Saj Sadiq focuses on Pakistan’s new teenage legspin sensation Shadab Khan, who has spun the side to victory in his first two T20 internationals in the West Indies…
The city of Mianwali in north-western Punjab boasts some modest sports facilities along with a base for the Pakistan Air Force but nothing it is certainly not known for its sporting prowess.
There are, however, a few notable exceptions. Legendary former Pakistan captain, Imran Khan, can trace his routes to Mianwali, while current Pakistan Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq is also a proud son of the city.
But with Imran in his mid-60s and Misbah fast approaching his 43rd birthday, it is a supremely talented 18-year-old legspinner who is Mianwali’s man for the next generation.
Shadab Khan produced a jaw-dropping debut in the first T20 international against the West Indies where he picked up three wickets for only seven runs in his four overs, becoming the most economical debutante in the format.
He then picked another four wickets for just 14 runs in the second T20. If the analysts and the naysayers still thought Shadab’s novelty factor was the reason for his success in the first game, they were proven wrong following his second match-winning turn in the space of a few days.
Shadab’s interest in cricket was ignited in the familiar Pakistani passion of playing ‘tape-ball’ cricket around his local streets and he took to legspin as his preferred bowling style from an early age, inspired by the legendary Australian legspinner Shane Warne.
But Shadab’s ambitions were never just limited to being a good spin bowler; he wanted to be the complete package and it is no surprise that he chose the current Australian Test captain Steve Smith as his role model.
In the often cruel world of Pakistan cricket where the promise of talent is not readily recognized and very few opportunities exist for refining uncut diamonds, Shadab’s rise to the top is nothing short of miraculous. This is a system well-known for favoring connections, as opposed to pure merit, and it is a sad fact that many deserving cricketers are unable to make any headway.
With precious little coaching facilities available, and a large population of aspiring cricketers, the route to the top is an arduous one and this is where the determination of Shadab to succeed from a young age is most admirable.
Shadab made formal inroads into the Pakistan cricket system by playing regional Under-16 tournaments from 2011 for several years. Then in 2015 he was selected for the Under-17 series against England in the UAE. In that, he was the top wicket-taker for Pakistan with ten wickets in four one-day games.
With such success at that level, he was subsequently picked for the Under-19 World Cup in early 2016 where with 11 wickets, he was once again he was Pakistan’s highest wicket-taker, albeit finishing joint top.
Thankfully for Pakistan, the powers that be were starting to take note of this new talent and a place in the Pakistan A squad saw him achieve a first-class debut in an unofficial Test against Sri Lanka played at Worcester in the summer of 2016. The young spinner immediately demonstrated his all-round capabilities with 48 runs and five wickets in relatively unfamiliar conditions.
What followed in late 2016 was a sterner test of his abilities, but the young man seemed to relish the challenge. Against a Zimbabwe A side made up of an almost full complement of national players, Shadab was the highest wicket-taker in the series for Pakistan A with fourteen wickets and also proved no slouch with the bat making 132 in the second unofficial Test when batting at number eight.
In the Pakistan Super League, Shadab was picked for the winners of the inaugural edition, Islamabad United. And his inclusion was not purely for novelty value as the team management saw the promise of something big in the youngster’s bowling.
As Islamabad coach Dean Jones recently described it, in Shadab both Wasim Akram and he saw a cricketer of immense talent; a veritable genius with the ball and a young man who had the mental maturity of a much more experienced cricketer.
While the team were unable to retain their PSL title this year, Shadab was able to distinguish himself by picking up nine wickets and scoring 66 runs.
These sorts of performances did not go unnoticed by the Pakistan selectors, with head coach Mickey Arthur seeing a great opportunity to blood the youngster on the tour of the West Indies. The rest, as they say, is history.
Seven wickets in his first two matches for his country is the stuff of dreams and the signs are all there for future success. According to those who have worked with him, Shadab has a maturity beyond his years and all the tricks and guile a legspinner needs.
He has already mastered the googly that even the more established Yasir Shah is struggling to do. The sky is the limit for Shadab and the calls for his selection in the Test squad are starting to be heard in many influential quarters.
Pakistan cricket has witnessed many false dawns over the years when it comes to young talents who burst onto the scene but then fade away into the wilderness of domestic cricket. However in Shadab, Pakistan may just have found an all-round special talent who could be winning matches for them for many years to come.