"No English. No Hindi. Only Pashto, I talk." Mujeeb Zadran makes it clear what his preferred language is when requested for an interview. "Shopping now," he says, gesturing in the direction he's headed, and points to his clock to suggest when he's likely to be back. Mujeeb is a Real Madrid fan, loves Cristiano Ronaldo, and doesn't miss out on any of their new merchandise. There is a good chance he's heading out to shop for precisely that.
Khaliq Dad, Afghanistan's assistant coach, knows a thing or two about Mujeeb's shopping habits and warns of the long wait if he slips out. "Okay. I come for interview," Mujeeb says, laughing, and asks four of his team-mates to wait in the lobby along with him as he settles in on the sofa. He stretches out as if this is his home, with the familiarity of a well-travelled person for whom none of this is new.
Mujeeb is all of 16, but has already made trips to the UAE, India, Bangladesh and now New Zealand. In two months, he'll be back in India and join Kings XI Punjab, the franchise that has shelled out USD 625,000 to secure his services for IPL 2018.
In November, Mujeeb knew he was going to be part of the IPL. Talent scouts from two teams had given him a hint that they were interested after seeing him bowl offbreaks, legbreaks, the carrom ball and ripping googlies during the Under-19 Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur. They were drawn in by his mystery element, but Mujeeb didn't receive any communication afterwards. He registered for the auction anyway.
By then, he had already signed for Comilla Victorians in the Bangladesh Premier League and was to part of the inaugural T10 League in the UAE, where he famously went on to bag Eoin Morgan as his first wicket. He would have been happy to be sold for his base price. "Money, no problem," says Dad, who knows the Zadran family quite well.
Mujeeb grew up in his maternal grandparents' mansion after his father passed away when he was three months old. His was a joint family of businessmen who had acres of land in his village in Khost province, down south from Kabul. Inside his compound, there was a huge play area, a small zoo where the family reared animals, and a series of guesthouses. Mujeeb's upbringing wasn't quite the normal 'early struggles and sacrifices leading to fortune.' He had all the comforts and luxuries as a child.
Somewhere in the early 2000s, the play area within the ancestral house turned into a cricket facility, with nets, to help Noor Ali Zadran, Mujeeb's first cousin and a current member of the senior national team, with his training. Much like Mujeeb, Noor Ali, more than a decade his senior, broke through the Under-19s in 2004 and went on to make his Afghanistan debut five years later. Bowling casually at his older cousin, who went on to become an opening batsman, would fuel Mujeeb's desire to learn to bowl.
"I started playing three-four years ago, as a 12-year old," he says in Pashto. He looks you straight in the eye most times, even if he is quite sure there could be words lost in translation. "I started playing a lot of cricket with the tape ball. By bowling with it, you realise it becomes skiddy so I started to flick it with my fingers. Then I started watching YouTube videos of Sunil Narine, Ashwin and Ajantha Mendis on how they grip the ball and flick it with the middle finger.
"When I first started to bowl the carom ball, I would just flight it and not put any power on it. I would give too much flight. Slowly, I practiced for countless hours and developed power in my fingers. Then I started to flick the ball."
Then he brings you to the story of his googly. "One day, I was batting against one of my younger cousins and I saw him bowl a ball that looked like a legspinner, but it actually turned back into me and I was bowled. So then I asked him "how did you do that?" and he explained to me how you flick it from the back of the hand. I was amused, and learned that delivery and started practicing in the nets along with my carrom ball and offspinner."
As a 13-year old, Mujeeb was first part of the Under-16 trials held at Khost Province, but he wasn't picked in the main team. He took the rejection with a smile, and went home to his mother, who asked him to study and not waste time playing cricket. Mujeeb wouldn't listen. "I would play even more," he says with a sheepish smile. That would help him get selected in the trials the following year.
The reward was an opportunity to bowl to the national team, and Mujeeb created ripples. "In one of the camps [involving the senior team] he was bowling and I was umpiring,"Dad says. "This was a practice match with the national team and he got six of them out. They were struggling to read his variations. It has to be god-gifted talent. He uses his angles well, but his self-confidence is the best part about him."
Much of his skills are self-taught. He began picking them up around 2010, when Afghanistan played their first World T20 in the West Indies. He remembers being glued to the TV to watch the national team and his cousin play. It's the fascination of being seen on TV that fueled his desire to wear the blue and red jersey.
Still two months shy of 17, Mujeeb has already made his ODI debut, on which he picked up a match-winning four-wicket haul against Ireland. At the Under-19 Asia Cup, he picked up 20 wickets to bowl Afghanistan to the title. Against Bangladesh, he picked up 17 wickets - the most in a bilateral Youth ODI series - as Afghanistan won 3-1. Now, he hopes to be part of Afghanistan's maiden Test against India in Bengaluru in June, when he could bowl in tandem with his idol Rashid Khan.
Having lapped up so much top-flight experience, Mujeeb will now embark on potentially two important journeys: first the World Cup qualifiers in March, and then the IPL in April-May. Mujeeb has been a regular viewer of the tournament, ever since it shot in popularity in his country courtesy the exploits of Rashid and Mohammad Nabi. Now he will have the opportunity to learn from the players he has only watched on TV.
Outside of his cricket, Mujeeb likes styling his hair, has a strong fashion sense, enjoys his movies, imitates his favourite actors Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor, loves to sing, and gorges on chicken biryani and fish, and, as we know already, loves shopping.
Now, as he prepares to step into the unknown, his family and coaches have just one piece of advice: "We have told him how money and fame has changed people and how life will suddenly become different," Dad says. "That's when you should remain grounded. This is what we keep telling him - just focus on your pathway to cricket and forget about other things. We are confident he will be a great bowler for Afghanistan."