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'Afghan Bullet' recovers at Lord's

Lord’s is used to entertaining famous names.

Neighbour Sir Paul McCartney is an occasional user of the gym, Lily Allen and Sir Mick Jagger are regulars for Test matches and cricket’s great and good – from Sachin Tendulkar to Brian Lara – feel at home in NW8.

Few outside the game will have heard of Hamid Hassan, but in war torn Afghanistan you’d be hard pressed to find a more recognisible face than the national team’s star fast bowler.

As a brand ambassador for a mobile phone company, his stocky six-foot frame adorns huge billboards across the country and he admits it is difficult for him to go out in public in his home city of Jalalabad. There is even talk of the naturally shy 24-year-old hosting a TV sports quiz, as his profile rises as quickly as that of the Afghan side – who will compete in their second ICC World T20 in Sri Lanka this autumn.

But Hassan is in danger of missing the tournament after sustaining a horrible combination of knee and quad injuries playing against England for the ICC Combined Associates XI in Dubai in January.

After dismissing Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott in his opening spell, Hassan was chasing a ball to the boundary in typically committed fashion when he collided with the sightscreen.

“The next day I got a call from the Bangladesh Premier League to tell me I had been sold for $40,000 to play in the same team as Chris Gayle – so I thought oh, my luck!” Hassan recounts, more than six months later at the MCC Cricket Academy.

Since being sent to London by the Afghan Cricket Board in May though, Hassan is finally beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. After training for five hours a day, seven days a week he is bowling again.

For the man who learned his cricket as a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan, it has been an arduous process, which even called him to question his future in the game.

“My country, my teammates, the Afghan cricket board and my fans back home – they all want me back in cricket”, he says.

“But three months ago I was upset; I was starting to think that there was no future for me any more in cricket. I thought this is it for you Hamid – you won’t play any more. But I have a strong family and lots of fans who have been supportive and said ‘we are with you’.”

A quick look at Hassan’s figures shows you why so many are desperate to see him fit to play in their world T20 group against England and India in September.

In 14 ODIs he has collected 24 wickets at just 21.91 while in 12 first-class matches he has 66 wickets at 21.27. Those figures include seven wickets in MCC’s Champion County victory over Nottinghamshire in Abu Dhabi in 2011 and eight more against Scotland as Afghanistan won the 2010 ICC Intercontinental Cup.

In the first innings of that victory Hassan illustrated the level of commitment which has made him so popular in his home country when he bowled a remarkable 22 consecutive overs of hostile fast bowling to take five wickets.

If all that seems far away as he slogs through his daily routine at Lord’s, Hassan retains a sense of perspective befitting someone from as turbulent a country as Afghanistan.

“Four or five years ago there was no cricket in Afghanistan,” he says. “Our rise has been like a dream.”

“We started with zero – we had to do it ourselves. But now cricket is the number one sport in Afghanistan and all the players have sponsors, we have a board and it’s going from strength to strength.”

Hassan’s own part in that tale has been tied to MCC since he was first spotted by the Club’s then President Robin Marlar in Mumbai in 2006, as a side featuring Mike Gatting were thumped by an unknown Afghanistan.

The then teenager was invited to join the MCC Young Cricketers (YCs) for part of the 2006 summer, and made his first appearance at Lord’s in 2007 in a side featuring Sourav Ganguly. Both he and fellow YC Mohammad Nabi were part of the Champion County winning side in 2011 which counted Rahul Dravid among its members.

“Lord’s is my second home,” adds Hassan.

“I come here and nobody hassles me or asks me who I am because they all know me. I can just get on with my training in these brilliant facilities – then when I go home I know I’ll be back here and working again tomorrow.”

MCC’s commitment to the game which has become the most popular in Afghanistan in a few short years extends beyond the top level. The Club works alongside charity Afghan Connection to facilitate MCC Spirit of Cricket coaching camps for girls and boys throughout the country.

It seems to be helping: “If you go to Afghanistan, you can see cricket everywhere – in streets and schools –so we have a very strong future.” Hassan adds, before noting that the under 19s team recently beat the full squad 2-1 in a three match series. Some 27,000 fans turned up for that match, with many more turned away at the gate.

For Hassan, just getting back on the field again is his goal, with the carrot of another chance to take on world champions England his reward.

“I’m very thirsty for cricket now – just waiting for permission from the doctors and physio to say I can play again. I’m counting the days.”

So too, is everyone involved with Afghan cricket.

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