Clad in a Pathan suit with a grey blazer and a red cap, 18-year-old Khyber Wali was selling credit cards on the streets of Nangarhar province in Afghanistan on a cold December 2021 evening.(More Cricket News)
The world changed for the Jalalabad-born youngster the moment he made the cut for the Under-19 Asia Cup and then the ICC U-19 Men's World Cup 2022 underway in West Indies.
Cricket is very popular in Afghanistan. Even the Taliban loves it. Afghanistan cricketers have been respected worldwide not only for their grit and performance but for the struggles they face in their war-ravaged land.
Khyber Wali is the face of young sportspersons in Afghanistan who want to make a mark like a Rashid Khan or a Mohammad Nabi, who have been Afghan cricket's biggest brand ambassadors, globally.
But in a nation facing economic hardships, playing cricket is at best a past time. So when the good news came to Khyber Wali, he was busy hawking credit cards.
It was a boy in the streets who told him about his selection in the Under-19 World Cup team. He was overjoyed and distributed sweets with whatever money he had. Khyber has been selling cards for the last five-six years and here is a chance to impress the world on a cricket field.
A right-handed batsman, Khyber played a match in the U-19 Asia Cup in the UAE. He scored 20 not out against India in a match that Afghanistan lost. In the ongoing ICC U-19 World Cup, Khyber turned out against Papua New Guinea and Pakistan, scoring 30 and 0 respectively. He can bowl leg-spins too.
Born in a family of 15 members in the Kandibagh area of the Chaparhar district in the Nangarhar province, Khyber is the only one who plays cricket. He started playing tape ball cricket in his neighbourhood before onlookers advised him to get enrolled in an academy.
Khyber Wali didn’t like the idea of going to an academy but after constant pressure from his friends, he enrolled. After that, Khyber played in several inter-club, school-level and age-level tournaments before breaking into the provincial and regional sides.
But despite his gradual success, Khyber Wali found it difficult to meet his cricketing expenses which forced him to sell credit cards. He trained during the day and sold credit cards at night to live his dream as a cricketer.
Prone to frequent injuries, Khyber went for the U-19 trials last year and impressed the coaches with his batting. He was one of the 45 players invited for a month-long national camp organised by the Afghanistan Cricket Board. The camp was led by head coach Raees Ahmadzai.
"I went for the U-19 national team trials and the coach liked my batting and included me in the camp,” said Khyber, who represented his country at the U-17 level in 2018. “It’s very tough to break into the national side with so many good players,” said Khyber. On the day, he made the World Cup squad, it was celebration time.
"It was a long evening for us. Nobody in the family slept well and all for a good reason. My mother was in tears, happy tears. I was emotional too,” Khyber said. “When I got the news of my brother’s selection in the World Cup team, I started crying with joy. For us, it was just like Eid festival good news,” said Khyber’s brother Shakir, who drives an auto.
Khyber Wali expects to learn from his outing in West Indies. The exposure in a quality tournament will give him the confidence to keep the fire burning and win a berth in the senior team. Afghanistan defeated Sri Lanka in a thrilling quarterfinal on Thursday to mark their second semifinal appearance in the history of the ICC U-19 Men’s World Cup.
The Afghans will face England in the last-four stage in North Sound, Antigua on February 1.