In many ways Mujeeb ur Rahman has broken the Afghan prototype. He is among the first few homegrown cricketers to make the international side. He was neither born in Pakistan nor did he learn his cricket there. He doesn't speak Urdu. But he shares one trait with most Afghanistan cricketers. He has taught himself the game. Off YouTube, no less, bowling and bowling until his fingers hurt badly.
Mujeeb does enjoy the privilege of being the nephew of one of the founding fathers of cricket in Afghanistan, Noor Ali Zadran. Noor was born in Pakistan and learnt his cricket there, but, a man of means, he made sure there were facilities at home for future generations. It is not uncommon for families in Khost to own 2000-square-meter farms that house the extended family and have space for guest houses, cattle, and their crop. Noor added his own cricket academy to his family farm.
Mujeeb was nine when uncle Noor was representing Afghanistan in the 2010 World T20. "That's when I picked up the ball," Mujeeb says. He started bowling with the taped tennis ball in the streets, and did the natural thing to squeeze it out of the front of the hand, giving it a flick with the middle finger. Sometime around 2011 or 2012, Noor got the nets ready, and Mujeeb began to bowl with the cricket ball for the first time.
When Mujeeb tried to bowl that carrom ball with the cricket ball, it came out as a slow floaty nothing. That is usually when most street cricketers realise what works on the soft tennis ball doesn't on the hard cricket ball, and try something else. Not Mujeeb. He knew there were others who had made the transition, but he had no access R Ashwin, Ajantha Mendis or Sunil Narine. Nor did he have a coach who could help him.
So Mujeeb began to download videos of the three bowlers on his phone, watch them on an app that would play them in slow motion, and go about trying to do what they did. Nobody told him what to do. He just began to copy what he saw, and bowled all day long. "Just bowl until the fingers couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I needed strength in my fingers to be able to do it with the hard ball."
Mujeeb was fortunate that apart from bowling alone in the nets he could bowl to a family full of batsmen. Another of Noor's nephews, Ibrahim Zadran, plays first-class cricket now. Then there was always Noor batting in the nets when not on tour. He advised Mujeeb to lengthen his run-up. His first manager in domestic cricket, Dawlat Ahmadzai, began to use him as a new-ball bowler in local tournaments. He would tell him how to bowl, how to set batsmen up.
One day at a family gathering - and he was about 15 then - Mujeeb batted against a legspinner who bowled a wrong'un. Yes, they play cricket at family unions in the Zadran household in Khost. And he went to the man and learned how to bowl the wrong'un. When uncle Noor saw it, he encouraged him to bowl it. "The carrom ball and the googly are my strong balls now," Mujeeb says.
When Mujeeb was playing the Under-19 World Cup, an India international - another cricket lunatic - watched him while on tour to South Africa. He was impressed with the wrong'un, and the unusual action. He began to ask around, and even procured some videos.
When Kings XI Punjab picked him on the first day of the IPL auction, R Ashwin must have known they were looking at him as a potential captain, but couldn't have been sure. By the second day he was in talks with the franchise and told them he wanted Andrew Tye and Mujeeb. They had the budget. They got Mujeeb for INR 4 crore (USD 630,000 approx).
This could have been a movie plot. Mujeeb learns by watching Ashwin on YouTube, and Ashwin - not aware of this yet - picks him as his trump card. On their first meeting, Ashwin remembers, Mujeeb was shy. It didn't help that he had run into KL Rahul in the nets and caught an early glimpse of his stupendous form.
Mujeeb couldn't speak the language but he understood Hindi/Urdu. Hindi, though, is not Ashwin's first language. One man barely speaks a language, the other man barely understands it. They spoke a common language, though: bowling. Ashwin soon realised both of them "operated at the same frequency". He saw similarities outside the carrom ball. Mujeeb was self-taught, which is why he was never averse to trying new things. Ashwin was all about new things.
In his early days in the IPL, Ashwin was used mainly as the opening bowler because he bowled alongside Muttiah Muralitharan, who got the middle overs. Everybody told Ashwin Mujeeb was a new-ball bowler but he could see it was because he played alongside Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi for Afghanistan. Before IPL, he hardly used to bowl outside the Powerplay. ESPNcricinfo has ball-by-ball records for only three of Mujeeb's T20 matches before the IPL; in those three games, he had bowled the maximum possible overs, nine, in the Powerplay.
Using spinners in the Powerplay is not new but it is not an aggressive ploy, according to Ashwin. Quite early on Ashwin told Mujeeb he wanted to aggressively control games through him. And it was like there were no language barriers.
"More often than not we generally spoke about bowling and not much other than that," Ashwin says. "And when it came to bowling, he has that innate intelligence. He is quite smart. He is a self-made cricketer. Most of the Afghans are self-made and self-taught. It just becomes that much easier then. If you throw him a new option, he is up for it. He would lap it up."
In the IPL, Mujeeb bowled only 11.2 overs inside the Powerplay. "I wanted to give him the luxury of creating more pressure through the middle rather than at the top," Ashwin says. "Because we had enough ammunition at the top. We had Ankit [Rajpoot] to swing, I could bowl a few overs, Axar [Patel] could give us a couple, Mohit [Sharma] was there.
"I tried to use him in overs that were the impact overs of the game. It was more about trying to create control from him through the middle overs and create opportunities at the other end. It was going to be easier trying to take wickets with him at the other end because people are going to go after safer options. Predominantly use him, if I needed wickets, push the batsmen in the corner and then use him. That was the other strategy. And he has never really bowled beyond the new ball outside the IPL. I knew he was capable of doing it, and he did it really well."
This freed Mujeeb up. Ashwin is most impressed with Mujeeb's temperament despite his feeling a little intimidated by the big IPL crowds initially, which resulted in a few misfields early in the season. Mujeeb came back to provide one of the images of the tournament. In an IPL where great players of spin struggled to pick wrong'uns, his dismissal of Virat Kohli was perhaps the most comprehensive.
"Dot, dot, and then play with the batsman," Mujeeb says when asked how he learnt how to take wickets. "You bowl dots, make them feel restless, and then pack their strength and give them a ball to hit."
The key is in knowing what the strength is and when the batsman is going to play the big shot. In that match, Mujeeb bowled five balls to Kohli. The first two went for singles, the next two were dots. He had shown him the carrom ball and the offbreak.
"I felt he felt he had sussed my action," Mujeeb says. "I had him on two dots in a row. I packed the cover field because that is his strength, and then bowled the new ball. He must have thought it was a legbreak."
This was a generously flighted delivery, Kohli went for the drive, playing for a legbreak, and the ball spun back sharply to castle him.
There is a great intuition in knowing when to bowl the sucker ball. "I can feel it when a batsman is not relaxed."
Ashwin was not done with Mujeeb, though. He could see Mujeeb was up to learn more, and has shared with him a new delivery: a slow floater that looks like an offbreak but doesn't turn. If anything, it drifts away. The lack of pace means the batsman struggles to get under it. He has used it to good effect against MS Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik. "It is not really an attacking ball to be very honest," Ashwin says. "It is a defensive ball. It requires a lot of practice."
Back in the nets in Dehradun after an injury affected the second half of his IPL, Mujeeb has been bowling that ball. Because his index finger is not as strong as his middle finger, his fingers are hurting. But, as Ashwin expected, he is working on it. "If someone is very keen to learn, as most self-taught cricketers are, he will adapt pretty well," Ashwin says.
If he plays on Thursday, which is likely, Mujeeb will make his first-class debut in his country's inaugural Test match. He will come up against India and Ashwin. It will be a challenge, but Ashwin knows too much about Mujeeb's skill and attitude to underestimate him. "I am not expecting any gifts".