Trailblazing cricketer Hamid Hassan has gained superstar status in his native country, where he is known as "Afghanistan's David Beckham."
But the road to stardom wasn't easy. As the child of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, Hassan played the game on the streets until his talent was spotted.
Since entering the world of organized cricket, the agressive pace bowler has risen through the ranks to become the first Afghan to play for prominent clubs in Europe and Asia. Hassan's achievements in the sport, along with his good looks, have helped him land sponsorships deals and become the highest-earning athlete in Afghanistan.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Farangis Najibullah, Hassan talks about his career path as well as his hobbies and life outside sport.
RFE/RL: When did you start playing cricket?
Hamid Hassan: I started playing cricket at a very young age, when we left Afghanistan for Pakistan. I was 6 years old. I saw cricket for the very first time in Peshawar, Pakistan. My older brother was a very good cricket player, and I would just follow him. I was 8 or 9 years old when I started playing cricket with a tennis ball. Eventually I started playing cricket at school and college.
RFE/RL: How did your family respond to your growing interest in cricket?
Hassan: Oh, it was very bad. Nobody in my family liked me playing cricket. My dad was especially against it. He would push me to study or do some other work. But I didn't want to give up cricket. Even my grandmother didn't like cricket. When I was playing cricket at home all the time -- sometimes breaking windows or hitting cars with balls -- she would yell at me.
All parents here want their children to become doctors or engineers. They don't want their children to waste their time on the streets or cricket grounds. Now my family -- my dad -- my relatives, my cousins are proud of me.
RFE/RL: In 2006, you became the first Afghan cricketer to be invited to England to play for an English club. And earlier this year, you became the first athlete from your country to sign a contract with the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL).
Hassan: Yes, I signed a deal with the BPL, but I injured a knee a month before I was due to go to a tournament in England, on January 8. I underwent two surgeries. I hadn't played cricket for 10 months [before] I started again last week.
I am grateful to my fans and family who supported me as I was struggling with the injury. When an athlete gets injured, it becomes very hard to come back to sport. Now I'm representing the Kabul [club] team. I'm the captain of the team.
Fame And Fortune
RFE/RL: You are hugely popular in Afghanistan. Your posters are everywhere -- in the streets, buses, and perhaps in people's homes. Do people recognize you on the street?
Hassan: Yes, of course. When I go somewhere, to the street, or to the market just for five or 10 minutes, I end up spending two hours or even more there. People come talk to me, or stop me to take photos. Or when I'm practicing on the grounds, people come here to see me, to take photos with me. And I always take photos with them. I don't want people to say, "Hamid is different in real life."
RFE/RL: In many countries, top athletes earn considerable amounts of money both from matches and sponsorships deals. You are arguably the most famous athlete in your country. How would you compare top athletes' earning power in Afghanistan to other places you have traveled to during your career?
Hassan: I am the only athlete in Afghanistan to have a sponsorship deal, with the Etisaalat communication company. I do commercials or advertisements for them.
But if I compare myself and my team to athletes in other countries, we have nothing. We play for a very small amount of money. But still, we are happy because when we started playing cricket in Afghanistan some 10 years ago there wasn't any money at all. Sometimes our athletes would get money from their families to go on tour."
Now our national team has a contract with Afghanistan's Cricket Board (ACB) and get paid by them, although it is not much. We have asked the ACB to raise our salaries. The money we earn is not a lot, but we are still happy that we are representing our country.
We have also requested that the Afghan government support athletes, to invest money, and improve our contracts. Because the players don't have any other jobs. Cricket is our only job. We train from morning till evening.
RFE/RL: How has cricket changed your life?
Hassan: It has changed my life completely. Every night when I go to sleep, I tell myself: "Ten years ago you didn't have anything, no fame, no money, no car. You were playing cricket in the streets." Now it's like a dream. But we -- everybody in the team -- have worked very hard to achieve our dreams.
RFE/RL: What is your favorite pastime?
Hassan: Beside cricket I love football. I play football sometimes with my friends. I also play pool or snooker. And when I am free I am always in my room watching movies. I love horror movies. I close the windows, switch off the lights, and put loudspeakers on the wall -- it's like making a cinema for myself. I also like going out with friends.
RFE/RL: How many more years do you want to play cricket?
Hassan: It all depends on fitness. If my health and fitness allows me, I will play professional cricket for another 10 to 12 years.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Omid Marzban contributed to this interview