Rahmanullah Gurbaz would have gone unnoticed on a night where there were plenty of talking points for Kolkata Knight Riders, but Sarah Waris, from the venue, explains why he deserves the attention.

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Ahead of Kolkata Knight Rider’s clash with Sunrisers Hyderabad in Qualifier 1, Rahmanullah Gurbaz was seen having an extended conversation with Venkatesh Iyer on the sidelines. After nearly two months of waiting on the bench, ‘Jaani’ [Dear one] as he is called in the team, was finally getting an opportunity, and his teammates were showering him with endless words of encouragement.

Gurbaz had played 167 T20s before the game and did not necessarily need motivational speeches in Ahmedabad. But there was also a sense of edginess around the camp, despite KKR ending as the No.1 side after the league stage. They had been a part of two washouts in the last 10 days and were coming into the all-important playoff with limited game time. More importantly, they had bid adieu to Phil Salt for the season, which broke up the highly successful pair #SaltIne at the top, and his replacement Gurbaz was being thrown into the deep end, with no prior match practice in the tournament.

The wicketkeeper could only last 14 balls in KKR’s run chase of 160 against Hyderabad but it would have been enough to reassure the side. Intent is what had made Salt and Narine click and Gurbaz walked out with a similar motive against a threatening pace attack of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, T Natarajan and Pat Cummins in his first match.

Gurbaz walked down the track on the first ball of the innings to negate any late movement from swing master Bhuvneshwar. The second ball swung away from him and Gurbaz leaned into it for a drive through the covers to get off the mark.

Over the next few overs, Gurbaz showed immaculate footwork, hitting two sixes and as many fours during a quickfire 23. His first maximum came against Cummins, as Gurbaz danced down the track to slog the back of a length delivery across the line. He got a top edge over the fielder at third for his first six of the 2024 Indian Premier League. It wasn’t the most aesthetic shot, but this is also not a format where fine visuals are a priority. Gurbaz’s next six was crisper – he tonked Bhuvneshwar over long-on after a shimmy down the track as KKR raced away. He was dismissed four balls later, looking for another big hit, slashing a ball by Natarajan to Vijaykanth Viyaskanth at cover, having gone at a a strike rate of 164.29.

Before the playoffs, KKR had a powerplay strike rate of 168.98, the second-best in the competition, with the form of their openers playing a massive role in the side’s success. Gurbaz, on the other hand, struck at 135.8 in the first six overs in the format in the last year. But, against SRH, he changed his approach according to the team’s desire and played a high-risk game when he could have rather batted conservatively in an easy run chase and looked for a big score to boost his confidence ahead of the final and the T20 World Cup.

Earlier in the game, Gurbaz also showed brilliance with the gloves, a task that can prove to be challenging in a team with two vastly different spinners. He latched onto two catches and effected a crucial run out of Rahul Tripathi. He later revealed how Varun Charavarthy was tentative about the change of glovesman midway through the season. However, Gurbaz comforted him. “Before the game, he asked me whether I was okay with his spin. I told him, ‘Bro, we have world-class spinners in our team [Afghanistan]. You don’t worry, just bowl whatever you want.’ I am okay with everything,” he said with a laugh.

Between playing against Ireland on March 18 and then versus Hyderabad on May 21, Gurbaz has whiled his free time in Kolkata feeding his “fish friends” in the team hotel, a responsibility he has laboriously taken on since last year. He has explored different cuisines and mosques in the cities he has visited, often preferring to travel by local transport. Gurbaz has been in the news for helping out the homeless and less fortunate in recent times, and most recently for his interaction with an autorickshaw driver in Hyderabad. The Afghanistan opener, who is often spotted teasing his teammates, has also been the loudest while cheering them on. His main priority, however, has been to remain focused on his training and be prepared to play the handful of games at the back end of the competition.

There were moments of unease too when news came in that Gurbaz’s mother had been admitted to the hospital due to ill health. He flew back to Afghanistan for a week to tend to her, arriving back in Kolkata just as Salt departed. Gurbaz choked up when asked how he managed to keep his spirits up despite the frustrations of being on the bench amid his personal worries. “As a cricketer, you know what to do. In league cricket, only four overseas players can play in the XI. You should always have the mindset that if there’s an opportunity for you, you should do your best and if there’s no opportunity for you, you should be well-prepared.

“My mom is still sick. I went there [Afghanistan] and I got a call from here when Phil Salt was leaving. They called me saying, ‘Gurbaz, we need you.’ I said, ‘Yes, I will come.’ My mom is still in the hospital and I am always talking to her. But this is also my family. I will manage both my mom and my KKR family. It’s hard, it’s tough but I will manage it.”

Gurbaz’s contribution against SRH might not have made headlines in a game where there were other bigger talking points, including Mitchell Starc’s new-ball spell and the twin fifties of Venkatesh and Shreyas Iyer, but in a team set-up that has started shifting their focus on appreciating the unnoticed feats, his efforts, especially considering his battles, stood tall.

Gautam Gambhir, the team mentor of KKR, has spoken about his culture of valuing the “small performances”, which will make a young player feel indispensable.

Speaking on R Ashwin’s YouTube channel, Gambhir said: “It’s a very simple philosophy which I have not spoken a lot about. In a team sport, the big contributions only make headlines. It’s the small contributions that will win you games. All this team bonding, the team dinners and all that, stands for nothing. It’s just a very, very good PR activity. Unless and until you do not start appreciating small performances, there is no other way a young cricketer will start feeling that he belongs to the franchise. Everyone wants appreciation.”

After the game with Hyderabad, Gurbaz spoke about the positive impact that Gambhir’s presence has brought to the team this year, largely due to him taking along the big and the emerging stars as one. On Tuesday, KKR had plenty to celebrate – their first final appearance in three years, a convincing chase within 13.4 overs and no signs of complacency despite arguably being the best team in the event. There were several players who did very well too, but as was expected, there was more than a word of praise for the team’s ‘Jaani’ in the post-game celebratory videos and that’s all that matters.