Gulbadin Naib- The accidental captain
It was April and that obviously meant off-season for international cricket. The Afghanistan national team's next matches were in May. The country's three star players (Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman) were busy playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL). However, on April 5th, Afghanistan Cricket Board made sure that the entire world was wondering about what was happening with the national cricket setup.
Why so? The board had indulged in something out of the blue and sacked Asghar Afghan who had been leading the side for the past 3 years. Gulbadin Naib, an all-rounder who was relatively unknown to the outside world was shockingly announced as the new captain.
One could say that even his spot in the 15-man squad for the World Cup would have been a question mark if not for his appointment as captain. After all, Asghar Afghan's own brother Karim Janat was putting in impressive performances in both domestic cricket and also for the Afghanistan team. So, Janat was very close to pushing behind Gulbadin Naib for the seam-bowling all-rounder's spot.
Anyway, the decision was taken and both the fans and Naib's teammates had to accept the change in a professional manner. However, there seemed to be an air of disagreement from Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan. They believed that an uncalled captaincy change two months prior could disrupt the team chemistry and hence the influential duo tweeted their anger/ disappointment.
Yet, the Afghanistan board weren't in any mood to reverse their decision. If they reversed their decision, that would have portrayed them in a bad light.
A month later, Naib showed that he wasn't totally out of depth with such a big responsibility, albeit against Scotland and Ireland. In fact, in the second ODI against Ireland, Naib took 6 wickets and registered his career-best figures. A few days later, Afghanistan caused an upset by defeating Pakistan in one of the warm-up games for the World Cup 2019. Slowly, it felt like the captaincy change wasn't really affecting the team and the criticism was slowly fading away. However, the litmus test was only going to start after the World Cup began.
In the first few matches, Afghanistan as a team were badly exposed. They couldn't even put in competitive performances with the batsmen stumbling while the bowlers flew into oblivion. Mohammad Shahzad's injury-related controversy soon after made Afghanistan look like a team full of disgruntled club cricketers.
Shahzad was ruled out of the World Cup due to an alleged knee injury sustained against Pakistan in the warm-up match but the wicket-keeper batsman went home and stated that he was sent back despite being fully fit. He further added that Gulbadin Naib had become arrogant after becoming captain and wanted to bench ex-captain Asghar Afghan under the guise of an injury.
The spotlight which slowly faded away from Naib due to positive reasons was rapidly returning back for the negative ones. All this while, his performances turned out to be acceptable especially given that the players around him were still playing at a very average level. The 28-year-old was chipping in with some runs and was even at some point, Afghanistan's leading wicket-taker. So, the bodybuilder-turned cricketer started to regularly try and bowl out his quota while some of the specialist bowlers like Nabi weren't getting the chance to do the same even when both were leaking runs at the same rate. Maybe, it was the responsibility as a captain that made him do everything.
At the same time, Naib was making some curious changes to say the least. Najibullah Zadran, Afghanistan's most fluent batsman was dropped for the game against South Africa to bring in........ Asghar Afghan! Then both the remaining specialist openers, Hazratullah Zazai and Noor Ali were dropped as Gulbadin Naib desperately tried to justify the all-rounder's tag. So, Gulbadin Naib started to open the batting too.
His worst game didn't come till the match against Pakistan. Strangely, Hamid Hassan was given a farewell game in Afghanistan's penultimate match after being dropped for three consecutive fixtures. This was puzzling given that Hassan was arguably Afghanistan's best bowler in the first four games.
So, an in-form Hassan was picked again against Pakistan after being dropped for no apparent reason. In either case, Afghanistan and Naib did not make sense.
Hassan pulled up with a hamstring injury after bowling just 2 overs.
Also, in that game, Naib's responsibility exceeded the saturation point. With Pakistan requiring 46 runs off 30 balls, Naib brought himself on to bowl even though the spinners were bowling well on a pitch that was assisting them. He conceded 18 runs off that over and the match was done and dusted.
Also, even though one could say that Asghar Afghan took control (making fielding and bowling changes) of the Pakistan game given his responsibility as a senior campaigner, it seemed like Gulbadin Naib wasn't able to handle the pressure. This was fully evident as he missed a run-out opportunity to dismiss Imad Wasim.
In the ninth and final game, Naib didn't have the awareness to wear shades with the sunlight straight at him as he missed Carlos Brathwaite's catch. After the West Indies match, Gulbadin Naib told Manjrekar, " Ikram AkiKhil is not the only talented youngster in Afghanistan. There are many more like him back home." That begs the question as to why those talented cricketers weren't given a chance ahead of players who regularly underperformed.
All in all, it was a tournament to forget not just for Afghanistan but also for Gulbadin Naib. His first major assignment as Afghanistan's leader ended with zero wins. Perhaps, he was just suddenly awarded a responsibility that he was not ready for. No one would deny the chance to lead your country and that too in a World Cup. Naib's future is unpredictable. He might either be sacked and replaced by Karim Janat or could even come out as a better player considering that it can't get any worse than this World Cup.
Also see – Australia vs England head to head stats