The Siddique Akbar Cricket Club was just around the corner from Shadab Khan’s rented house in Rawalpindi. But he always took the long route to the club. “Hard ball mein mujhe itna shauk nahin tha (I didn’t want to play with the hard ball),” he tells Islamabad United TV. He was also afraid of getting hit in the nets. So, even while at the academy, he would avoid the nets, “doing something or the other.”
On his way to the academy, he’d stop at a nearby field where kids his age were playing football. “I was more interested in playing football, and despite having no training, I was selected for the Islamabad U-16 team.” “But I didn’t go,” he explains.
Cricket, on the other hand, was the reason his parents left their farms in Mianwali on the banks of the Indus and moved to Rawalpindi. So that their cricket-obsessed son could attend an academy. But that son was Mehrab, Shadab’s older brother. “Mehrab was obsessed with the game and a far better player than I am.” So another brother, who was studying at the university, suggested moving so Mehrab could play cricket and I could attend a better school,” he says.
But fate had other plans. Shadab was bowling in the nets one day — medium pace, as he practiced back then — when club president Sajjad Ahmed happened to notice him. He immediately told one of the coaches that this kid had good wristspin. “I noticed he had strong wrists but lacked the build of a fast bowler.” “So my first thought when I saw him was that he’d be better bowling leg-spin,” Ahmed once told this publication.
Shadab, a diligent and obedient young man, would follow every instruction given to him by his coaches. He began bowling leg-spin and became obsessed with it. He’d spend hours on YouTube watching footage of the game’s greatest leg spinners, from Abdul Qadir and Anil Kumble to Shane Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed. He wanted to bowl like Warne and began to mimic his movements. But, deep down, he believed he was not talented enough to be a Warne or even play for Pakistan. “Playing for my country was never a dream because I honestly did not believe I possessed the necessary talent.” “U-19 level at the very least,” Shadab tells Zalmi Cricket.
His academy coaches, on the other hand, had a different opinion. “I thought he was one of the best young players we’d ever had.” He was a fearless batsman and a fantastic fielder in addition to bowling leg-spin. There wasn’t much grass on the grounds here, but he wasn’t afraid to dive around. “He was capable of doing anything,” Ahmed says.
A difficult start
He only wanted to turn the ball. Turn it up to 11, just like his idol Warne. He’d spend hours on YouTube going through the spin wizard’s 708 Test wicket collection. Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s dismissal, which spun out of the rough outside off-stump and knocked leg-stump out, was his favorite. Shadab tried it, but the quick-footed boys at his club would step down and wrist him through the leg-side.
That’s when he gave up on his leg-spin dreams and focused more on his batting. He was so obsessed with batting that he almost forgot about leg-spin if it hadn’t been for Ahmed’s intervention. “Shadab was so focused on batting that he stopped bowling for a while, but I advised him to consider becoming an all-rounder.” He agreed because it would give him a better chance to play top-level cricket.”
By the time he was selected for the Pakistan U-19 team, he saw himself as a batting all-rounder rather than a bowler who could bat. However, observers were divided. It took a net session with Dean Jones and Wasim Akram shortly after being selected as an emerging player for Islamabad United in 2017 for him to be convinced of his leg-spinning abilities. Jones referred to him as “pure gold,” and Akram referred to him as Pakistan’s “spin future.”
Shadab had long abandoned his desire to rip it like Warne. Aside from the leg-break, a sniper-eyed wrong’un, a slippery flipper, and a slithery seam-up ball, he’d added strings to his bow. The action had also become more pragmatic, whippier, and faster.
His preferred weapon is the bad guy. He bowls it like most leg-spinners, out of the back of the hand, palm up, wrist 180 degrees to the ground. However, his arm speed makes it difficult to read him off the hand. He also coaxes subtle drift, usually into right-handed batsmen but occasionally away from them.
The flipper is used sparingly, mostly in the Powerplay or as a change-up if he gets hit. He is not afraid to bowl the leg-break, unlike most post-modern white-ball leg-spinners, though he does not turn it as much as Warne or Mushtaq. But, as former bowling coach Mushtaq once told the PCB website, his accuracy is the heart of his bowling. “Ask him to bowl 100 balls in a row, and he’ll do it.” He works extremely hard.”
Shadab’s work ethic has shone through, as he is only one wicket (97) away from becoming Pakistan’s highest wicket-taker in T20Is. Ten of those have come in this World Cup, where he has been the best bowler and fielder for his team. He was their best batsman against South Africa, scoring 52 off only 21 balls. So much so that if Pakistan wins the World Cup, he could be in contention for the Most Valuable Player award. Not something Shadab could have imagined when he took the detour to the cricket academy to avoid being hit by a hard ball and to play football.
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