Shenwari dreams of bigger and better
One of Afghan cricket's stalwarts reflects on his admiration for Virat Kohli, the Inzamam influence, and how the four-day game has honed skills
27 March 2016 13:55
A decade ago in Afghanistan, cricket was not near the centre of peoples’ minds and hearts. Today, you can find kids playing the game in the streets with tennis balls. In school playgrounds, children appropriate identities of their national heroes - “I am Nabi, I am Hamid, I am Sami” – in the time-honoured tradition of cricket-loving people everywhere.
If Mohammad Nabi, Hamid Hassan and Samiullah Shenwari have become stars and idols, it’s with good reason. In recent years, the Afghanistan team have been the most consistently impressive among those outside the Test fold.
It began with qualification for the ICC World Twenty20 in 2010. In the current edition, though Afghanistan haven’t won a match in the Super 10s, they gave Sri Lanka some nervy moments, rattled South Africa and came heartbreakingly close to defeating England. Their toughest challenge of all will come against West Indies, the table toppers, on Sunday (March 27), but if Afghanistan are to pull off the impossible, one man will have to be at the centre of it all.
Shenwari has been involved in all of his team’s most memorable moments. At the Asia Cup in March 2014, he played the starring role in their first-ever win against a Test nation when they beat Bangladesh in Fatullah by 32 runs. Almost exactly a year later, Shenwari hit 96 in a one-wicket win against Scotland in the 2015 World Cup – Afghanistan’s first victory at cricket’s most prestigious event.
“My thinking was just that whenever a (new) batsman was coming to the crease, I told him ‘Stay at the wicket and give me some time, and I will do everything, just stay.’ My partners gave me good company,” reflected Shenwari, while reliving the win against Scotland in a chat with Wisden India. “I talked to them, I told them, we need to stay for just five overs, even if we get 10 or 15 runs it’s enough. No need to be in a rush. I did my job and I’m really happy about that.”
The 'job' Shenwari alludes to is sharing a 35-run stand with Dawlat Zadran for the eighth wicket, and then a 60-run association for the ninth wicket with Hassan. Shenwari’s share of the 95 runs scored then was a massive 72, and three runs came via extras. He was ninth out, but Hassan and Shapoor Zadran took the team past the 210-run target in the final over.
If the Scotland knock – 96 off 147 – was all about showcasing Shenwari’s staying ability, the one against Bangladesh a year before had brought his eagle eye and power-hitting to the fore. Coming together with Asghar Stanikzai at 90 for 5, Shenwari decimated an attack that didn’t quite know what hit them in carting 81 off just 69 balls.
“I read the wicket, how the ball is coming, read the bowlers, which one should I target, which one should I not,” reminisced a smiling Shenwari. He was particularly effective against Bangladesh’s left-arm spinners, Abdur Razzak and Arafat Sunny, taking them for 49 runs from 37 balls. “I hit some reverse-sweeps and they lost their line. Also Shakib (al Hasan) was not playing. The main thing was, stay at the wicket. The team always tells me, ‘No need (to worry about) your runs. Just stay, and you can do it’. Till we have wickets in the end, we can get 100 runs in the last ten overs, easy.”
The ability to soak in the pressure, back himself to remain in the middle and get the job done is a hallmark of the man Shenwari looks up to as his batting idol. Although ‘looks up to’ might sound strange because Shenwari is 29, while Virat Kohli is still only 27. “I especially watch Virat Kohli bat. He’s the same like me. He stays at the wicket, anyone gets out or whatever. I haven’t had the chance to meet him yet, but hopefully someday I will.”
Thanks to his batting exploits, it’s easy to overlook that Shenwari started out as a legspinner, and he still considers himself to be a bowler first. “I was playing just for fun, I was playing tennis-ball cricket for ten years,” said Shenwari, who like all Afghanistan cricketers has done the beat of refugee camps in Peshawar in Pakistan while the Taliban was in power in his country, before moving back. “Once I heard Afghanistan have cricket, I worked hard for four-five months. There was an Under-17 trials, and a tournament also. In four matches, I scored three fifties and took some wickets, so they picked me up for Under-17, in 2004.”
The earliest memory of legspin Shenwari has is foggy, but the inspiration was, naturally enough, Shane Warne, whom he watched even when in a refugee camp because a friend of a friend somewhere had a television set. Later on, the advent of YouTube helped him hone skills like the flipper – “I bowl it with two fingers, straight through” – with Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed’s videos the tutors.
Today, Shenwari is one of only two Afghanistan cricketers - alongside Mohammad Nabi - to sit near the top of both batting and bowling aggregates for his country.
The other great teacher in Shenwari’s life has been playing four-day cricket in the I-Cup. “The most difficult thing was learning to stay at the crease," he explained. "That was the hard thing for me, to stay for 20 overs or 50 overs, stay and make some runs. Because we didn’t play four-day before that. Playing four-dayers, we learn a lot, more than T20 and one-day cricket. When you have played four-day cricket, T20s and one-dayers look very easy. If we play more four-day cricket, Afghanistan cricket will be bigger. We need Test matches.”
The addition of Inzamam-ul-Haq to the coaching staff has also helped enormously. The former Pakistan captain was one of the game’s most gifted batsmen, and he’s been passing on skill sets to his Afghan wards. “He’s a very hard-working coach, he will be there for every person, whether it is throwdowns or the technical aspects of batting,” gushed Shenwari. “He will come talk to us and say, ‘Do this one thing every day for 15-20 minutes, and I’ll guarantee you 100 percent that you will be able to do it in the match perfectly.’
“He has emphasised driving on the front foot, and told us, don’t just stay rooted to the crease. And play the ball, not the bowler.”
Opportunities for Afghan cricketers aren’t plentiful, even though they have repeatedly shown they are capable of taking steps up if given enough time, investment and guidance. Their defeats of Zimbabwe across two T20I and ODI series are compelling evidence, and Shenwari’s hope is that they act as a spur for bigger teams to play them. The other positive on the Afghan cricket landscape is the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s gesture in offering the Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex in Greater Noida as a ‘home’ ground. While it will not yet host full international matches, it can host Associate matches, which gives Afghanistan cricketers a valuable resource with facilities such as a gym, indoor nets and a more cricket-friendly clime.
That could also provide a pathway – distant, but possible – for realising Shenwari’s other ambition. “I’m looking forward to playing in the IPL in the next two years. Everyone in the world is looking forward to playing the IPL.”
His CV already has a number of impressive achievements, but that won’t stop Shenwari from dreaming of bigger and better – and still playing the central role in Afghanistan’s happiest cricketing moments.