Hazratullah Zazai wants to be the first Afghanistan centurion at the World Cup, and the first double centurion for his country in the format – all while peeling off sixes at will ©AFP
Hazratullah Zazai doesn’t like being contained, during a match, at practice or otherwise. He is exasperated at having to train indoors during this period of incessant rainfall in the UK. “Indoor nets is just for knocking or working on your weak zone. It’s not of much use otherwise,” he remarks, when you meet into him after his session at the Cardiff training centre. Then he elaborates. “Batting in the indoor nets, you can’t see how big your six is. It just hits the net and drops right there. But what can I do, there’s so much rain outside.”
Zazai is doing his bit to live up to his “Afghan Gayle” billing. He Instagrams pictures of himself with quotes like “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not fake” and launches Matt Henry on to the roof of the Taunton pavilion. At 21 years of age, the World Cup is a great experience. He is confident, carefree and eager to change the spinners’ hegemony around Afghanistan cricket. “We need fast bowlers and fast-scoring batsmen also. Everybody that comes to the academy in Afghanistan only wants to become the next Mujeeb or the next Rashid. ” he says in an exclusive chat with Cricbuzz.
Incidentally, Rashid Khan was his roommate in Dehradun during the T20I series against Ireland in February this year. The night before the second T20I, the spinner ribbed the opener about his measly score of 11 in the first game. In the previous series between the two sides in Bready, Zazai had belted scores of 74 and 82 and turned into an Ireland tormentor, of sorts.
Zazai responded to the banter by asking Rashid to prepare a Tweet “Wow! Zazai 100+“. He went out the next day and backed his dramatic words by smashing 16 sixes in a 62-ball unbeaten 162 – the second-highest individual score in T20I history after Aaron Finch.
“During the match, no one told me I was so close to the [Finch’s] record. I got no clue. Rashid only informed me when I came back to the dressing room. He did tweet about my innings as we’d discussed the previous night. As did Finch. It was a wonderful moment.”
As with all Afghanistan players, Zazai’s beginnings came in tape-ball cricket on cemented surfaces. An eight-over game would mean teams targetted a minimum score of 120. Part of the reason for his predominantly leg-side game was the propensity of all tape-ball batsmen to swing across the line when the soft tennis ball sat up on the concrete surface. Zazai’s first experience of playing with the hard cricket ball came when he was 15. He’d already begun working then.
The family moved from the Patkia province to Kabul early in his childhood. It is a measure of the country’s complexities that cricket was only a fleeting relief for the three oldest Zazai kids, who were fending for the joint family, that had expanded to 10 following the birth of Hazratullah’s nephew.
Hazratullah is the third born of the six Zazai children, the curious reason he states for the No.3 on his Afghanistan jersey ©Cricbuzz
Hazratullah himself took a job as a watchman at one of the offices of Afghan Wireless – a mobile service provider – but had secretly been harbouring dreams of becoming a serious cricketer when Afghanistan qualified for the World T20 in 2010. The money earned through the job went into the purchase of cricket equipment for a local club his friend had set up.
At his job, he was put in charge of the control room, monitoring the Close-Circuit Television security cameras. The uncomfortable late-night shifts brought one perk with it in that Zazai had access to internet, specifically YouTube which gave him a window into the world of Chris Gayle.
“I worked from 5 pm to 8 am those days. When there wasn’t any work, I would be on YouTube in the control room. My friends in the company were pretty supportive and allowed me to leave early some days. I would go home, sleep for a couple of hours and rush to play a club game, I’d finish the club game and come back to office again. I slept for about 2-3 hours a day those days only but kuch paane keliye kuch khona padta hai (if you want something, you have to be prepared to lose something),” he philosophies.
Australia’s Peter Anderson, the former Queesland batsman and head of Afghanistan’s National Cricket Academy, first spotted the young boy’s hitting abilities during a club match. Zazai remembers Anderson’s big praise and advice during the pair’s first meeting. “Don’t focus on just getting into U-19 teams, you are almost ready for the senior team,” the NCA chief told him. But that advice nearly fell on deaf ears as a “heart broken” Zazai quit the sport for a full three months after hearing the news of his non-selection in the Under-19 squad for the 2016 World Cup.
“I wanted to get away from the sport. I’d done well in Shpageeza [a T20 tournament], I was doing well at the Under-19 level also. I was very heartbroken. That U-19 World Cup in Bangladesh was my dream. There were three matches just before selection and I didn’t do well in those. I had played well throughout the year, but didn’t play those three matches and I was sent home,” he recollects.
He had to be talked out of his self-imposed exile by his parents and thus began a second serious push into cricket, culminating in an Afghanistan Premier League game against Balkh Legends at Sharjah last October, where Zazai went up against idol Chris Gayle.
At this point in the chat, Zazai whips out his phone where the clip of his “six-sixes” is saved for easy access. As the last ball from veteran spinner Abdullah Mazari disappears over the sightscreen, Zazai reflects: “I didn’t think about the six sixes till I hit five, to be honest.
“Then I decided, I will go for the six, come what may. I knew he’ll bowl wide outside off-stump and was ready to hit it. But I did speak to Mazari after the game and told him sorry. I told him it is part of the game. Batsmen also become hat-trick victims, bowlers will sometimes get hit for six sixes. Even Stuart Broad got hit. I told him not to worry about it but he was very sad.”
The six sixes and the 162* in the span of four months effectively sealed Zazai’s World Cup berth, where he has since got to tick off one more of his dreams: of facing Mitchell Starc. This one, though, was lived very briefly. “I faced only ball of his and then [Pat] Cummins got me out in the second over when I played a loose shot,” he remarks with visible disappointment.
But Zazai rediscovers his inner Gayle, adamantly stressing that such dismissals will will not force him to change his game for the remainder of the World Cup.
“I know the conditions here are tough. People have told me to stop hitting, ‘play defensive,’ they tell me. But I have come only for sixes. I have come having watched Gayle. I have made most of my runs through sixes and fours. If I take doubles as they tell me, then who will hit sixes? Other players in the team have different roles, I have mine.
“Mere bhi kuch andaaz hain (I have my own style): I want to score Afghanistan’s first World Cup century, maybe even the first double century in ODIs. They will not come without sixes.”