Nestled in the mountain range skirting Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan is Naseem Shah’s village Mayar Jandool. Off the tourist circuit, this Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hill-station is untouched, quaint and worthy of a screen-saver. As a Discover Pakistan TV channel’s anchor says: “Yeh kudrati husn se malamaal hai (Abundance of natural beauty)”.
This ancient land of battles and invasions is the home of several Pathan tribes that have remained cut off from modernity and adhere to age-old code of behaviour. Since rolling hills, narrow country roads and scenic sunsets aren’t enough to keep the kitchen stocked, the young here go down to the plains in search of earning opportunities.
Naseem, 19, is one the many to have left home to be rich and famous. After those two SOS last over sixes the other day, he is being compared to the region’s biggest super star – the ageless Shahid Afridi. The Khyber Agency born great, Lala for the locals, is a role model for every Pathani suit wearing cricket dreamer.
Of late, in these parts, cricket has become a popular mode of transport to reach greener pastures. It’s fair to assume that in this Asia Cup, Pashto could be the default language of the Pakistan dressing room. Naseem Shah, Mohammad Rizwan, Fakhar Zaman, Iftikhar Ahmed, Haris Rauf and Khushdil Shah are Pathans with Khyber roots. Had Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mohammad Wasim Jr been fit, Pakistan would be pretty close to being called Pathan XI.
The trickling down of cricketing talent from the once-alienated North to the national team isn’t a story of one man, read Afridi, triggering change. It isn’t even the stereotypical narrative of the brave Pathans mastering the T20 format that celebrates daredevilry. This Pakistan squad indicates two big positives for the game in the troubled country.
Relative peace prevails now in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the region that has battled militancy and terrorism since 9/11. The US drone attacks from Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden’s base at Abbottabad are now history. But if peace guaranteed sporting success, Switzerland would have topped charts at most Olympics.
The main reason for the cricketers from interior Pakistan getting the big break is the democratising of the game in the country that has been mostly ruled by the military. The advent of Pakistan Super League with its professionally run teams and business-minded owners demanding accountability from every stakeholder – player and coach- has come as a blow to the old power structure.
Heavily invested, the league owners are in the race to pick the brightest. And if that means travelling far and wide, so be it. The KRA of talent-spotters depending on them catching the talented young. Being fair isn’t the right option but the only option, almost a compulsion.
Like in IPL, where franchise representatives are flying from Srinagar to Salem, PSL too is looking way beyond the traditional hubs. Like the Delhi-Mumbai domination of Indian cricket, the Lahore-Karachi hold too is losing its grip. Except for the two Lahore boys – skipper Babar Azam and spinner Usman Qadir – virtually every cricketer is from remote areas, and not always from the hills of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Karachi and Islamabad are unrepresented in this Asia Cup.
Pacer Shahnawaz Dahani is from Dahani village in interior Sindh, a region not known to produce top cricketers. When the boy who worked in a mandi as a labourer started traveling to the nearest city, Larkana, for training; he had just a couple of first-class cricketers to look up to. The pacer emulated them in no time, making his FC debut in 2019. But what next? Would he join a large group of frustrated first-class cricketers who would rue the lack of opportunities all their lives?
PSL came calling, in the very first season Dahani won the Best Bowler honour as his team, Multan Sultans, won the title. Never in his life had the boy from Dahani dreamt that he would be under the wings of world cricket’s sharpest brain Andy Flower – the Sultans coach credited with many Ashes Test wins using quality pace bowling. Door opened, the whole of Pakistan has seen his potential, including the very vibrant media. Dahani was too good to be kept out of the national team. Today, he is Pakistan’s all-format player.
Others too have similar stories.
Pakistan’s hero here at Asia cup, pacer Haris Rauf, on a whim, took a road trip with a friend to be at the Lahore Qalandars trials. He was a tape-ball cricketer with modest dreams but when Aaqib Javed came looking for pacers near his home he signed up. That would be a life-changing signature for Haris.
Muhammad Hasnain, Naseem’s pace partner, had made an impact on the junior circuit, resulting in him making it to the Pakistan u-19 World Cup team. There he stood out with his pace. However, as is the case with the young tearaways, he would get injured.
While he was supported by PCB’s National Cricket Academy, he would get lucky to catch the attention of Pakistan’s leading industrialist and Quetta Gladiators owner Nadeem Omar. A sports philanthropist and cricket romantic, Omar got Hasnain in his team even when he wasn’t fully fit. “Our scouts went to a tournament, Hasnain was injured at that time. He had already played for Pakistan U-19 and we had heard about his pace. So we signed him. Gradually, he got stronger,” Omar once told The Indian Express.
During the PSL, Hasnain bowled a 150-kph ball and won a Man of the Match Award. It was too hard a knock on the Pakistan dressing room. Soon they let him in.
Pakistan’s captain-in-waiting Shadab Khan was a reluctant cricketer from Mianwala, a city in Punjab. Once he played the u-19 World Cup he thought hhasnae had achieved everything in life. Islamabad United got him through the draft selection process for emerging players before PSL 2. Within three years, he was named the captain of the franchise, PSL’s youngest ever. Forget Pakistan, nowhere in the world would a first-class team repose such faith in a youngster. Actually, even RCB took six seasons to name Virat Kohli the captain.
Under the wily former South African spinner Johan Botha the young leggie Shadab learnt the tricks of the trade. The late Dean Jones, ever the motivator, would give him leadership tips. At Islamabad United, Shadab the cricketer got shaped into Shadab the leader.
Deano, as the players loved calling him, would also form a bond with Pakistan’s present day finishing star Asif Ali that went beyond their coach-player relationship. When Ali’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer, the Aussie broke down at a press conference and later organised funds for the treatment. The franchise gave their match-winner a family atmosphere when he needed it the most.
What Islamabad was to Shadab, Lahore Qalanders meant to Shaheen. They trusted the pacer with captaincy and he delivered them the title. They saw a leader of men in this Afridi with a baby face. It’s a journey he or his other Pathans growing up in rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa wouldn’t have imagined if not for PSL.
During the last England tour, the Pakistan Cricket Board social media team posted a charming video of Pathans in the tour party enjoying a kahwa evening in their hotel room. Rizwan would boil the water in the coffee maker and unpack the pre-mix packets. Later he would join Shaheen, Naseem, Iftikhar, Wasim Jr on the floor. They would sip the brew and pull each other’s leg.
Had it not been for the quick lucky breaks they got in their careers, they would have been in scenic Khyber, sipping the kahwa and cursing their luck.