Exclusive: How an Emirati businessman helped Afghanistan realise their cricket dreams

Long before Afghanistan became giant-killers, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir saw the talent in the war-torn country

by

Rituraj Borkakoty

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Afghan spinner Rashid Khan (left) and Abdul Rahman Bukhatir. — X
Afghan spinner Rashid Khan (left) and Abdul Rahman Bukhatir. — X

Published: Tue 14 Nov 2023, 12:25 AM

Thirteen years ago, when the cricket world had yet to envision how an emerging Indian player named Virat Kohli would change the game’s landscape, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir saw a spark in a team of unassuming cricketers from a war-torn country.

It was in 2010 that the visionary Emirati businessman, who had brought about a cricket revolution in the desert in the 1980s, first saw the glimpses of talent for the sport in Afghanistan.

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A spirited bunch of Afghan cricketers, many of whom learned the game at refugee camps in Pakistan during the American war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, warmed Bukhatir’s heart with their skills and resilience at the 2009-2010 Intercontinental Cup — a first-class cricket tournament for the associate members of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Unlike the rest of the teams in the tournament, Afghanistan could play none of their home matches in Kabul due to security concerns.

That did not stop the nomadic team, which travelled across the world, winning five of their six four-day matches in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and the UK before beating Scotland in the final at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium.

Deeply moved by the never-say-die spirit of that Afghan cricket team that emerged amid a raging war, Bukhatir decided to offer a helping hand.

Bukhatir announced that the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, which he built in 1982 to bring international cricket to the UAE, would host all Afghanistan home matches.

“It was after that Intercontinental match in 2010 that Mr Bukhatir announced that Sharjah would be the home venue for the Afghan team for their home matches and training,” Mazhar Khan, General Manager of the Sharjah Cricket, told the Khaleej Times.

“At that time, they were struggling to get the opportunities and proper facilities to play.

“So from 2010 onwards, for five to six years, they were using our facilities. After that, they moved to India.”

Since then, Afghanistan cricket has gone from strength to strength. In the past six years, they have produced players that are in big demand in T20 franchise leagues across the world, including the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL).

But it was their stirring performance at the 2023 ODI World Cup that has now captured the imagination of cricket fans.

The Afghans lit up the tournament with four wins from nine matches, three of which came against former world champions, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England.

If not for the gladiatorial fightback from the mercurial Australian Glenn Maxwell, the Afghans could have even sneaked into the semifinals.

While their world-class spinners have always troubled the batsmen, it’s their batting unit that was the revelation, consistently putting up good scores to back their bowlers, showing the temperament to thrive in the 50 overs format.

According to Khan, it was Bukhatir who planted the seeds of this development in Sharjah.

The current crop of players would not have been able to rise to the challenge on the world stage without the guidance of a battle-hardened veteran like Mohammad Nabi.

The 38-year-old all-rounder was a key member of the 2010 team that grabbed the attention of Bukhatir by winning the ICC Intercontinental Cup in the UAE.

“In the initial stage of their development, Mr Bukhatir played a very crucial role. If not for the support from him in 2010, they would not have found a place to play and train without having to worry about anything,” Khan said.

“I think it was during that period that their cricket really took off. They started producing some very good players like Rashid Khan, their world-class leg-spinner. I think players like Rashid have made a big difference.”

Khan now follows every Afghan match with a passion.

His heart swells with pride when he reflects on their giant-killing run in the World Cup.

“When they do well, Sharjah always feels proud. It was Sharjah’s contribution that helped them become a formidable team in international cricket, it’s a team that is now beating the top teams in the world,” he said.

Remarkably, many of the Afghan international players were regularly playing in the Bukhatir League, the UAE’s oldest local cricket tournament, until recently.

“Yes, it goes back to 1975 when Bukhatir started the cricket culture here by bringing Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan players for local matches. That was the time when the Bukhatir league started,” Khan recalled.

“His contribution in promoting cricket is unparalleled.”

The latest beneficiary of Bukhatir’s generosity is Nabi’s 18-year-old son Hassan Khan.

A hard-hitting batsman, Hassan, whose biggest dream is to play international cricket for the Afghan team alongside his father, is regularly delivering eye-catching performances for Bukhatir XI in UAE’s domestic tournaments.

“Afghanistan is a team Mr Bukhatir always wanted to help. He is still doing a lot for them,” Khan said.

“He has a special connection with them.”

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