producing fast bowlers, the rate at which they produce spinners is still unmatchable. Hazrat feels that the country lacks the necessary obsession with fast bowling, and until that changes, the ratio between spinners and pacers will always be lopsided.

“We do have fast bowlers but it’s the spinners who do most of the work. Whoever goes to a cricket academy in Afghanistan says he wants to become the next Rashid or Mujeeb or Najib. Nobody says they want to become the next Shoaib Akhtar or Mitchell Johnson. The day Afghan children move over from the obsession with spinners, pacers will slowly come about.”

Under new captain Rashid Khan, Afghanistan beat Bangladesh in a one-off Test – a victory the war-torn country took solace from. For Hazrat, who is yet to play in whites but is a regular in the limited-overs set-up, playing under Rashid is a matter of pride.

“Rashid was our captain in the APL and a few other domestic leagues as well. He is very approachable, supports the youngsters a lot and gives them the confidence to perform. For me it is a matter of pride to be playing under his captaincy.”

While almost five months have passed by since the 2019 World Cup, the Afghanistan team still fondly talk about the tournament which, in Hazrat’s words, saw them losing quite a few games that they had already won.

“Jis ummid se World Cup khelne gaye thhe woh toh hua nahi.” (The dream with which we went to England remained unachieved.) But at the end of the day it’s a game, sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. We had good chances in the tournament and lost at least four to five games which we had almost won. Our next target is the Asia Cup and the World T20. InshaAllah we will try our best to win games in these tournaments.”

Hazrat also acknowledged the BCCI for providing a home ground to Afghanistan, and thanked Indians for filling up the seats at the stadium in their support.

“Initially our home series used to be played in Delhi and Dehradun but now we play in Lucknow as well. Good amount of crowd has been turning up for the matches. Feels really good when they support us at the stadium. I hope I can keep scoring runs and make Afghanistan and their fans proud,” the 21-year-old said.



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