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World Cup: All I wanted to do was play cricket, says Nawroz Mangal

World Cup: All I wanted to do was play cricket, says Nawroz Mangal

"My father wanted me to study, but I could not study. Then they wanted me to engage in business, but I studied till only eighth standard. To me, it was all about cricket," said Mangal.

Perth: It's a tale that is all too synonymous with Afghan cricket. Born in Kabul, early years spent in refugee camps in Pakistan following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Civil War, and a return to the country and city of birth after the Taliban rule was put to an end.

Nawroz Mangal's tale is exactly as above. Born 30 summers ago, he fled with his family to Pakistan; like some of his other colleagues in the national team, he spent his time in Pakistan playing cricket with his friends. Unlike some of the other macho types who took to bowling fast, Mangal was more a batting fanatic. It perhaps had something to do with the fact that he is shorter than the average Afghan, or the fact that his all-time favourite cricketer is Sachin Tendulkar.

No matter. Subsequent events have justified Mangal's decision to stick to batting. Only Mohammad Shahzad, with three hundreds, has scored more ODI tons for Afghanistan than Mangal, who has two. The former captain, who has since been replaced at the helm by Mohammad Nabi, is one of only three from his country with more than 1,000 ODI runs, and his average, a healthy 33.46 from 37 games, is second only to Samiullah Shenwari (38.51), who is also his country's leading ODI run-scorer,

Where Mangal's storyline breaks away from norm is in the manner in which he continued to remain active in cricket upon his return to Afghanistan in 2001. "There were plenty of difficulties," he tells you through an interpreter. As he speaks, rattling off words at the rate of knots, he holds your complete attention even though you don't understand a word.

"My father wanted me to study, but I could not study. Then they wanted me to engage in business, but I studied till only eighth standard. To me, it was all about cricket. All I wanted to do was play cricket."

Mangal couldn't convince his father into letting him pursue his undying passion, but fortunately for Afghanistan cricket, his coach managed to do so. Taj Malik was then the Afghan coach, and he spent an entire night at the Mangal residence in Khost province, almost on the Pakistani border, telling Mangal Senior that his son had what it took to succeed in cricket. The father believed there was no livelihood to be made out of cricket; Malik allayed those fears and by morning, Nawroz had his dad's permission to follow his heart.

"My coach was there at our place for a long time, he convinced my father that I was a good cricketer. He told my father that one day, I will become a big player," Mangal fires away. "I don't know if I am a big player, but I am glad I didn't disappoint my coach or my father."

Mangal reflects on his early years, the time spent in Pakistan, with excited gratitude. These refugee camps were no fun; it was a life full of hardships, and for the longest of time, no one knew exactly how long the kids and their parents would remain at those camps. Dislocated from home, in an alien land with few real friends and with an uncertain future, it would have been easy to slip into bad habits. Mangal's release came through the game of bat and ball; bat primarily, though he is also a reasonable asset with the ball with his offspinners.

"In Pakistan, I studied in a refugee school. In the camp, we used to play tape ball matches between Afghan and Pakistani teams," Mangal recollects. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who would come to watch those matches." Makeshift ball, makeshift bats made of wooden planks, improvised stumps, dodgy pitch if ever there was one, undulating, bumpy landscape. It was as far removed a setting for cricket as can be imagined, and yet, it brought undiluted joy to those that played and to those that watched. "The audience used to cheer us on. They made us feel like it was an international game between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that is how we would approach the match, too," the laugh almost drowning out the translator's words.

Upon the family's return to Afghanistan, Nawroz's father got into business and is fairly well to do these days. There is no emotional story here about Nawroz's modest cricketing riches helping his family make both ends meet, but there is no denying the fact that cricket has changed the profile of the Mangal family as a whole, and Nawroz in particular.

"Now, people recognise me." You can sense that he is saying something that is dear to him, even though you can't understand what he is saying and you wait for the translation. "I feel proud that I play cricket. It is an absolute honour. I come from a country that gives great respect to its heroes. Whenever they spot us and recognise us, the people of my country are so happy, they are so proud that we have put Afghanistan on the world cricket map.

"It's not about the money. I know, till I got into cricket, there wasn't even any pocket money and now there is enough money to go around, but I am proud that I live in a house that was built by my father, not from whatever I have earned playing cricket. Our former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has given me a flat in Kabul. What else do I need?"

Having spent his formative years in Pakistan, Mangal has had to ward off angry Pakistani queries about his cricketing hero. "There is only one player in my mind, Sachin Tendulkar," Mangal says, almost defiantly. "He is my idol, he is the batsman that brings me the greatest contentment and enjoyment when I watch him bat. I used to love watching him score runs even when I was in Pakistan. There were a lot of people in Pakistan who were angry with me, they would ask me why I liked an Indian batsman that much and not a Pakistani batsmen. I told them all - as far as I am concerned, there is only one batsman, and that is Sachin Tendulkar."

With cricketing facilities still at a premium in Afghanistan and the still-uncertain climate in the country, Afghanistan play all their cricket away from home. The United Arab Emirates is their second home; in some ways, they are a team in exile, not unlike Pakistan have been in the last six years. Nawroz is hopeful that one day, he will play in front of his people in Kabul, perhaps; for now, he is grateful for the support in the UAE.

"I love playing in UAE, because the conditions there favour us. We enjoy playing cricket over there. A lot of people come to our games to support us, and I don't feel we are away from our country. It almost feels like we are in Afghanistan as a lot of Afghan fans come for every game and back us. We may not be able to win every game, but we will never let them down for lack of trying."

Nawroz, or Nuwroz, means the New Day, and is the name of the Persian New Year Day. Every day is now a new day in the life of Nawroz Mangal. Born in Kabul, plays cricket for fun. And plays it quite well, too.