“I arrived at the training session and saw a 12-year-old turning it square and bamboozling all our senior players. I was like, who’s this lad?”
The lad that Stephen Stubbings, the captain at Alvaston & Boulton Cricket Club in Derby, was referring to recently became the first noughties boy to play county cricket: Hamidullah Qadri.
Following his five-wicket haul on first-class debut for Derbyshire, the Kandahar-born Qadri was named in the England Under-19 one-day squad to face India Under-19 in the five-match series in August this year. It didn’t go too well for Qadri, or his team, as India won 5-0, but the young man isn’t fretting.
It’s been just over six years since Qadri, an offspinner who calls himself a ‘visual learner’ after learning the basics of cricket from YouTube, moved to Derby with his mother, brother and two sisters.
Qadri, still only 16, spent nine years in Kandahar without his father – Mohammad Rafiq Qadri – who had shifted the England in search of a better life for his family. “Dad left Afghanistan in late 2001,” Qadri tells Wisden India. “All those years, I only saw him over Skype and spoke with him over the phone. We did manage to develop a bond over Skype but it wasn’t that real.
“My mum really supported us. She was like a father and a mother. All credit goes to her.”
Panjwayi, widely considered the spiritual home of the Taliban, is about 35 kilometres west of Kandahar. Qadri’s family lived in a secure area and didn’t experience the mayhem taking place in other parts of the city, the second largest in Afghanistan after Kabul. His mother didn’t allow him to go beyond the safe area and, as a result, Qadri had to treat his home like a playground.
“We had a big house, so we played football, volleyball or whatever inside our place,” says Qadri. “Basic needs like clothing and food … we used to get it from just outside our home. So we never really had to go to that part of the city.”
The reunion with his father finally took place in 2010 when Rafiq returned to Kandahar, having set up a business of selling tyres in England. It was, obviously, an emotional meeting. “I was very young and I was crying, and he too couldn’t stop his tears. When he held me, it was a big relief. All the stress vanished. The feeling was like a bird being freed from the cage … It was like internal freedom.”
Qadri was ten when the family shifted bag and baggage in 2011. It took him some time to adjust to the language and the weather in the new country. And it was at Normanton Park, close to their home in Derby, where Qadri he got his first taste of tennis-ball cricket. The young boy soon fell in love with the game and switched to playing with the harder ball in school tournaments. He tried bowling fast initially, but soon injured his back and was advised by his mother, Bibi Sakina Qadri, to try something else. Six months later, he was bowling on his own in a practice area for close to an hour in the morning before heading to his school. He was trying to spin the ball with his fingers.
By 2012, he had watched a lot of videos of different spinners on YouTube, and was trying to implement their styles into his bowling. “From Abdul Qadir to Shane Warne to Danish Kaneria … Anil Kumble, plus the likes of Saqlain Mushtaq, Saeed Ajmal, Graeme Swann, Nathan Lyon, (R) Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja; I have watched all of their videos. I am a visual learner. So whatever I watched, I used to try to implement the same in my bowling. Particularly Saqlain Mushtaq, because I think my bowling style is quite similar to his.”
Qadri soon joined Alvaston & Boulton where Stubbings is the captain. The former Derbyshire opening batsman and now also coach of the first XI picked him up straightaway from the Under-12 trials and took him under his wing. Stubbings and Howard Dytham, the academy coach, then went on to help Qadri with all aspects of the game.
Having seen Qadri perform exceedingly well under him, Stubbings tried to fast track him into the county system. The process took a little while but the moment Qadri played Under-12s for Derbyshire, he was eligible to play senior cricket for the club.
He was just 13 when Iain O’Brien, the former New Zealand pacer who played county cricket at Leicestershire and Middlesex and was also a part of Alvaston & Boulton, arranged a session with Saeed Ajmal, another of Qadri’s idols. “He (O’Brien) organised a 30-45-minute session with Ajmal. I bowled with him and I really enjoyed it. He gave me a few tips and that helped me. It was all about just trying to put more energy on the ball along with completing my action, run-up and a few other technical things.”
With everything falling in place gradually, Qadri looked set to progress to the next level. But having watched so much of Ajmal, Qadri had completely modelled himself on the Pakistani offspinner, who was banned for a while in 2014 for an illegal action. Qadri’s action came under the microscope too.
“He basically had some issues with his bowling arm and we identified it,” says Stubbings, a veteran of 139 first-class matches between 1997 and 2009. “The guys had to look at the biomechanics of his bowling and informed him of corrective measures.
“From Abdul Qadir to Shane Warne to Danish Kaneria … Anil Kumble, plus the likes of Saqlain Mushtaq, Saeed Ajmal, Graeme Swann, Nathan Lyon, (R) Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja; I have watched all of their videos. I am a visual learner. So whatever I watched, I used to try to implement the same in my bowling. Particularly Saqlain Mushtaq, because I think my bowling style is quite similar to his.”
“Some of the junior coaches helped him get over it. Howard worked with him over the winter to help him straighten his bowling arm and since then, he has worked very, very hard on the basics of offspin bowling. Now he has a very repeatable and robust bowling action.”
Qadri’s graduation finally came in June this year, when Derbyshire handed him his County Championship debut against Glamorgan.
Any nerves, playing at the first-class level at such a young age? Not really. “I only found out that I was going to play the Glamorgan game an hour before the match,” he reveals. “I wasn’t really nervous because I actually wanted to play. The first ball I bowled to (Jacques) Rudolph, he edged it close to second slip. That shows that I wasn’t really nervous.”
Qadri conceded only 16 runs in 15 overs in the first innings and also picked up a wicket, of Andrew Salter.
“In the first innings, you don’t get much spin,” opens up Qadri about that spell. “I was trying to deceive the batsman by continuously changing the pace and bowling it on the same trajectory. I just bowled 15 overs of offspin. I have got a few variations – the offspinner, the arm-ball, the topspinner and the backspinner – but I only bowled the traditional offspinners. I stuck to one line and length and bowled accordingly. My team-mates said if I bowled like that in the second innings, I would win us the game.”
In the second innings, he had the freedom to try all his variations as the pitch was assisting the spinners significantly. Qadri finished with match-winning figures of 5 for 60, leading Derbyshire to their first Championship match win since July 2015.
One of the wickets he picked up was that of Colin Ingram, who has featured 40 times for South Africa but was an unknown as far as Qadri was concerned. “I didn’t know Colin Ingram had played international cricket,” says Qadri, sounding rather embarrassed. “I only got to know when Palladino told me that. I am new to the game and I am still learning the names of players.”
“I look up to Imran (Tahir) like my older brother and he looks after me like his younger brother. Wherever he goes, he takes me. We eat together, we go out together, I really enjoy his company. He just tells me to do what I am capable of doing.”
The Glamorgan game was televised live and his parents watched every single ball he bowled. To Qadri, that was important. To do it with his father and mother – who has broken discs in the back, and suffers from diabetes, depression, and anxiety – watching him in action. “Whatever I do, I don’t really do it for myself,” says Qadri. “I put 20% of extra effort just for them.”
Was Stubbings, the mentor, surprised with such a mature performance on debut?
“I suppose I was a bit surprised, but I think he is someone who is very determined and tries to go as far as he can in the game,” he said. “It was great to see him not being overwhelmed by the situation. He is someone who sees a tough situation as a stepping stone. I can tell you, he wants to become the best bowler and play the best cricket he can.
“The real steal for him is gathering as much knowledge as possible from the likes of Jeevan Mendis and Imran Tahir (both Derbyshire players). He tries to learn from them. He sees himself as someone who is on the path to international cricket, and picks up as many tools on his way.”
Qadri’s biggest gain was the opportunity of sharing the Derbyshire dressing room with Tahir, who moved from Pakistan to South Africa before becoming a celebrity cricketer.
“I look up to Imran like my older brother and he looks after me like his younger brother,” says Qadri. “Wherever he goes, he takes me. We eat together, we go out together, I really enjoy his company. He just tells me to do what I am capable of doing. He told me I am good enough to play at any level because I have good control over spin. I just need to keep working on it so that I can move up fast. Good tips from the great man, so I have to stick to those.”
Back home, Afghanistan recently earned Test status and Rashid Khan, only slightly older than Qadri, is making waves with his legspin across the world. Is Qadri tempted to keep his options open – England or Afghanistan? “I am going nowhere. I am really happy for Afghanistan that they have got Test status. I believe Rashid Khan is one of the best spinners in the world. All the credit goes to him, but I am happy here playing for England,” says Qadri firmly.
So he is staying put in England, and English cricket seems really excited by their new young spinner. The series against India was a reality check, as he failed to pick up a wicket and gave away 61 runs from ten overs in the two games he played. For now, though, he isn’t losing sleep over those numbers: “It’s time to go back to the basics and work towards my goals.”