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Self-made Mujeeb breaking the Afghan stereotype

16 Jun 2018 CricBuzz

It may be hard to believe that Rashid Khan is 19 years old, but there's no doubt that Mujeeb Ur Rahman is 17. While the unrelenting pressure of international cricket has added a few years to Rashid's already mature face, Mujeeb's remains supple and full of curiosity. After all, he has only been around in professional cricket for seven months. There's also the not-so-minor fact that while Rashid grew up in war-torn Nangarhar Province, Mujeeb was raised in a plush home in Khost. The province to the east of Afghanistan has been under the control of United States of America since the 2001 invasion of the country, and although there have been a few attacks in the region, it doesn't compare to what Nangarhar has had to go through. It's not a without reason that it is referred to as the "deadliest province" in the country. That, perhaps, has helped Mujeeb retain some innocence of youth. Mujeeb is one of the few rather privileged Afghanistan cricketers to have had not just a cricketing history within the family, but even the facilities to train and hone the interest in his backyard. His inclination towards cricket developed watching his uncle Noor Ali Zadran, who was one of the pioneers in propelling cricket in Afghanistan. A cricket academy in his backyard, that his uncle founded, only helped him forward on a path that was perhaps already scripted. A tennis ball was Mujeeb's first accomplice, with him trying to squeeze it between his fingers. The access to Youtube also was instrumental, with him watching the likes of Sunil Narine, Ajantha Mendis and R Ashwin plying their trade successfully. The blue print for Mujeeb was there for the taking, but little did he know back then that while access to their skill was available aplenty, access to the spinners themselves, at the age of 17, was even a possibility, let alone a reality. As destiny would have it, it was Ashwin himself who had pushed for Mujeeb's acquisition for the Kings XI Punjab in the 2018 edition of the Indian Premier League. The Punjab management, however, were not devoid of questions regarding his effectiveness against the Indian batsmen on Indian soil, but it was a question that was put to rest in as early as his opening game against Delhi Daredevils where he picked up two wickets. "I got to give him credit that he stood up on the big stage and delivered and has done exceptionally well," Brad Hodge, Punjab's coach told Cricbuzz. "He's a good young kid and he's still got a lot to learn in terms of the basics of cricket with fielding and field placements and where to move and stuff, but all in all, he's a great kid who's just happy to be here." An (finger) injury, the first-ever since Mujeeb started playing, put him out of the IPL after 11 games, having him end the season with 14 wickets. But enough for him to have risen to prominence. It was only in September 2017 that Mujeeb played his first professional game of cricket. Seven months hence, the mystery spinner etched his name in history books, having featured in Afghanistan's maiden Test, against India. Wishful would it have been if Afghanistan were expected to pose India - not just the No.1 ranked Test team in the world, but also one in form - stiff competition, on the back of their success in limited-overs cricket. As it turned out, India picked up their largest win in Tests, skittling out Afghanistan twice on the same day and polishing off a victory by an innings and 262 runs - their largest-ever. "I think the kind of spinners we have, like me and Mujeeb, I think we should deliver on any wicket," Rashid Khan said a month ago, acknowledging Afghanistan's reliance on spin. "We have to prove the variations we have. If the wicket is for spinners, every spinner can bowl on that. But if the wicket is not good enough for spinners, we have to show our skills and variations on that. The Indian batsmen are very good against spinners but still if they are playing you well, it's useless to have a good spinning track." The wicket in Bangalore had pickings for the spinners on the second day. But on the first, which is when Afghanistan were asked to bowl, it assisted pacers early on before showing glimpses of return for the spinners, which is when Rashid and Mujeeb pulled back proceedings. Rashid picked up just the two wickets in 34.5 overs in India's innings, going at 4.42 an over, while Mujeeb went for 5, conceding 75 runs in 15 overs for just the one wicket of Cheteshwar Pujara, who he outdid with his finger variations - something that has been key to his success, so far in his fledgling career. It was a rather small sample size to make anything out, but Mujeeb stuck to his strengths even with the inexperience of bowling with an SG ball, bowling at good lengths, while Rashid erred on that front. The Test was also Mujeeb's maiden first-class game, with him becoming the youngest-ever to play in the inaugural Test for a country. That his inaugural Test would come with Ashwin, his idol-turned-mentor, in the opposition, only a month after they were playing for the same side, wouldn't have been something Mujeeb would've imagined. And although Mujeeb speaks nothing but Pashto, and Ashwin's Hindi being far from fluent - a language that Mujeeb partly understands - they found a way of communicating effectively, enough for the essence not to be lost in translation. "There's a couple of technical things that we've tried to work on," Hodge had said. "Ashwin speaks to him mostly about his bowling; I've tried to communicate mostly about his fielding. But he knows his game well. He is quite developed in his mental strength and his knowledge of his own cricket talent. That was actually a bonus before he entered the IPL. For him it's just the understanding what it is. He'll just get better and better." *** Mujeeb may not have been seen a lot outside of cricket grounds while with the Punjab side. Yet, when he did, he was received with warmth, support and respect by his team and the management - something that not just eased his stay in the Punjab side, but also took off the pressure to deliver without the weight of expectations on his young shoulders. "You don't see much of him," said Hodge. "He's a quiet person and stays to himself. He generally spends a lot of time in his room, but when he comes out everyone receives him well with big smiles. He's such a likeable human being. Even though he doesn't speak a lot of English, or Hindi for that matter, a lot of people have good, strong relationships with him. "If he can't quite understand what I'm trying to say, then I'll bring someone in there who can tell him exactly the instructions of what I'm talking about. It's actually quite a cool process and to try and get the end result, it takes time." In the same vein of thought, Afghanistan's transition from white-ball to red-ball will take time. It wasn't going to be rosy, and they were given their first taste of the long journey ahead after being bowled out twice on the same day. That said, with the talent they have at their disposal, success won't elude them for long. But how long is long, is anybody's guess. Yet, with self-made, self-taught personnel like Mujeeb himself, the learning curve looks promising. And that they are so receptive to lessons and counsel from the experienced will always hold them in good stead. Take Mujeeb's introduction to a new delivery, a carrom ball with an offspin action, for example. Let in on by Ashwin, Mujeeb has been working on it, even if it "hurts his fingers". It will take a while for him to adjust to the newly-adopted action for its deliverance and impact, but it would come in handy in the longer run. While the delivery, just like Mujeeb awaits its culmination, the value of all those hours spent in the backyard bowling to his pack of cousins and his uncle, relentlessly, has nevertheless, paved the path towards its fruition. ShareTweetShareRELATED STORIES

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