“Everyone started messaging us to tell Azmat to accept their friend requests!”
Azmatullah Omarzai has become an overnight hero in Afghanistan. Off the field, the 17 year old is extremely shy and quiet, making life very difficult for journalists trying to hear his story. All we find out is that he is a huge fan of Virat Kohli. Why, even his team-mates say they have to plead to make him talk to them.
On the field, though, he can be something else, as New Zealand found out on Thursday (January 25). The Under-19 World Cup quarterfinal at Hagley Oval seemed in the balance with Afghanistan 226 for 5 with only 35 balls remaining, but all that changed rapidly with Omarzai’s entry. He smashed 66 off 23 balls, with seven sixes flying to all parts of the park, to set up a massive 202-run victory over an in-form New Zealand.
The man who had the best seat in the house to watch Omarzai’s stunning assault was Bahir Shah, who too hails from Kunar, the same province as Omarzai.
“When Azmatullah walked in, I told him to try his best, to enjoy and believe in himself,” said Shah. “But he was very excitable, like one lion! I knew he would do something special from the first ball. He tried a big shot off the very first ball, but I told him not to try and hit too hard, just use the pace of the ball.
Gurbaz: MS Dhoni. I’m a wicketkeeper-batsman too. I choose jersey 7 whenever I can, but sometimes some other player has that number. Now I wear 31, because David Warner wears that. After MS Dhoni, I like Warner.
Shah: Hashim Amla. One day I’ll meet him. I met Rahul Dravid sir in Napier. During the opening ceremony, our team was near Dravid. So I went to him and told him I’m a big fan of his, he was smiling and saying ‘welcome, welcome’. I got my mobile out and took a selfie with him in the frame. But he saw my mobile, and I think he knows I took that picture!
“As soon as he got his first six, I knew I would just have to support him and give him strike. After he hit two sixes, the bowler got angry, and I asked Azmat to carry on calmly. In the end, I had to tell him to give me an opportunity to hit a big shot. ‘Please give me the strike’!”
The view from the dressing room wasn’t too bad either, judging from the noise each six was greeted with. Omarzai’s entertaining knock quite literally made people stop whatever they were doing, as Rahmanullah Gurbaz revealed. “When I was out, I was so hungry,” he began. “When we started eating, I saw the screen that Azmatullah had come for batting. I thought he had to settle down and take some time before he would hit. But then I immediately saw big hits from Azmat and stopped eating to watch Azmat bat. I enjoyed it very much. He is the best allrounder in the team. He is a young star and we’re very happy for him.”
While Omarzai has been hogging all the limelight, Shah and Gurbaz were stars in their own right too. It was Gurbaz who set the tone for the innings with an attacking half-century at the top, while Shah held things together with a calm, unbeaten half-century.
Incredibly, almost all of Afghanistan’s players have been late bloomers. Naveen-ul-Haq, their captain, jokes that he is the most experienced player, having started playing in 2012. Omarzai took to cricket only three years back, around the same time Gurbaz and Shah got serious about their games.
“My father is principal of 12 schools, he did not give me a chance to start cricket,” said Gurbaz. “But I used to like cricket. After our national team did well in the World Cup 2015, I started proper cricket. Only when I was selected for Under-16 Afghanistan team as wicketkeeper, my family gave me a chance to start cricket. Now, I’m full-time into cricket. I go to the academy in the morning and return only in the evening.”
Shah chimed in, “I started in 11th class in school. When I started, my family told me to play cricket but not give all my time to it because in my family, all of them are graduates. They asked me to play in holidays. I told ‘okay, I’ll try’, but all of 24 hours I thought only about how to get into cricket in future. I tried my best to go to some academies, and after four years they allowed me to play cricket.
“Those four years were my black years because nobody supported me. When I was selected for Under-19 qualifiers, only then they supported me. In 11th class, I was ranked third. When I started cricket in 12th class, I fell behind, so my family got to know I played cricket and wasn’t interested in studies. They didn’t stop me from playing but they asked me to get education also. Now I’ve stopped my studies because I have given all my time for cricket and there’s no time for education.”
The investment in cricket, though, is clearly worth it. Shah seems destined for bigger things, having scored 1096 runs from seven first-class matches at an average in excess of 120. In fact, his form in first-class cricket propelled him straight into the Under-19 side, although he wasn’t a part of the squad in the qualifiers.
More importantly, he is a part of the first Afghanistan side that has made it to the semifinal of a global ICC tournament.
“Now everyone – brothers, father, mother – they’re very happy. Friends are very proud that I play for national side,” said Shah. “When it’s day-time here, it’s midnight in Afghanistan but they still stay awake to support us.
“The situation in Afghanistan nowadays is not very good. Yesterday there was a bomb blast near our province, so we are very sad. We wore black armbands today. But whenever we play well, it makes them happy. Even when a player does well in domestic cricket, people are very happy. Here, we are in a World Cup and Afghanistan is in the semifinal! So it will be very big. It’s an unforgettable moment.”
More such moments could be in store for Afghanistan, if their young stars can continue their dream run.