Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Bahir Shah were just two of Afghanistan’s many positives in their 202-run trouncing of New Zealand, but it is when asked about Azmatullah Omarzai, their friend and teammate, that the conversation takes a twist towards the comical. It turns out Omarzai is the darling of the team – the shy lad, non-confrontational, a polite smile always on the ready.
In fact, after Azmatullah’s potentially life-changing knock in the 2018 ICC U19 CWC Super League quarter-final, where he ripped apart New Zealand’s attack with a 23-ball 66, Bahir has had to field calls from friends asking him to get their Facebook friend requests to Omarzai accepted.
Azmatullah is already a star at just 17, although from the sound of it, he’s really not one to bask in it.
“Everyone started messaging us to tell Azmat to accept their friend requests,” said Bahir. “He is one of those guys who don’t speak a lot. He just keeps calm every time, in every place. Even with us, his friends, he’s very shy and is always smiling. In Afghanistan, both he and I are from the same province, called the Kunar province. I know him from childhood. He is a very good, talented player, and he is now showing it every game.”
This version of Azmatullah wasn’t in keeping with what was on display at the Hagley Oval on Thursday (25 January). The Azmatullah that demolished New Zealand’s pacemen wasn’t shy or polite. He seemed livid, at the ball, at the bowler, at the whole world. His approach seemed simple enough – clear the front leg, and go through a full swing of the bat, using the pace of the ball – but it was his success-rate that stood out.
Azmatullah walked in at 226/5 in the 45th over. Afghanistan, at the time, already seemed on course for a decent total, but this was a New Zealand side that posted 279/8 ( v South Africa), 436/4 (v Kenya) and 234/2 (v West Indies) in their three unbeaten group stage outings. Afghanistan needed more than they ordinarily would. By the time Azmatullah holed out in the penultimate delivery of the innings, he had seven humungous sixes and three fours. He almost single-handedly added 77 runs in the last five overs, helping set New Zealand a daunting target of 310.
That assault quite possibly deflated the New Zealand batsmen on some level. The Afghanistan spin duo of Mujeeb Zadran and Qais Ahmed sensed that, and they exploited the situation to the limit, taking four wickets apiece as New Zealand were bundled out for 107 in under 30 overs. Victory ensured Afghanistan’s best achievement at the ICC U19 CWC as they set up a Super League semi-final clash against Australia. So delighted were the people back home that the players received a congratulatory message from the Afghanistan vice president.
Until Azmatullah’s intervention, Bahir had scored quite commendably himself – he ended unbeaten on a 72-ball 67. But once Azmatullah took over, Bahir had little option but to sit back, and occasionally even remind his partner to yield strike.
“When Azmatullah walked in, I told him to try his best, to enjoy and believe in himself, to play good. But he was very excitable, like one lion,” said Bahir. “I knew he would do something special from the first ball. I decided to let Azmat keep strike and just support him with a good partnership. He tried a big shot off the very first ball, but I told him not to try and hit too hard, just use the pace of the ball. And then, as soon as he got his first six, I knew I would just have to support him. At the end, I had to tell him to give me an opportunity to hit a big shot. ‘Please give me the strike!’ It was very good for us.”
Back in the pavilion, Gurbaz, who had started things off with an authoritative 67-ball 69, had been unable to eat watching Azmatullah target New Zealand the way he did. He said: “When I got out, I was so hungry. We started eating, but when I saw on the screen that Azmatullah had come for batting. I thought it wasn’t important he hit a big shot every ball. He had to settle down on the wicket, and then he would hit. But then I see big hits from Azmat. It was very enjoyable. Then I stopped eating to watch Azmat bat. I enjoyed it very much.”
As for the man himself, Azmatullah seemed shy and perhaps a bit taken aback by all the attention, and he couldn’t really open up about his background in the sport. Despite that, it was found during the post-match press conference that he considered Virat Kohli his idol, although he did clarify that it’s “not so much the stance, just the shots". He also revealed that he had only really started playing cricket three years back – making his rise that much more startling – and that his elder brother, Nawab Umarzai, played cricket as well, and had aided his development.
There is so much more to learn of Afghanistan’s latest star, and in due time, those details will emerge, especially if he keeps churning out displays such as this. And those who watched him at the Hagley Oval today would vouch for that.