Friday, October 7th, 2022

From Afghanistan to Worcestershire, Masih’s story of opportunity

Masihullah Qazkhill is holding a cricket ball in his hand. He looks down at it almost lovingly, paying close attention to the seam. Balls almost exactly like this have played a large part in his life and they might well transform it. Perhaps they are part of his vocation.

“For the slower ball I hold the ball like this and for a quicker ball I hold it like this,” he says, “but, of course, it’s not going to turn as much.” 

Outside the room in which we are sitting, there is a huge cheer as Gareth Roderick takes a brilliant catch to dismiss Joe Clarke, but Masih hardly notices. He shifts his fingers gently around the seam of a cricket ball, the tool of what he hopes will be his chosen trade.

Masih is an 18-year-old Afghan. He flew to this country after the Taliban seized power in his homeland, the country whose shirt he wants to wear on the cricket field. If he makes money from the game, he wants to send some back to Afghanistan.      

For the moment, however, he is coming to the end of a year in which he has settled into a new home, learned a new language and got used to a new college. He has also spent the summer bowling slow left-arm for Astwood Bank in the Worcestershire County League.

And doing so very successfully, thank you very much. Masih ended the 2022 season as the league’s most successful bowler with 51 wickets and Astwood Bank finished third in the table.

Masih began playing cricket in the streets of Afghanistan when he was nine. Immediately that brings to mind black-and-white images from another England, although it is still possible to find impromptu games over here, householders and drivers are no longer so tolerant of such innocent pursuits.   

Anyway, Masih was a fast bowler. Then he saw Rashid Khan bowling leg-spin for Afghanistan against Zimbabwe in 2018. That changed more or less everything. Rashid became something of a hero to him and Masih started bowling spin. But I wondered if he played any other sports.

“Not really but sometimes football,” he replies, the cricket ball still in his hand.

Hardly any of this, however, was known to Astwood Bank’s players when they met for their first winter net session last January. All one or two of them had heard was that one of Masih’s teachers had contacted Astwood Bank Cricket Club’s Tom Underhill, and asked whether this young lad from Afghanistan could take part in their pre-season practice.

Jason Adams also of Astwood Bank CC, who is sitting with us at New Road, takes up the story.

“Tom was saying that one of his friends at the college had this guy who loves cricket and whose dream is to play for Afghanistan,” he said. “He asked whether it would be okay for him to come along to our nets.

“So he did and the guys were there and he started bowling and we were all wondering where he’d come from because he was unbelievable. My son said, ‘he’s so good’ and we also noticed that he’s an absolutely brilliant fielder.

There was no doubt that Astwood Bank wanted Masih to play for them but they’d already engaged their overseas player for 2022, so let there be three loud cheers in this regulated age for the County League officials in allowing Astwood Bank to field Masih as a overseas amateur cricketer, alongside their one allowed overseas player, and enjoy a successful first summer in England.

But that is also where this story must be paused. Masih attended the open trials at New Road but no one can yet tell whether he will be able to establish himself as a professional. Given all that’s happened to him over the past 18 months, maybe that’s for the best, too. We all need to take a breath, Masih included.

But amid all the current debates about the future of the game, maybe it’s vital to note that while the responsibilities of county cricket clubs embrace the production of England players, those duties also extend far beyond that essential role. It is a simple truth that most professional cricketers will not wear the crown and three lions, yet they will still give essential service to the game in this country.

English cricket is not solely about the England team. Rather, it is about ensuring that age-group teams are properly financed and that no players of sufficient talent are left out of them. It is about turning the player pathways into broad highways on which male and female cricketers from any background feel comfortable. And it is about ensuring that the major competitions are valued for themselves as a stern but fair test of teams across the increasingly wide expanse of the season.   

It is a complex undertaking, far more complex and wide-ranging, perhaps, than some people accept. So maybe it is useful that there are times when Worcestershire cricket in its very broadest sense can focus on simple, easily-defined responsibilities. Like that of helping an 18-year-old slow left-armer achieve his extraordinary dream of becoming the next Rashid Khan.

Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer, writing as a guest contributor for Worcestershire County Cricket Club. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications.