Everything stopped at the Afghanistan Cricket Board offices in Kabul. On a pleasant winter afternoon in November 2014, everybody, from peon to auditor to IT man to cook to physio to CEO, had only two questions every five minutes: "Is he still batting?" and "How much is he on?" Outside, in the Kabul International Stadium, in a four-day match between Amo Region and Boost Region, on a pitch damp from overnight rain, batted Mohammad Shahzad.
In the same complex, a conditioning camp was on, featuring the 30 probables for Afghanistan's first World Cup, who were about to depart for a training camp in Dubai. The World Cup 30 were to leave the following day. Shahzad was not one of the 30. The Australian grounds were big, he was told. It wouldn't be easy to hit fours and sixes there. The portly wicketkeeper-batsman was told he was not fit enough to play the game required in Australia.
Still they all loved Shahzad. He appealed to Afghanistan the country more than anybody else; Mohammad Nabi was the best, but he was more solid than flamboyant, and Rashid Khan was yet to arrive. He hits the ball so hard he sometimes sweeps himself off his feet doing so. He hits the ball far. He celebrates hard. He doesn't hold back. Shahzad was and is the quintessential Afghan even though he learnt all his cricket in Pakistan, which is not Afghanistan's favourite neighbour right now.
On that November afternoon, as the others got their weights and skin folds checked, Shahzad batted out in the open. On a pitch where the opposition folded for 162, on a pitch where no other team-mate went past 29, Shahzad scored a typically aggressive 145.
"I spent the World Cup sleep-deprived, angry; I would get into fights with my wife, disturb my kids. Thankfully, it is over now, but I can never forget those days." Mohammad Shahzad on not being a part of Afghanistan's first World Cup
As the innings swelled, everyone hoped against hope. Even the officials who knew visas can't be arranged at such short notice. Officials who had bought into the vision of captain Nabi and coach Andy Moles. They somehow hoped this innings, something, would get him in, but without expressing that hope to those who were travelling. Like a parent silently hoping against the tough love of the other parent.
A forlorn Shahzad saw the probables leave with subdued fanfare - on the night before their departure, the seamer Mirwais Ashraf had lost his father.
Three-and-a-half years later, I remind him of that day. I tell him how everybody was watching, and even those not watching wanted to know just one thing: "How much is Shahzad on?"
"Yeah, they were watching, but nobody was selecting me," Shahzad shoots back. "Yeah, they wanted to know my score. Nobody wanted to select me."
Shahzad still hurts from the snub. He had been an important part of setting up cricket in Afghanistan, of qualifying for the World T20s and the World Cup. In the two-and-a-half year World Cricket League, out of which two teams qualified, Shahzad was Afghanistan's third-highest run-getter. He kept wicket throughout. Their home matches were played in Sharjah in March and October, the first and last of the eight extremely hot months there.
"It was like inside a tandoor (clay oven)," Shahzad says. "In that shadeed (extreme) heat I would keep and bat. It would feel like the whole body is on fire. This is what I fought for five-six years. Took balls on the chest, broke my wrist, broke my fingers, hurt my feet. We fought for this for six years, and six months before the World Cup I was dropped."
The six commandments of Shahzad's cricket
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The desperation was extreme. He played for the A team and trial matches, he scored everywhere, but just couldn't convince the coach. "I scored 115-120 for the A team against the national team," Shahzad says. "Selector and coach were all there. They were going for a camp in Australia in two days. I scored the hundred. The coach was right there, umpiring in the match.
"I can't even begin to describe those days. That was the worst period of my career. For somebody to come directly into the team [previously], and then to play trial matches... as it is if you tell somebody this is a trial match, your limbs stop working. Our local bowlers were getting me bowled and lbw. Because I was under pressure. I was desperate to somehow be part of this. I still scored a hundred but..."
If this was a bad period, what followed was worse. Shahzad couldn't take himself away from cricket. He would wake up early in the morning and watch Afghanistan's matches and agonise. "I spent the World Cup sleep-deprived, angry; I would get into fights with my wife, disturb my kids," Shahzad says. "Thankfully, it is over now, but I can never forget those days."
To appreciate the Champyan-dancing, helicopter-shot-hitting, celebrate-before-completing-stumping, fun-loving, hell-raising Shahzad of today, it is important to know of the odds he beat to first become a cricketer and then make this comeback. Shahzad was born in Kacha Garhi, a refugee camp in Peshawar in Pakistan, one of six brothers and three sisters. He doesn't quite know of the Goodfellas, but his story begins similarly.
"As far back as I can remember," Shahzad says, "I have been playing and watching cricket."
Shahzad was only one year old when Sachin Tendulkar humbled Abdul Qadir in Peshawar, but it was during the 1996 World Cup that the popularity of the sport in Pakistan, and Tendulkar's batting elsewhere, took a hold on Shahzad. Opposite Shahzad's house was a small confectionery shop. "Those taafis (toffees) used to come in polythene bags with Sachin Tendulkar's photo on it. I used to tell the shopkeeper to not throw the bag. I would retrieve them and neatly cut out Tendulkar's photo and stick it on my bat."
Before those bats, Shahzad played with sticks and stones. Literally. He would go around the streets collecting round stones - "70-80 of them" - and make his younger brother sit down and throw those to him on the full. A bit like you see coaches doing to prepare batsmen for short balls rising from close to them. A bit like the old Afghan sport tope-danda. Then, with a stick that resembled a baseball bat, he would cut, pull, drive them away. Then he would go get the stones back and hand them over to his brother. This would go on until one of them was about to collapse.
A friend of Shahzad's father ran a club where Shahzad impressed everybody. The gym owner at the club, Azeem Malik, who is now Afghanistan's physio, told the club owner to let Shahzad play the way he did. "One day you will see him playing on TV," Malik said.
At that time nobody else could think of that in the wildest of their dreams. Did Malik think Shahzad would play for Pakistan? Or did he actually believe the situation in Afghanistan - reeling after the Soviet invasion and the Taliban regime - would improve and these refugees would be able to take the sport back with them and establish it in their country? All in time for Shahzad to be able to play on TV before becoming too old for it?
To Shahzad, all these things didn't matter. "What did I tell you? I just wanted to play cricket," he says. "In clubs, in streets, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and when the time came, for the Afghanistan national team. Had there been no Afghanistan team, it wouldn't have mattered. Even now if I am not in the national team, I play club cricket in Jalalabad, for my region in the domestic championship. I am only concerned with cricket."
Shahzad is obsessed with cricket. He is also detached. He hits the ball hard but doesn't look up to see where it is gone. "My job is to hit," he says, "others' to watch where it is gone. I know where it is going from the way I have hit it." One moment he is in the face of an opposition player. Next minute he is dancing with them. He is friends with the whole West Indies team. "They are very good people," he says. "Outside cricket too, they enjoy life. I also do the same: play cricket, leave it all on the field, and then enjoy your life. Kisi ka kuch pata nahi hai do minute ka... (you can't be sure what happens in the next two minutes)."
It is all pure Afghan, or at least Pathan: strong bodies; big hearts; warm, loud behaviour; aware of the tough, fickle life in those parts of the world. People identify with that. They come to watch him play. "I am aware they come to watch me," he says. "And I try to bat and play in a way that they enjoy. It is not an easy life. They leave their work, travel far, come to watch. I also try to make it worth their effort."
Shahzad is the pulse of the team. You look at him and you instantly know how the team is doing. If he is throwing his hands around, openly arguing with his team-mates and looking desperate, you know they need to rally. When he is doing the Dwayne Bravo dance, or any other that he comes up with, Afghanistan are cruising. A proper showman, he celebrates before removing the bails when the batsman is too far gone. "I don't pre-plan any celebrations," he says. "Whatever strikes me at that moment. But when you field for so long, work so hard for a wicket, you have to make sure you enjoy it to the fullest."
One of Shahzad's celebrations that can seem out of place for a society struggling with violence is the bat used as a machine gun, but his explanation for it speaks a lot about Shahzad's cricket. "MS Dhoni also did it once," he says.
Dhoni was a hero; now he is a friend and a hero. Ever since Shahzad saw Dhoni he wanted to be like the India captain. He likes to be called MS, his initials. His team-mates oblige. The helicopter shot that he copied is understandable, but his wicketkeeping is the real story. Just by watching Dhoni, Shahzad has mastered the stumping with no give when collecting the ball. He hardly misses those. He even gets his right leg up as a line of defence, Dhoni style, should the batsman decide to play a late cut. He even collects throws as if his hands were alligator jaws. He just watched and watched and watched. He never even practised it.
"No, I never practise keeping," he says. "Maybe once in a while when the mood is good or the weather is pleasant, otherwise..."
Shahzad can't explain what he did differently technically to become a keeper like Dhoni. He doesn't even remember when he started doing those things. He acknowledges he used to collect the ball, take his hands back and then remove the bails. He used to be correct. Now, he just does what Dhoni does. It is a sufi-level devotion, both to Dhoni and to cricket.
"Stumping, the way to catch the ball, I have learnt it all from his videos," Shahzad says. "There is no style. Like all these other wicketkeepers who get into weird shapes and positions after collecting the ball. No. Baba ball pakdo (just catch the ball). Don't do other extra things with it. No style. Just catch the ball."
When Shahzad is out of form, he watches videos of the current best batsman. This current slump he ended by watching Virat Kohli over and over again. "He has been timing the ball very well," Shahzad says. "He is right on top of the ball. Keeps the eye on the ball. Gives himself time. I tried the same. It is not about the technique, it is just reinforcing certain things when you are not in form."
Like Virender Sehwag, Shahzad scoffs at traditional risk assessment. "One man takes six singles in six balls," he says. "He tires himself out, he tires his partner out. I try to score those six runs in one ball. Neither do I get tired, nor my partner. Why run for it when you can get those six runs easily?"
What about the risk? "There is risk, yes, but life is incomplete without risk."
What if you get out? "I can get out defending too. This is cricket, ek ball ka khel hai [it can get over in one ball], anything can happen."
"One man takes six singles in six balls. He tires himself out, he tires his partner out. I try to score those six runs in one ball. Neither do I get tired, nor my partner." Mohammad Shahzad
The batting philosophy is simple. Watch the ball closely, middle one or two, then go after what is within your reach and defend or leave what isn't. Sometimes, it takes 10 overs to feel that one ball in the middle, but he is prepared to wait nowadays, knowing that once he starts hitting, he can make it up in no time. Sometimes, he feels good first ball and goes after the second.
Like Inzamam-ul-Haq, Shahzad's game is about conserving energy. He somehow struggles his way through the warm-ups, bats, and does nothing else in the nets. In between, in trying to be "fit", Shahzad lost it all. He even, inadvertently he says, took a performance-enhancing drug via a weight-reducing supplement he was on. "I was 86 kilos," he remembers. "They asked me to come down to 82. I did it to stay in the team, but I couldn't bat properly after that. My hands would start hurting. And feet. I just couldn't bat. Even in the nets, I would bat for short periods. Hands would wobble when I batted. Then I quickly gained the weight back because otherwise I just couldn't bat for more than five-six minutes."
You look at Shahzad and you wonder what business he has still playing three-and-a-half years after his career had been pronounced over. He could have ended with fulfilling feats, such as helping Afghanistan attain ODI status, setting up a win against Ireland in the 2010 World T20 Qualifier final, followed 11 days later by an unbeaten, fourth-innings 214 to chase down 494 against Canada. Yet, he refused to give up on what seems like a death wish: to be playing today's top-flight cricket in that shape.
Not only has Shahzad survived, he has thrived, and now holds the record for most Man-of-the-Match awards, most fifty-plus scores, most runs and the second-highest score in Associate T20I cricket. He also scored half-centuries in the last two matches of the World Cup qualifiers this year, taking his country to England 2019, a nice little full circle. The man whose hands wobbled when he lost four kilos now goes through T20 internationals while fasting.
There is an inner strength, a junoon, an obsession, that is hard to explain. How can you, for instance, learn that Dhoni stumping by just watching and not trying it at practice? Where does he find the energy to perform a gruelling double role in international matches after huffing and puffing through warm-up drills? There is something that keeps him going. Perhaps it is Afghanistan's historic maiden Test starting this week. Perhaps it is the World Cup next year. In all likelihood, it is that cricket is all he has done since as far back as he can remember.