@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read
Afghanistan’s vast spin-bowling riches have been the backbone of their T20 growth in recent years, but Naveen-ul-Haq wants to break away from the stereotype and make his name as a wily fast-bowling force. He speaks to Wisden India editor Aadya Sharma.
“I always wanted to bowl fast”.
Naveen-ul-Haq walks out of the foyer and onto the hotel terrace, casually circling around the pool as Dubai’s Museum of the Future gleams in the distance. Immediately, you can pick out the features of a textbook fast bowler: tall frame, broad shoulders and bulky arms.
When he speaks, out comes a gentle, drowsy tone, almost in direct contrast to his bullish, never-back-off persona on the pitch. In some ways, he’s similar to his long-time idol and now teammate Hamid Hassan, the flagbearer of Afghanistan’s pace bowling for years. A decade ago, Hassan inspired a young Naveen to take up the art. In 2021, they played together in a World Cup.
Three bowlers from Afghanistan have taken more than 150 wickets in T20s – Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Given their success and popularity, it won’t be surprising if future generations remember Afghanistan as a conveyor belt of spin-bowling giants. Naveen, who took his 100th in December, is doing something different; as a seamer he wants to break that monopoly and carve out his own niche.
“It’s good to change that [perception],” Naveen tells Wisden India right after the T20 World Cup. “A seamer comes in, does well and keeps his spot in the team. It doesn’t happen too regularly in Afghanistan. I would have loved to do more [at the World Cup], but it’s a game, it’s part and parcel. Hopefully, we will bounce back again.”
Naveen already has half a decade of international cricket behind him, and much like the Rashids and the Nabis, has balanced it with franchise T20 work – from the CPL to BPL, LPL to T20 Blast, he’s been (almost) everywhere. And he’s just 22.
The real journey, though, began when a young boy moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. During his early schooling, Naveen got a taste of the sport through the country’s famed tape-ball culture. It was merely a hobby then – his family was clear that they “didn’t like cricket”, and his father insisted on him eventually becoming a doctor. When Naveen and his family moved back to Afghanistan a few years later, a spirited national team caught the eye, and the dream took hold.
“I saw our team playing international cricket, and that’s when it first hit me that I love this game. From then on, I started playing [seriously].”
Afghanistan’s spirit today is matched by deep wells of talent, and the 2021 T20 World Cup was supposed to herald a new era of recognition – but things turned complicated, and fast. They entered the tournament severely undercooked, having not played any matches since March. Weeks before their first World Cup fixture, Rashid Khan stepped down from captaincy. And yet, all the cricketing developments fell pale in comparison to the war-torn country’s own burning fate, with the Taliban’s return bringing about a wave of uncertainty. At the end of it all, the team failed to push past the group stage.
“Yeah, you can say as much as you can that ‘No, it [circumstances] didn’t hurt… but it did,” Naveen says, regretfully. “Not playing any international cricket for the last year or so, and then coming back and playing a big event like the World Cup. Yeah, it did hurt us a lot. In a year’s time, we have another World Cup, so hopefully, we can be fully prepared for that and the team is in good spirits.”
Luckily for Naveen, Afghanistan’s international limbo was compensated for by his T20 gigs across the globe. Bustling with energy and unafraid to diversify his style, Naveen is the ideal fit for most teams on the lookout for young overseas quicks.
At the T20 Blast last year – in his debut season for Leicestershire – Naveen topped the wicket charts with 26 scalps at 17.57. In conditions polar opposite to the dry, rugged wickets back home, Naveen collected high-profile victims in Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Cameron Bancroft among others, promptly earning another contract for 2022.
“The first three games were totally a different challenge for me,” he admits. “It was hard to get adjusted to the conditions so fast. I didn’t have much time due to Covid to prepare, I had to quarantine.” In his first four matches, he picked up seven wickets but also conceded more than 40 runs thrice. Quick to adapt, he went back to the drawing board, toning down on the use of his slower balls in the final stages of the competition. In many ways, cutting down on those change-ups brought Naveen back to the ambition of his youth – to bowl out-and-out fast.
“From the start, I wanted to be a fast bowler. [From] playing tape-ball cricket, to playing professional cricket at U16, U17 and U19 [levels], it was always to be a fast bowler. Before, I did not have all these variations and stuff. I wanted to bowl fast and fast. After some back issues, I started thinking about my body and bowling, and worked on some parts.”
When he does bowl his slower-ball change-ups, there’s an effortless switch in speeds, and Naveen’s bowling is characterised by an unmistakably jerky, angular action, the sort that creates an awkward trajectory for right-handers. When his action met the eyes of a larger audience at the World Cup, comparisons with Jasprit Bumrah’s gangly release sprung up in no time. In fact, cameras captured the Afghanistan seamer chuckling on the field after World Cup broadcasters displayed side-by-side pictures of Bumrah and Naveen on the big screen.
“I didn’t know all this to be honest,” Naveen said. “I hadn’t seen my action with his action, once I saw it on screen I was also shocked. It’s 60-70 per cent similar, both actions. I didn’t know that. That’s why I smiled. In a way, it has worked for him and worked for me. Having a simple action, you tend to lose the x-factor in your bowling. Having some kind of a different action comes naturally to him also, and to me also. I haven’t grown up watching him, I grew up watching other bowlers. It has some benefits.”
It isn’t easy though – with numerous cameras breaking everything down frame by frame, novelty doesn’t stay for long, and mystery vanishes into oblivion. Teams study bowlers days in advance; Naveen, however, isn’t too fussed with all the revision that batters get before facing him.
“Yeah, it’s hard now,” he admits. “Before, there wasn’t any footage to be shown to batters, who didn’t see who was bowling to them. I don’t take it into my thought process, I don’t have to think about that. They might have seen my video footage – I back myself, I back my abilities and I go on my instincts. So yeah, I don’t keep that in mind.”
As he grows in experience and stature, Naveen is more mindful of the challenges lying in wait. At the World Cup, his figures of 1-22 against Pakistan and 3-26 against Namibia earned him plaudits, before he ran into a rampant Indian opening partnership, conceding 59 runs from four wicketless overs. In the bigger picture, these are very small blips, but Naveen is eager to turn each slip-up into a learning experience.
“During this competition, I found it difficult bowling to three batters – Rohit Sharma, Babar Azam and KL Rahul – I didn’t get a chance to bowl to Virat Kohli or any of the other [big-name] batters. They are proven players, world-class batters. They were challenging for me but I took it in a positive way. You need to play these games to see yourself up against the best in the world.”
Armed with talent and a relentless quest to be better, Naveen isn’t dreaming small, while carefully managing his workload. Recently, it was reported that he’s taking a break from ODI cricket to focus on the next T20 World Cup. It could mean missing out on facing India’s heavy-duty batting line-up in March, even though, back in Dubai, Naveen had set his sights on his next big challenge.
“I’d love to take Virat Kohli’s wicket. Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t get to bowl at him. Let’s see in the future.”