MOHAMMAD Nabi’s animated celebration after taking the wicket of Tatenda Taibu won’t be so easily forgotten by the small Mutare crowd as much as they will long remember the glorious innings he brought to an end that bright sunny afternoon 14 years ago.
The off-spinner by Nabi drifted away from right-handed Taibu and turned in sharply to prompt a fine outside nick, as the Asian visitors’ captain Nawroz Mangal took a low catch in the slips to prevent the hosting skipper’s surge towards what looked like a certain double century.
Taibu had provided great entertainment on the first day of the four-day match with a knock full of patience, grit and skill to reach 172 before Nabi got him with the classic delivery.
Delighted by the crucial wicket, the scalp of Test cricket’s youngest captain in history at the time, Nabi was on cloud nine.
He reacted to it by dashing up-field like an Olympic sprinter, arms stretched and all the way up to the deep backward point boundary, his teammates in tow. Then they stopped for a hurdle celebration, screaming with joy like little children, right below us in the Mutare Sports Club wooden Press box we shared with officials and scorers.
For me, it was my first exposure to what cricket means to the people of this war-torn country: the competitiveness, the boundless joy of claiming the wicket of the youngest man to captain his country in Test cricket. And yet it wasn’t even in a full international match.
It was, in fact, part of the Intercontinental Cup, the now defunct first-class competition for the associate member nations of the International Cricket Council (ICC). Zimbabwe had been added in the 2009 season to help them prepare for the return to Test cricket after six years in exile. In that contest, Afghanistan’s debut first-class match, the hosts had fielded quite a strong team disguised as Zimbabwe XI with Taibu – retaining from his own self-imposed exile – asked to lead the side.
I was in Mutare for the four days on a special assignment on the state of cricket in both countries at that juncture.
Another lasting image for me was, at the end of the drawn match, observing Nabi politely stopping Taibu as the players walked off the field and the two engaging in a long chat.
You could tell from where we were that the young all-rounder, 24 then, was picking the brain of a man he was clearly in admiration of and as Taibu patiently answered the questions, Nabi listened attentively.
It didn’t matter that he had bowled so well in that match, taking five wickets including that of Taibu himself. And it certainly didn’t matter to Nabi that he had also scored a brilliant century of his own in that match in Afghanistan’s first innings, to underline his all-round qualities.
Despite these achievements Nabi remained humble enough to understand that somebody like Taibu, with his experience, obviously had one or two tips to help him shape his fledgling international career, which unsurprisingly went on to rise like a phoenix.
The Nabi-Taibu conversation wasn’t the only one taking place after that match on 19 August at MSC. Nearly half of the Afghanistan players picked a Zimbabwean player to talk to, all letting every word said sink deep in their minds.
Even Noor Ali, with centuries in both innings to become only the fourth batsman to do so on their first-class debut, was still hungry to learn.
Arriving in Mutare in August 2009, Afghanistan had made their ODI debut as a country just four months earlier, and then only gained full status in that format three years later.
Afghanistan would play in their first ODI World Cup in 2015, whilst Zimbabwe’s second-string side in Mutare had three players who had been to the World Cup before – Taibu, Chris Mpofu and Friday Kasteni.
Pace bowler Mpofu was another source of attraction for the young Afghans, with their seamers wanting to understand what made him tick.
Afghanistan are in India where they have been playing in their third consecutive World Cup, whereas Zimbabwe have been conspicuously absent from the last two editions after failing to qualify following a change in rules which means that not all Test nations automatically make it to the tournament.
In Afghanistan’s squad at India 2023, Mohammad Nabi is the only survivor from the eager and enthusiastic young men who were in Mutare 14 years ago.
In is prime one of the best all-rounders in world cricket, the now 38-year-old Nabi has gone on to captain his country, become a legendary figure in his homeland, and a hero to multitudes across cricket-mad Afghanistan.
Since Mutare, Afghanistan have played in Zimbabwe in quite a few series, winning most of them. They are a team that has respect for every opponent, but fears no one.
For the neutral, Afghanistan is an easy team to like. I know that many Zimbabwean cricket lovers shared the pain when Glenn Maxwell played an unbelievable knock on Tuesday to deny the Afghans an incredible win over Australia.
The result has put Afghanistan out of contention for a semi-final spot – even with impressive wins over England, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – all past World Cup winners.
Few would have been surprised if Afghanistan had gone all the way to the last four in only their third World Cup, because the ingredients for that type of achievement are there in their souls.
Those who know the Afghanistan cricketers’ passion for the game and commitment to absorbing knowledge – as we witnessed in Mutare 14 years ago – will tell you that the massive disappointment of the Aussies’ smash-and-grab on Tuesday will only ignite the sparks in Afghan hearts hereon to make them an even more dangerous opponent for any team.