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The Afghan – Shapoor Zadran a fantasy cricketer

The Indian Express logoThe Indian Express 26-02-2017
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Long flowing hair and intimidating pace generated from his 28-stride run-up. Shapoor Zadran is a fantasy cricketer for a nation that worships aggressive sportsmen. As Afghanistan gets an IPL entry and new home in Noida, the country’s most-famous star tells The Indian Express what makes him tick, why he rates Indian players over Pakistanis, and his dream of meeting his Bollywood idol Shah Rukh Khan.

Tension simmers under the skin whenever Afghanistan play neighbours Pakistan – mostly it’s harmless ribbing from the big brother, though at times the chattering can boil over. This one had no words uttered, yet it ended up as an “international incident’ in the blink of an eye. Literally.

Because Afghanistan’s big, strapping quick Shapoor Zadran decided to bowl an outswinger to Pakistan opener Mohammad Hafeez, and followed it with a gesture that might’ve simply amused Hafeez, but got the whole of Afghanistan ruffled: Shapoor had just winked at the Professor.

Television exploded that day as Kabul networks wretchedly paused the frames of Shapoor’s follow-through, then zoomed in on his face circling the eye and blew up The Wink. It played on a loop the next 24 hours, and he was summoned home to explain his action.

“TV zoomed into my eye and it was like all of Afghanistan wanted to know how I could’ve done such a thing – Pathan ne aankh maari! I was happy with the outswinger and just like that winked. Jaanbuzh ke nahi kiya tha, par logon ne kuchh aur samazh liya, aur ghar pe ammi ne bulake puchha ‘Yeh tumne kya kar diya’?” Shapoor recalls of Winkgate.

Tall Afghan fast bowlers are expected to glare and scowl, but Shapoor ditched both, and settled for what he thought was a cheeky wink. It’s like when talking at a Kandivali hotel in Mumbai after training at the Payyade Club, Shapoor starts vaguely about his early Bollywood heroes – Sunny Deol, Suniel Shetty and Sanjay Dutt, the toughies who growled and beat up the baddies, but forgets about the fist-fighters and instead yaps about his full blown fandom of Shah Rukh Khan – outstretched arms, charming lines, the works.

How he wound up with that un-ferocious but merely irreverent wink is evident in his lifelong emulation of Shoaib Akhtar. The Akhtar imitation was more thereabouts than there, in its eventual execution. But more on that later.

On a warm day in Mumbai, with his shoulder-length hair flying as he runs into the light breeze, Shapoor is patching together that glorious run-up which had halted because of a right knee injury six months ago. The left-arm pacer flew down to Mumbai 10 days earlier than his Afghanistan team-mates who will assemble in Noida to start playing their ‘home’ ties against other Associates, and is keen on hitting the groove and getting used to bowling long spells in the sun.

That long run-up doesn’t quite culminate in some fiendish pace, though in his third spell, a net batsman lost balance and fell on his backside getting out of the way of a bouncer. But Shapoor clearly likes the drama that bookends his bowling action, and the 28 loping strides turn heads at this cornerpost of Mumbai cricket, a shapeless but decently maintained ground tucked away in one nook of the western suburb.

The 31-year-old had got in touch with Umesh Patwal, a maidan cricketer who once served on the Afghanistan coaching staff as batting coach, and these days carries Shapoor on his motorbike through Borivali’s zigzag lanes – wind in hair – in what is as much of the ‘Mumbai’ experience his coach is allowing him right now. The pilgrimage to Mannat has been put off until later by telling Shapoor that Shah Rukh is away shooting in England, and the Afghan buys into the script of his famous Bollywood idol being busy shooting someplace far, rendering the jaunt to Bandstand meaningless. His appetite for drama extends to his Bollywood picks – he can’t get over Devdas, and its ostentatious lines.

“I would like to go but he must be a busy man. Plus, when I reached the airport Umesh told me that I had to bowl as many overs as possible to get back into the groove,” he explains. Shapoor has chosen the testing Mumbai hours of 12 noon to 3 pm to train and sweat, and meeting the matinee idol can wait as he tries to bring his career back on track. He has picked a nice stark tan along the way to show for this week of rigour.

But it’s not just the burning sun acclimatisation that’s kept him rooted to the hotel-ground-hotel routine with one visit to a nearby mall thrown in. Meeting heroes isn’t always fun, Shapoor says, scorched as he is by snubs from before. Wide-eyed and impressionable, he had naturally thought Pashto kinship meant Shahid Afridi would become like an elder brother to the Afghanistan team. “He would just wave at us like a celebrity and walk away. Once he was out of the team he started talking nicely and said ‘Eh Shapoor kaisa ho’, but at first it was only the hand-wave,” he grumps.

With idol Shoaib Akhtar, he’d been too tongue-tied at first – still a fan who was watching a TV star in flesh. “We met 3-4 times but it was just Salaam, Hi, How are you and Bye. It’s tough to say anything when you see someone you’ve only seen on TV,” he says earnestly.

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It’s why MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli climbed his personal popularity charts. “MS came and told us after a match that we were a promising team and would do well. Kohli came and hugged us after a match. If you are a star, that’s what you do – you come and hug a junior, a pat on the back. There are expectations from heroes, and it’s nice when Indians show us that respect. Yuvraj, Rohit Sharma…” the Pathan reels off names through the emotional gush. “Dil bada hona chahiye – in bowling and when winning,” he adds.

It’s what he’s got used to receiving in India – warmth and respect, while equations with the Pakistan team remain taut. Maybe sharing borders always amplifies annoyance of the neighbour anyplace in the world, he muses, but there’s a bit of chirpy history to turn Shapoor grouchy when talking about Pakistan in contrast to his experience of Indians.

“Pakistan ki team hamesha bahot bolte hai, zyada bolte hai,” he says flapping his fingers to resemble a gabbing mouth. The Wink put him in the eye of a storm at home comically, but Shapoor has peevish memories of other confrontations. “Umar Akmal run se zyada baatein tez karta hai. He’ll start – aise marunga, waise marunga. Indians bowler ko respect dete hai, gaali nahi,” he says, obviously never having caught Kohli in one of his wild moods.

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But there’s a good vibe about India for the Afghans, never mind the Pakistan comparison. It’s what makes Shapoor happy about their ‘home ground’ moving from Dubai to Noida. “India se bahot dosti hai, Mumbai feels like home, Delhi has lot of Afghans who’ll come and fill stadiums to watch us. India mein aasaani hai,” he explains. Comfort.

“Yaha zubaan wohi hai. Waha Dubai mein sab Arabi alag hai,” he says, speaking of a stronger cultural affinity with South Asia and a shared passion for cricket that’s a massive ice-breaker in the subcontinent. He won’t blindly tuck into Indian food, though – too spicy, he says as a lesson in subtle spicing of aromatic Afghan rice follows on a day when Aussie Matt Renshaw fled to the loo mid-inning on a ground across the Expressway in Pune.

But having acquired a new penchant for salted lassi and having told his hosting hotel in Mumbai to go easy on the chillies, Shapoor thinks the city’s growing on him.

It’s not what he’d expected – Afghan cricketers coming to Mumbai think it’s all Bollywood, rich people, Ambanis and the IPL – but after having lived the cliché during an earlier stint, when the Afghans played World Cup games in posh(er) South Bombay, Shapoor is learning about a gritty city that turns the formerly starry-eyed man philosophical.

“There’s a small pathway beyond my practice ground. It’s just a 20-second pillion ride through that lane, but I stopped one day and found that some 20 people live in a single room in the slum. I didn’t sleep that night,” he says. “Zindagi sakht hoti hai,” he says.

Sakht. Difficult, if one were to simplify the word. Though Shapoor uses it multiple times. He uses it while talking about the times, when deep into the night, Afghan cricketers woke up startled at every bombing in the distance or when footballers would scrunch their noses at the white flannelled and say, ‘Yeh kya hai?’.

“No one respected cricket then, now the whole country loves it. There’s money, prestige and respect,” he says. And IPL contracts too.

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Cricket was always 50/50 for Shapoor. That is to say he remained undecided about it. “My father was angry when I left my studies, and he wanted me to either join his business (car dealership and real estate) or study. They used to laugh when I used the word ‘international.’ So when I first came on TV, I went and asked them, ‘Kyun, aaya ya nahi main TV pe?”

Shapoor loves the cameras, and this love is easily mutual. The 6’2” pacer with the stylishly long mane is a sight when he – like Shoaib Akhtar – streaks in like a bullet train. He recalls hearing about Manoj Prabhakar’s spells on crackling radio waves earlier, and getting a head rush everytime stumps were struck.

But the Shoaib-influenced career is like a remake gone awry. “I used to wake up making plans about what I could do to become like him. But it became tough because he was a rightie and me leftie. So it didn’t work out too well, I couldn’t just copy everything,” he says.

The hair was styled well enough, but the bowling was picked in bits and pieces and without early coaching, the whole package never could come together. “Lekin shauk aa gaya fast bowling ka. Baal vaal toh kar liye, kyunki wo junoon jism mein utar gaya tha,” he says.

After meditating each morning about becoming like the Shoaib for “6-7 minutes”, Shapoor realised his kinesiology wasn’t suited for that action – his was more like quilted into place and held together by the fetish and fervour rather than the precise formula.

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So, while the speedgun spiked at 150 – 140 – dropping down to 132 and resurging at 145, to the experts it remained an indulgent run-up followed by a slightly under-whelming delivery. Very exciting, but an under-achievement when all was played and done. Wasim Akram would spend some time with Shapoor and goad him for 8 months from 2012-14, to trim that runway – it’s down from 38 strides to 28 now. “Now my coaches tell me if I’m happy with the run-up I should stick to it. It gives me a sense of rhythm,” he contends.

It had started when two Shoaib sprints ended in shattered stumps of Dravid and Tendulkar at Kolkata. “Wo dekh ke jism mein jhatka aa jaata tha. Jaiseki bowler bol raha maaro sa^&* batsmen ko,” he says, stressing it’s never a personal grudge but a war, against the batsmen, waged by bowlers playing a sport loaded in favour of the mace wielders.

Shapoor believes a certain degree of madness is necessary to even think of becoming a pace bowler. “My madness was 38 strides. Par saare bowler deewane hote hai. Deewane nahi hue toh woh bowler nahi hai,” he rationalises, pleased with his theory.

It is the Pathani stubbornness that was seen in an infuriating number of Shahid Afridi aborted innings – where he’d fail to check his instinct. “Par wo junoon hi toh hai meri bowling mein,” he says in self-assessment. “If I change, I will lose my bowling,” he declares – those 10 strides less now, more a decision borne out of a creaking body than a crumbling mind.

He’s not vain about his bowling though, the bluster kept at bay with self-awareness. A savage Paul Stirling assault during the Qualifiers T20 final left him in shreds. “Bahot maar padi 2 overs mein. And he isn’t even the greatest of batsmen,” he says flummoxed. “I learnt the importance of staying calm in the second spell realising that I can only try experiments when I’m cool-headed,” he would say.

Growing up pangs the entire squad experiences on rough days. “Like it was tough to understand why Mohammad Shahzaad (Afghanistan’s mercurial wicketkeeper), who’d hit Imran Tahir and Rabada for long sixes, wasn’t picked in IPL. Maybe because India has so many wicketkeepers? And we’ll need to get consistent to be noticed,” he says.

Shapoor wants to pack in Kohli once though. “I admire how his bat comes down straight and sharp, he’s the best batsman,” he starts. So obviously, Shapoor wants to knock his middle stump off. “Ek din tez aake danda udaana hai. Nahi kiya aur balle pe ball aa gaya, toh who bahot marega,” he laughs.

With Afghanistan scheduled to play four-dayers, Shapoor, the original star, wants to put himself in contention for the longest format. “Twenty mein ache balls bhi maare jaate hai,” he groans, “but in Tests, I’ll get to prove that I can last long, bowl 10-20 overs, battle with a batsman. Tests will be like pathology lab tests for Afghanistan. They’ll show what’s inside our body,” he says, not content with being outwardly appended with adjectives like fearless and proud.

“Every movie would have that dialogue about how ‘Mumbai’ is this great city – films, skyscrapers, wealth. But now I need to find the resilience of those 20 people struggling but surviving in that one room of a slum in my cricket,” he says. He wants to do well enough to muster courage to talk to Shah Rukh about cricket and beyond a ‘Salaam, hi, how are you, bye.’ Tongue-tied he might well be at present, but not when Afghanistan takes off from a 28-stride bounding runway into the future as a ‘Test’ nation. He might even wink without fear.

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