Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan, the world’s No. 1 bowler in ICC’s One-day International and T20 rankings, is stuffing himself with murgh-malai tikka. His captain, Asghar Afghan, has long adjusted to ‘spicy’ Indian food. While nothing comes close to Afghanistan’s dry fruits, Asghar, at times, still carries high-quality Indian cashew nuts home. Collectively, team-members have fallen for another Indian product—Oud attar, one with a fragrance that permeates the very soul. Afghan cricketers, then, are comfortably at ‘home’ in India, thanks to the support and love showered on them by local followers of the game—among them, thousands of Afghan students who regularly throng stadiums to watch their national team play.
Yet, the cricketers aren’t on a long tour away from the scenic, craggy terrain of their beloved homeland. Quite uniquely, the national team is locked in a series with Ireland in Dehradun, capital of Uttarakhand. Our ‘mehmaans’ confess that in the hill city they are—much like they had been in Greater Noida earlier—snugly settled in a “home away from home”. India has been the Afghan cricket team’s other ‘home’ since 2015, when the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) signed an MoU with the BCCI and the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority to use Shahid Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex.
Afghanistan’s ongoing 27-day-long Ireland series, comprising ODIs, T20s and a Test, at Dehradun’s picturesque Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium, is crucial to honing their skills before they finalise the line-up for the World Cup in England in May-July. Going by the results, the WC preparations are on track: Afghanistan thrashed Ireland 3-0 in the T20 series, while the ODI series was drawn 2-2. They wrap up this Indian stint with a Test against Ireland, starting March 15. They will play two ODIs, each against Ireland and Scotland in May, before the World Cup starts. Before reaching Dehradun for the third phase of its World Cup camp, the team trained in Chennai and Bangalore.
Asghar informs that Dehradun’s climate is, significantly, the same as Kabul’s; only the Afghan capital is a bit colder right now. “Staying in Dehradun is tremendous. People here love cricket a lot. Importantly, they support both teams [opponents]. Actually, they support cricket—and Afghanistan. So, we can’t make out if we are playing in Afghanistan or in Dehradun. We enjoy playing here a lot,” a relaxed Asghar tells Outlook, sitting in Zaffran, a restaurant at Regenta LP Vilas hotel.
From left, Zurmati, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Rashid and Asghar find time for some post-prandial jollity
The praise showered on Rashid, who represents SunRisers Hyderabad in IPL, but doesn’t eat its famed biriyani due to fitness reasons, exemplifies close India-Afghanistan ties and the immense goodwill Afghans enjoy here. “It’s definitely a ‘home’ for us, considering the crowd support and the love people shower upon us. Along with the kind of facilities that we got here in Dehradun, the heart says we are playing in our own country. This is a reason why we are performing well,” says the leg-spinner.
Unlike other cricketers, the Afghans are so friendly that staff of the Dehradun hotel they are staying at don’t treat them with the polite formality reserved for outsiders. “They are staying for the second time with us [last year they stayed here for the Bangladesh series]. All the players are down to earth. They have no egos. We don’t treat them as guests,” says Sanjeev Sharma, food and beverages manager at Regenta LP Vilas. Listening in, executive chef Ashish Srivastava nods in agreement.
Asghar recalls their pleasant stay in Greater Noida. “Both hotels, Crowne Plaza in Greater Noida and Regenta LP Vilas here, take good care of us and respect us. We’re also very happy with them; it seems like we’re living with our family members,” he says. Again, because they understand Hindi and speak it fluently, the cricketers meld effortlessly with the Indian backdrop.
Supporters of the Afghan team at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Dehradun
“Amongst other things, what the Afghans liked in Greater Noida was its greenery, particularly the roses. They would say they don’t have that rose variety in their country. They also liked our roads,” said a Greater Noida stadium official who followed the team closely. Last year, some Afghan players went river rafting in Manali and visited Mussoorie.
New Delhi, with its authentic Afghani cuisine restaurants in Lajpat Nagar, is another favourite. When Rashid visited Lajpat Nagar for the first time, he felt he was in his own country. “When I visit Delhi, I shop a lot. At times, my family joins me,” discloses Asghar. He and his teammates often visit malls for shopping in Dehradun, New Delhi and Greater Noida.
Afghan cricketers dig good, sumptuous food. Sharma reveals that since they are very particular about non-vegetarian dishes, he asked a hotel’s vendor to get a ‘halal’ certificate for the meat so that the visitors could enjoy local non-vegetarian cuisine. Afghans prefer low-calorie food, with less spice and oil. Also, they don’t eat that many sweets. “A dietician has given us a menu and we are cooking as per their requirement. They are quite happy with us,” chef Srivastava tells Outlook. For breakfast, they mostly have omelettes with Italian concasse sauce—a delicious concoction.
Srivastava informs that players often opt for the special mutton, chicken korma, grilled ‘Sole’ fish, pasta with chicken, sweet corn soup, and boiled vegetables at dinner. “Rashid also likes dal makhani and steamed rice, besides spinach with mushroom and poached eggs. And the entire team likes moong-dal halwa and carrot halwa.” During Ramzan last year, the cricketers would break fast with Rooh Afza, a popular Indian sherbet. The other drink they like is green tea with honey.
And on match days, a table laden with food is laid in the dressing room through the day. The menu includes counter sandwiches, dry fruits/nuts, juices, muffins, fruits, tea and coffee, amongst other victuals. And when Afghan players return after a sojourn back home, they bring high quality dry fruits from their country. “You know why they prefer flying Emirates? The airline allows more baggage, and half of the players’ luggage contains dry fruits,” says an official. “Afghanistan’s dry fruits are the best, so I carry them here while I carry Indian cashew nuts home. I also buy shirts, shoes and perfumes. The quality of the Indian Oud attar is the best; most of my teammates use it as well,” reveals Asghar. The fragrance of an enduring friendship continues to spread through cricket, lovely cricket.
By Qaiser Mohammad Ali in Dehradun