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Stanikzai plays the willing cradle to Afghanistan's high spirits

12 Jun 2018 CricBuzz

Their boisterous exterior is used to smile away any of their troubles. Afghanistan's journey to Test cricket has hardly been a rosy journey. But the team offers no indication of the trouble back home. They don't shy away from enjoying their cricket, and certainly don't shy away from making exaggerated comments off it. They are now a team well known in white-ball cricket for having charismatic cricketers rivaling even the West Indies. Be it Rashid Khan's aggression on the field or Mohammad Shahzad's exuberance. The latter also symbolizes everything about the joy they have. He cannot stop being an entertainer with the bat or his mouth. He is expected to play a key part in their Test debut, with a first-class batting average of 54.55. He promises to cut out the helicopter shot in Test cricket but that's the maximum extent that Shahzad would probably tone his game down to the requirements of Test cricket. For them to be successful, there needs to be another cut from a different cloth. The man leading them - Asghar Stanikzai presents a stoic contrast in personality and batting style. With a first-class average of 44.40 and a more conventional batting approach, Stanikzai is a key part of the batting line-up apart from being the leader of the team. His is a life filled with changes, some that he's pushed for and some that he's required to do. He doesn't let a smile on easily off the field. He's the wistful senior statesman of the team. But even he cannot stop himself from making the odd eye-catching statement in front of the media. The excitement is such on the occasion of a first Test. "This was Afghanistan's dream," he tells Cricbuzz. "The people who have been laughing at us for ten years, the ones who told 'Leave cricket, what's there in cricket? There's no future in cricket, nothing' -- the same people come to you and say, 'Congratulations, you guys didn't give up'. It's because of comments like these and with blessings of God, that Afghanistan has become a Test team today. And we're playing against India. For me, the team and the people in Afghanistan, this is a very proud time." And the joy of playing is something that he doesn't want to curtail. "We just try to enjoy the game and play it as freely as possible. And in the Afghanistan team, we love playing with that sort of freedom. I think that's the Afghanistan culture." He builds up the potency of his spinners unabashedly but that's how far he'll go. For all their supposed prowess, the batting isn't filled with superstars. With Shahzad, Stanikzai is the man tasked with holding it firm. He's had to change role models along the way to help learn his game. "When I was young, I used to watch Sanath Jayasuriya and my cricket started from then, from 1996," he says. "I was very young then, and all my brothers used to be cricketers. But I didn't pay too much attention to it [cricket] then. "But when I started playing the game regularly, then I used to admire Jacques Kallis a lot. Then as I developed even more, I started admiring Mohammad Yousuf from Pakistan. Because he was a fantastic player, technique wise. So I used to watch him and learn. Tried to see how he played and use it in my game. So I kept watching him over and over and tried to play like him." It's the kind of batting role that Afghanistan will desperately seek going into their first Test. It's for this kind of maturity too that Stanikzai is the captain of the team. "We have players who are always aggressive, especially someone like Shahzad and Rashid. They play very aggressively. So I tell them sometimes to calm down a little. When you're a player, you play with a lot of aggression, but when you become the captain of the team, you bring down that aggression a little," he says and adds a little more wistfully, "Before, even I used to be a lot more aggressive, sometimes angry and sometimes enjoying. But all that changed automatically when I became the captain. You don't even realize it. Leadership is a thing that changes you automatically." He's been a part of the Afghanistan journey from 2009. It's a period of dramatic transition for Afghanistan and he's seen them all, lived the dream. They've learnt off the television screens, played in makeshift spaces and done it all because the cricket bug had caught hold of them. Stanikzai is no stranger to that experience either. "Earlier when I was younger, cricket was a passion. When we used to play, it was only because of our passion (for cricket)," he stresses. "Just as I started playing more and more gradually, when I was 17 and later when I began playing for the national team, the passion turned into a profession. So, we struggled a lot then. We didn't have enough facilities for cricket. But as I played more and more for the country, there was a dream that I get the team the ODI status first. Later we became Associates, then we started pushing to make our nation a Test playing one. Those dreams, all of our players had it and now that day has arrived." This journey too has been one where's Stanikzai has had to battle the changes around him. Foremost amongst it would be that Afghanistan, much like Pakistan, do not get to play at home because of the external factors. "It's very tough," admits Stanikzai. "If you can't play in your own country, you go out to make camps. But at our level it is such that, wherever you go if you get one or two weeks, you'll have to adjust there. We play a lot outside and [know] the pressure of playing outside, we have a lot of that experience now." And as Stanikzai gets ready for what is probably the biggest jump that he and his team will have to make, he is also craving for one more change, and a far bigger one. "If cricket starts in our country, it will be fantastic. I can lay a challenge now and say that if cricket starts in our country, it will be very, very difficult for anyone to beat us there." ShareTweetShareRELATED STORIES

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