KABUL: Such is Rashid Khan´s popularity that even a suicide blast at Kabul´s main cricket stadium couldn´t keep his fans away — and the teenager is now eyeing the sport´s big prizes as his international profile grows.
The 19-year-old leg spinner started playing with a tennis ball in the remote and poor province of Nangarhar, but he has now starred in the Indian Premier League and will soon make his debut in Australia´s Big Bash League.
At last month´s Shpageeza Cricket League, Afghanistan´s Twenty20 domestic tournament, he became the youngest player to take 100 T20 wickets as he helped the Band-e-Amir Dragons to victory.
Khan´s success has helped elevate cricket´s profile in Afghanistan, where most players were introduced to the sport in refugee camps in Pakistan after fleeing the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation.
Even after a suicide bomber blew himself up within metres of the Kabul stadium, killing three people, Khan´s fans continued to flock to watch him play.
They waved the Afghan national flag and chanted songs for Khan, some showing their devotion by painting his name on their bodies.
“I play cricket to bring victories for my country and to make Afghanistan proud on the world stage,” Khan told AFP in an interview in Kabul.
This year, Khan became the first Afghan to play in the lucrative IPL, and he will also be the first from his country in the Big Bash League when he turns out for the Adelaide Strikers in December.
Adelaide Strikers coach Jason Gillespie hailed Rashid´s signing as a “major coup” when it was announced last month.
“Rashid has set the world alight in T20 cricket with his energy, enthusiasm, and great control for a young guy,” Gillespie said.
“He has some great variations, can bowl stump-to-stump and can be very hard to pick.”
Khan was born during the Taliban´s 1996-2001 rule, when sport was considered a distraction from religious studies.
He learned cricket by studying the techniques of Indian batting great Sachin Tendulkar and Pakistan all-rounder Shahid Afridi on television, and then practising outside in the dirt with his brothers using a tennis ball.
Khan, one of 12 children, began his professional career in Afghanistan´s domestic league where his deceptive bowling technique soon caught the attention of national selectors. At 17, he made his international debut against Zimbabwe.
Since then Khan has been on a rollercoaster ride, taking 63 wickets in 29 one-day internationals, including the fourth best figures in one-day history — seven for 18 against the West Indies in June.
He is also the first bowler to take a hat-trick in the T20 Caribbean Premier League, when playing for the Guyana Amazon Warriors.
“Now I want to play against the world´s best and to challenge the best teams on their home turf,” said Khan.
Khan´s ascension to cricket poster boy in Afghanistan has coincided with the sport´s stunning revival in the country.
Afghanistan was catapulted into the elite club of Test nations in June and made its landmark debut at Lord´s the following month.
“I want to bring Afghanistan the cricket World Cup — this is the ultimate goal of my life,” said Khan, a comment that may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.
Former England captain Adam Hollioake, who coached one of the six teams in Afghanistan´s domestic T20 tournament last month, believes the country “could be top six in the world” within a decade.
“I really believe the talent and passion is here in this country,” Hollioake told AFP.
Afghanistan Cricket Board chief executive Shafiqullah Stanekzai told AFP he was optimistic about the sport´s future in the country.
Cricket is going “from strength to strength” and there are plans to build five international-standard stadiums over the next three years, he said.
“We need five stadiums with capacity of between 15,000 and 30,000 as it is obvious that cricket is the number one sport and we have so many people coming to the grounds even in our domestic games,” he said.
As the Taliban insurgency marks its 16th anniversary, ethnic divisions deepen and civilian casualties rise, cricket could serve a greater purpose than just entertainment, said Khan.
“I believe the game of cricket… is a binding force and brings many ethnic groups together and can restore peace and stability to Afghanistan,” he said.