After being the top wicket-taker in the Vitality T20 Blast, and stints in various leagues, the Afghanistan quick bowler is raring to go in his first senior World Cup
Afghanistan fast bowler Naveen-ul-Haq has established himself as a T20 – and T10 – globetrotter, following in the footsteps of his seniors Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi. Having featured in the CPL, BPL, Lanka Premier League and the Vitality T20 Blast, the 22-year-old is now preparing for his first ICC world event with the Afghanistan senior team.
You captained Afghanistan in the 2018 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand. How excited are you to play for the senior team in the T20 World Cup?
As a kid or as a teenager, when you start playing cricket and then you captain your Under-19 side in a World Cup, you dream of all this, representing your country in the men’s World Cup also. So, yeah, it was a dream since childhood. I started playing cricket when I watched Afghanistan qualify for our first T20 World Cup, which was in the West Indies, I think [in 2012].
Hamid Hassan was part of that Afghanistan squad in 2012 and you grew up idolising him. At the upcoming World Cup, you could get a chance to bowl alongside him
Growing up, I always looked up to him. He inspired me to take up cricket and fast bowling. Not everybody is lucky to play a World Cup with someone who was his hero or idol during his childhood. So it will be a great experience for me.
Your slingy action can potentially be quite tricky to pick for batters who haven’t played against you before. Do you see that as an advantage?
Nowadays there are stats, videos and footage available, so I don’t think it will be a positive or something like an X-factor for me. I’ll do whatever I’ve been doing for the last two, three years. I just have to concentrate on the basics and focus on the things that have worked for me rather than thinking about who has faced my bowling before or hasn’t. We haven’t played against the Indian players, but we have played against a lot of other teams and some of us have also played alongside a lot of the guys in T20 leagues, so nowadays you know the [opposition] players well.
Did this action come naturally to you?
I’ve always had this action since I started cricket. I’ve just done little tweaks on it, adjusted some things here and there because of back issues and injuries coming back in 2015-16.
Afghanistan’s series with Pakistan was recently postponed and you have a new captain for the World Cup. Has that affected the team’s preparation?
Yeah, it does [affect the preparation] and does not help the team. But our team was preparing back home earlier – we had camps in Kabul and Nangarhar. The other guys like Nabi, Rashid and Mujeeb [Ur Rahman] were part of IPL teams and I was in the CPL. So there were about five, six players who were busy in league cricket. The Pakistan series postponement we couldn’t do anything about, and then Covid struck again in Sri Lanka. They had to go into lockdown and we had to deal with visa issues.
We actually planned to come to the UAE three weeks ago before our warm-up games were to start, but visa issues kept the team in Qatar. So we have prepared, just not as well as we have wanted to as a team to gel together before a big event, but we can’t do much. It is what it is. We have to just cope with the situation.
In your first T20 Blast stint in England, you finished as the top wicket-taker. What was that experience like?
It was actually my first experience playing in English conditions, I hadn’t been there for club-level cricket or on national duty for Afghanistan. So I was looking forward to it, enjoyed every bit of it, and luckily finished as the top wicket-taker of the tournament.
You were asked to bowl the tough overs up front and at the death in the Blast. How did you deal with that pressure?
To be honest, it has become normal for me to bowl two overs in the powerplay and then two at the death. This has become my role in T20 cricket – that’s why Leicestershire brought me in to do this job. Luckily, I did well there and it wasn’t a strange thing to me. Wherever I go now, I’m told to bowl in the powerplay and at the death. It all depends on how much you practise and how much you back yourself in a match situation. I’m just backing myself to bowl against anybody, and just do what has made me and worked for me. The result is not in our hands. Sometimes when you bowl a good delivery, you get hit. Sometimes when you bowl a bad delivery, you get a wicket. It can also go the other way, so you’ve got to take it in your stride.
In the game against Durham in the T20 Blast, you bowled two beamers in the 19th over and had to be pulled out of the attack. How did you overcome that setback?
Before that [two beamers] happened, I think I had bowled three overs for about 17 runs and I bowled well, but I don’t know what happened during that over. I couldn’t figure it out, because normally I don’t bowl beamers – I don’t remember when I bowled one before that game. It slipped out of my hand. I bowled two no-balls and we lost the match.
After that I was a bit upset but not much, because I knew nothing was wrong in my rhythm or in my thinking. I backed myself and throughout the tournament it did work for me.
You got your slower balls to dip in the Blast. Is that something you’ve been working on in recent times?
Yes, I’ve worked a lot on my slower balls. In the Blast you play a home game and then an away game against the same opposition. Once, when I played one team, they started targeting my slower balls – they were standing back and waiting for them. This stuck in my mind and I worked it out during the tournament that if teams are standing back for my slower balls, then I will bowl fewer.
Then, at the back end of the tournament, most of my wickets were not off slower ones. I maybe bowled three-four slower balls in my four-over spell. Earlier I would be bowling ten slower balls in a four-over spell. Since they were lining me up for them, I changed it up. So slower balls became like a surprise [weapon].
You also bowled into the pitch at the CPL for Guyana Amazon Warriors. Is that something that will help you in the UAE as well?
Yes, we’ve also been watching the IPL, and the UAE is like a second home to us – we’ve played a lot of cricket here. All the Afghanistan players know the conditions quite well; you need to come up with slower ones and variations on these pitches. The pitches will only get slower, [as you can see in] the IPL games also. So we need these variations to do well at the back end of the innings or after the powerplay. Whoever varies his pace or length well, I feel their team will do well. As a T20 side, we have that in the back of our minds.
Speaking of variety, your attack has plenty of it. How do you assess Afghanistan’s overall attack?
Afghanistan has been known for their bowling attack lately but now we also have a few good batters coming up. So we are a strong side. We have more variations or experience [than some of the other sides]. We have Rashid, Mujeeb, Nabi, and I’m quite hopeful that we will do well with this bowling line-up in these conditions.
You were born in Kabul, then went to Pakistan as a refugee. Now you are a T20 globetrotter and an Afghanistan international who plays all around the world. Is that something you dreamt of?
I was born in Kabul and then we had to move to Pakistan for some time because of our condition back home. I didn’t start playing cricket there, I was just going to school there for five, six years.
I started taking cricket seriously and watching cricket when I was back in Afghanistan. Every professional cricketer wants to experience different conditions and different leagues and environments. It was the same for me also. First [the goal] was to represent my country, do well for my country, and the next was to explore different leagues and conditions, get to know different players and cultures. You play in the Caribbean league, you get together with West Indies players… I enjoyed playing with [Shimron] Hetmyer and [Nicholas] Pooran. When you play for your country in an ICC event, you are against them. So yeah, it does help you become a better professional cricketer and also helps you develop as a person.
LPL, CPL, T10 – every league nowadays has experienced players in a team with whom you can share a dressing room and learn from them. You see them how they prepare and how they go into a match, or you can ask them how they go through their down patches. So league cricket is not just about financial benefits for a player, you can get more out of the experience.
How have you coped with bubble life?
After Covid struck, the only tournament that I played with some [attending] crowd was CPL and there was some crowd in the UK for the T20 Blast too. I was asking other players about the [challenges of] bubble life also. They said it is very difficult and it gives you mental stress and you get tired of it. I earlier felt like I didn’t feel any [stress] doing this, but once I came to Abu Dhabi from the UK it struck me, and now I also think it is hard. It is just six days [of quarantine] but I feel fatigued now. So, fingers crossed that I come out, relax a bit and start training. But, yes, the bubble life is now getting to me.
Have you picked up any new hobby or skill in your quarantine?
Nothing new (laughs). I think I’ve finished watching everything on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I don’t know what to do next, but I’ll find a new hobby for myself to keep me busy in the bubble.