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Fear, brotherhood and cricket in tense Kabul | Cricket




Mumbais Saurabh Walkar has been a cricket video analyst for 12 years. The job has taken the 36-year-old to many cricket destinations, but nothing can match the anguish and brotherhood of working with the Afghan cricket team at a just ended 10-day camp in Kabul.

The ancient Olympics were a time of truce and the latest edition of the modern Games begins on Friday in Tokyo. Afghanistan, however, is in turmoil. The camp coincided with the withdrawal of US troops from the country, leading to a deteriorating security situation.

Did alarm bells ring before he left for Kabul? Yes, my friends and family asked if it is necessary to go into the current scenario? I said all the support staff (head coach Lance Klusener and the trainer from South Africa and physio Prasant Pancade from Bengaluru) go, I have to go, can’t say no. During my interview, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) asked if I would be willing to work in Kabul if necessary. So I said, if I’ve committed myself, I can’t say no.

Walkar left New Delhi for Kabul on July 9 and returned on July 18. The ACB gave assurance of my safety and I was confident that I would spend 10 days there.

It was as if Walkar had never experienced anything like it. It was different, not the usual camps we go to; we traveled in a bulletproof car the first time I used a bulletproof vehicle. Normally, when you go to a new place, you go to the market, you visit the city. Here was our daily schedule to go to the camp and back to the hotel because that’s where things happen (Afghan government forces are engaged in firefights with the Taliban).

Walkar, an electronics engineer by training, had responded to an advertisement on the ACB website. Klusener selected him after a one-on-one interview. He started his assignment with series against Ireland and Zimbabwe, both in Abu Dhabi. This time, they called up a camp before teaming up for the Pakistan one-day series, which will take place in Sri Lanka or Oman in August.

During the camp, the players in the ACB cricket academy stayed in the stadium. The support staff was at a city hotel a 10-minute drive away.

You could feel the tension in the streets of Kabul. There was heavy security, Walkar says, but the cricket team is hugely popular, which was reassuring.

I have not witnessed an incident. You saw heavy security on the roads and there were checkpoints. Kabul is safer, the incidents are happening in other parts of the country.

The former Mumbai player has worked with Rajasthan Royals, Guyana Amazon Warriors in the Caribbean Premier League, Multan Sultans in the Pakistan Super League and in the Bangladesh Premier League and T10 League.

For sheer bonding, Walkar says the team environment in Afghanistan is the best.

The hospitality was just amazing; of the food, fruits, whatever we asked for, we got it the next minute. We went to (ODI team) Captain Hashmat’s house for dinner and they gave us the Pathani turban. It is the highest honor that Afghan people give you.

There is a dry fruit called tutan in Afghanistan, I had tutan when we were in UAE, it was really nice. So the day I landed in Kabul, I asked about it. The captain went home and sent me a bowl of tutan. You ask for one thing and they will give you a lot of things, the Dadar-based analyst says.

On his last day in Kabul, Though it was a risk, Walkar asked ACB’s permission to go out. I was so excited to explore the city. You can say it was a little foolish on my part to leave without security. But it was the last day and the Afghan players assured me, don’t worry, we’re here with you. We will take you to the local shop and restaurant to eat. So we went out for three to four hours at night.

He remembered the memorable outing with Afsar players Farid Malik, Yamin Ahmadzai and Afsar Zazai. I did some shopping, the players wouldn’t allow me to pay. Then it was the best food (goat curry and roti) I had ever had in the 12 years of my travel career.

Walkar was in Kabul when Indian photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui, was killed while covering the Afghan conflict. It caused panic among the relatives of Indians who were in Afghanistan. Walkar’s mobile was inundated with messages. I got messages from my Indian friends and relatives asking when I was coming back.

Will he travel to Kabul again?

If my job calls for it, I don’t mind (going again). Some of my friends ask if I get paid extra to take the risk of going to Kabul. I tell them: it’s not about extra money. I made a commitment to ACB and went there to honor that.

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