Gulbadin Naib – the Everyman who shocked Australia

Gulbadin Naib for Afghanistan vs Australia
Gulbadin Naib for Afghanistan vs Australia (PC: X)

RevSportz Comment

While he continues to have a legion of admirers, there are many, even within the confines of the Lord’s Long Room, who consider that Mike Brearley was exceedingly lucky to have played 39 Tests and 25 ODIs for England. Brearley averaged less than 23 in Tests, and his ODI strike-rate was 45.53. It’s safe to say that if not for his ‘degree in people’, which allowed him to lead in all but eight of those Tests, someone of such modest ability wouldn’t have played for England more than half a decade.

But if the Brearley phenomenon can be explained by his leadership skills, how on Earth do we make sense of Gulbadin Naib and an international career that’s now into its 13th year. He now has 153 caps across the two white-ball formats, including 71 in T20Is. His batting average hovers around 20 in both formats, his strike-rate is mediocre, and he takes less than a wicket a game. It’s hard to think of anyone who suits the label of ‘journeyman cricketer’ better than he does.

So, why then is he still around, having turned 33 at the start of this competition? His personality might be a big part of the answer. There are people out there who remember him as a rosy-cheeked teenager from the Out of the Ashes documentary that Tim Albone made back in 2010, tracing Afghanistan’s remarkable journey to the World T20 in the Caribbean.

Along with Taj Malik, their eccentric first coach who had a quip or opinion on just about everything, Gulbadin was one of the more memorable characters, especially the scene where he’s seen flexing his biceps. He gave off the air of a young man who couldn’t quite believe his luck, who was intent on making the most of chances that had come his way.

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Afghanistan in ICC T20 WC 2024
Afghanistan in ICC T20 WC 2024 (PC: X)

These years later, the face may be more weather-beaten and partly covered with a beard, but the demeanour hasn’t changed much. Two blistering half-centuries in Indore and Bengaluru at the start of the year probably played a big part in him making this World Cup squad, but they were very much an aberration – before that, he hadn’t even crossed 40 since 2015, despite batting mostly in the top seven.

With the ball, he had only once taken three wickets in an innings, that too against a second-string Sri Lanka at last year’s Asian Games. And yet, it was Gulbadin – not Rashid Khan, Afghanistan’s greatest-ever cricketer, or Fazalhaq Farooqi, their most successful bowler in this competition – that wrecked Australia at Arnos Vale to set up the very real possibility of them reaching the final four.

It’s hard to think of a more unlikely hero, or of someone who’s had such a long career with so few highlights. In a sense, it’s not wrong to say that Gulbadin is out there playing for all of us who ever tried to swing a bat or grip a ball across the seam. He is that Ordinary Joe who has managed to do some extraordinary things.

We love, or almost venerate, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and Sachin Tendulkar. But how many can relate to them? Their skills are otherworldly, beyond the comprehension of most. When Federer flashed a single-handed backhand down the line, or Tendulkar lofted a Shoaib Akhtar thunderbolt over third man for six, the immediate reaction was invariably: ‘How on Earth?’

Gulbadin’s struggles at the highest level and his journey – from the sidelines of World Cricket Division 5 in Jersey to downing Australia, cricket’s King Kong, in Saint Vincent – are the stuff of our every-day reality. He’s not only living his dream, but ours. Long may he keep flexing those biceps.

Also Read: South Africa, and the importance of champion’s luck