The word ‘young’ is often thrown away with reckless abandon in sport, sometimes to justify, in hindsight, the coming of age of a talent long stuck in dormancy. In cricket, the age of 24 is right at the cusp, a point where you get a reality check on seeing terms like “Under-19”. For long, in Afghanistan’s past decade of cricketing history, Gulbadin Naib has been repeatedly described as a talent to “watch out for”. The question of when, though, has not yet been answered.
The year is 2010. Gulbadin is 19. A BBC team is in Afghanistan to shoot a documentary on what could be a historic ODI tournament in Jersey. Victory would assure them of qualification to the World T20 in West Indies – a global cricket tournament, for the first time in their history. Teenage talent waiting to announce itself on the big stage. After a steady 22 off 48 in the opening victory against Japan, he pillages through Bahamas’ lower order – 5 for 7 to close them out for 46. Afghanistan’s fortunes take a turn against Singapore – a 69 run loss in a disastrous run chase. Gulbadin gets the axe, like all bits and pieces cricketers do in such situations.
Afghanistan go on to win the tournament and book their place among cricket’s elite. However, along with coach Taj Malik, Gulbadin is dropped, after a continuous stint on the bench. Fledgling talent, lots of time to grow, some said. Time to get back to domestic cricket and make a statement, the selectors would have thought. Except, back then, there was not much to speak in terms of domestic cricket in Afghanistan, and Gulbadin’s was no ordinary case. At a time when central contracts were a thing of faraway future, Gulbadin had a personal situation not many teenagers go through – an unemployed father, a mother battling hepatitis, and a disabled sister.
In Out of the Ashes, Gulbadin is shown flexing his muscles in a gym, staring into his country’s glorious present that had left him behind. He talks of how his family are dejected about his axe, wondering how ‘one who has risen so high can fall so quickly’. As the tale moves on, he struggles to complete his sentences, tearing up towards the end. It is a tale Taj Malik has told us in Afghanistan’s context, without a semblance of hyperbole.
As you know there is a lot of problems in the world today, you know. In everywhere, there is a complex fighting, you know, and injustice things is happening. The solution of all the problem is……cricket.
It is one of those forks, where you do not know what could have been, had they failed to qualify for that tournament. A nation ravaged by war, with entire provinces fleeing, fearing air strikes, fighting to make a mark on sport’s global stage. Fittingly enough, even the Taliban approved of cricket, as long as men prayed and grew beards. Paraphrasing Carlo Ancelotti’s statement in a footballing context, sport seemed to be that one unifying force, the most important of all less important things in life.
Back to Gulbadin’s story. It would be two further years before he would make it back to the national side. It is a different world – Afghanistan, now with official ODI status and a World Cup appearance to boot, now have central contracts and ICC funding. Gulbadin is one of the main beneficiaries. He is part of the squad that travels to Guangzhou to the Asian Games. Shorn of India, the tournament features second-string Pakistani and Sri Lankan sides. Afghanistan finish ahead of both, winning a silver medal, behind Bangladesh. Notable among these, is their victory over Pakistan in the semi-final. Gulbadin is 12th man, yet again.
Peshawar-born, Gulbadin wields the long handle, with a devil may cry approach to batting. His technique against spin can at best be described shaky, though he often tries hard to resist the urge to go downtown. As Afghanistan made their way up the ranks, his form blew hot and cold, forcing him out more often than any other contemporary of his generation. The world heard of the likes of Hamid Hassan, Mohammad Nabi, captain Nowroz Mangal and Shapoor Zadran, to name a few. Gulbadin remained the young talent that was yet to come to fruition.
2011. The Afghan Cheetahs are inducted as the latest team in Pakistan’s domestic T20 competition. Against an attack featuring Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Talha and Asad Ali, all Pakistan internationals, he smacks 68 off 42 in a narrow, 13-run loss. First T20 fifty – check.
Sporadic promising performances for Afghanistan apart, that innings remains just another tease, a perodic flash in the proverbial pan. Nothing substantial. Another time, he flays a similar attack with Ajantha Mendis, in a whirlwind 93 off 82 balls. He then follows it up with 1 for 8 off 3 overs. Yet again, the performance comes in a match far away from the remotest rays of limelight, in the Dhaka Premier League. Still babyfaced, he looks out of place as he collects his Man of the Match award. A match where he led the way to a record win in the tournament’s history.
Five years a talent, so many sparks. No international performances of note yet.
His talent, over the years, has been some sort of a yin-yang. Often times, his bowling prodigality would pull down his batting excellence just about enough to get him dropped from the side. At other times, the reverse would happen. Not once or twice, but over entire series. His economy rate stands at 9.50 after 22 overs in T20 internationals; 6.08 in ODIs after 56 overs. On his day, though, you get a sense that he is a once in a generation cricketer. Sadly, they didn’t come when it mattered. Not yet.
In 2015, Afghanistan toured Zimbabwe for a tour comprising 5 ODIs and 2 T20s. Predictably, he missed the entire one-day leg, before making it to the XI for the T20s. After a middling 2-0-20-0 in their 6 wicket victory, he went in to the second game, in desperate need of a standout performance. A common theme across his career is how often sides have promoted him up the order, while faced with daunting targets. Coming in at No.3, chasing 191, he smashed an unbeaten 56 off 49 to ensure a series win for Afghanistan. Like in his personal life, with nothing to lose, Gulbadin delivered for his side.
Zimbabwe tour the Emirates for a return series against the Afghans. ODIs first. Gulbadin is still in the sidelines, for four consecutive games. In the decider, he bowls a familiar 3-0-23-0, setting up a chase of 249. In a generally see-sawing series, Afghanistan are in deep trouble, losing captain Stanikzai. 6 for 146. 103 to get off 93. He plays a few clueless shots against Graeme Cremer’s leg-breaks and googlies. Following this, there is a Kevin O’Brien assault out of nowhere, cantering to 82 off 68. Afghanistan win with 2 balls to spare. Uncalled for, unexpected, unforeseen. Welcome to Naibland.
Two T20s follow. For a change, he isn’t dropped after a promising performance. No immediate slump this time – a couple of quickfire innings to mount successful totals. Man of the match in the deciding ODI. Crucial lower order innings in both the T20s. He would like to think he is finally on terra firma. Closer than ever before, at least.
The World T20 is peeping out of the horizon, asking the same old questions for him to answer. Is this yet another flash in that pan, or are we finally seeing the glitter that we’ve long been promised? In a sport that has made a habit of asphyxiating Associate underdogs, you’d desperately wish it is the latter.