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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Perseverance, patience: How every setback made Rizwan stronger and a better batsman

The wicketkeeper, who top-scored for Pakistan in the semifinal against Australia, has come up the hard way.

Written by Sriram Veera |
Updated: November 12, 2021 10:29:31 am
Pakistan's Mohammad Rizwan plays a shot during the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup semi-final match between Pakistan and Australia in Dubai, UAE, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

The phone call had gone through but Mohammad Rizwan was silent for a long while. So was the recipient and his mentor Talha Rehmani. Pakistan’s 2019 ODI World Cup squad had been announced and Rizwan was left out in the cold, not for the first time in his life across several teams. “We both were very hurt, and just fell silent,” Talha recalls.

Finally, Rizwan found his voice. “Bhai, mere Allah sey maangne mey kami hai. Aur jyaada maangna hai (I have erred by asking Allah for less. I will ask for more!)” And he went on a journey of more hard work, determination and resilience.

The story of his life. Like this one time, in December last year when his career was on the line. Given the chance to open in T20Is by then coach Misbah-ul-Haq, he had failed in the first two games and everything hung on the last game. “You know what he did? He sent me a picture of something he wrote on a paper. It read: 76 not out. Man of the match. The 76 was crossed out and he had written on the side, “Allah, apni shaan ke mutaabiq de de! (Allah, you give according to your Greatness!) Rizwan made 89 that game, and hasn’t looked back since. “That was probably his last chance, not just as an opener but possibly as a player in the white-ball format. And he has this strange confidence, moved by faith in his own skill, hard work and God. It’s a combination that has stood by him through all his lows in life.” And there have been many.

AUS vs PAK Pakistan fans during semifinal match against Australia on Thursday night. (AP)

It all seemed worth it on Thursday as Rizwan scored 67 off 52 balls in the T20 World Cup semifinal against Australia. He also became the first batsman in T20I history to reach 1,000 runs in a calendar year, a few days after surpassing Chris Gayle’s record of the most runs in all T20 cricket in a calendar year.

Born in a small house to a joint family in Kakshal, a neighbourhood in Peshawar, Rizwan grew up in a humble setting. His father works in a dispensary at a hospital; a very religious man who didn’t want his son to waste his time playing cricket. “He was very keen that Rizwan studies well in a general school.”

The boy, though, wasn’t that keen on academics and would cop beatings from his father for his love for cricket. “They lived in a small narrow gully and the father would be surprised to see numerous men and boys land up at his home to draw out his son to play in their team.” The hide-and-seek with paternal concern continued until the day arrived when the son returned having secured admission in the prestigious government college Islamia, where only kids with high marks could get in.

No one believed him at home. “I will check tomorrow at the college,” the father went. Rizwan had gone along with his friends on a lark for cricket trials at the college and impressed the coaches enough to get an admission call on sports quota. The father’s worries began to abate and he finally wilted around 2007-08 when Rizwan got selected for district and serious cricket teams.

The father sat his son down and had a frank chat. “Waalid saab said, “You play cricket. Shouk zaroor poora karo (Indulge your love), but remember one thing: Cricket and all is okay but achhe insaan pehle bano (become a good person first). That is what gives us the greatest joy. You should be able to help people. Others should be benefitted from you. That’s the purpose of life,” Talha recalls Rizwan narrating that incident many times. And it has stayed with him till now.

Rizwan has moved out of Kakshal to a bigger place but his residence remains an open house where everyone is welcome. “I am not making it up. From a rickshaw puller to CEO, all walk into his home. There is always food cooking. He welcomes everyone warmly. His parents still don’t catch any live action. His ammi would pray and only ask, Pakistan jeet raha hai ya haar raha hai Iis Pakistan winning or losing)? Not even about her son. Waalid saab sey bhi match nahi dekha jaata (even his father can’t bear to watch his matches).”

The boy who would slip out onto the narrow street at his old house now lives in a lane named after him: Mohammad Rizwan Street.

***

Rizwan’s ambition from even when he was a relative nobody in Pakistan cricket circles was to become No.1 in the world. An intention and wish rolled into one, and sent out to the universal forces to work on, says Talha, founder & CEO of Saya Corporation that represents and mentors many leading cricketers in the Pakistan team including Babar Azam, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Fakhar Zaman.

The ICC would post a video a day after the India match that has gone viral. Titled, “Dream. Visualise. Execute”, it showed a remarkable sequence of action. Standing behind the stumps, ahead of the game, Rizwan is seen shadow-batting all his shots that he would play in the game. The conventional pull, the pull to a ball above his shoulder, the slog-sweep, and even the lunge-and-nudge for the single. On the left side of the frame, the actual shots from the game; the visualisation materialising into reality. Just like so many times in his career, intention blossoming into concrete actuality.

In Pakistan cricket circles, Rizwan is known for his fascination with cricket strategies. He likes to think about the game a lot and has very concrete views on how his teams should play. Not a surprise that he has a stellar captaincy record in domestic cricket.

His eagerness has also attracted others. Last November, Shoaib Akhtar, the former pacer and colourful commentator on most things including cricket, piped up on Rizwan’s chatter behind the stumps. “He will be the captain in times to come but for now, he needs to stop giving too many instructions to bowlers about where to bowl,” Akthar was quoted as saying by PTV Sports.

Mohammad Rizwan Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan bats during the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup semi-final match between Pakistan and Australia in Dubai, UAE, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

How did it go with Rizwan? Talha laughs. “He has never got negative. That was just Shoaib bhai being frank as ever in his style. Forget this, Rizwan has not for once lashed out even in private about anything: not being selected or not being believed he is good. He would just say, ‘I have to work harder and the voices of dissent would go silent. ‘Nizaam Allah chalata hai (The Almighty runs the system)’, he would say often.”

The lines that Rizwan would say in the press interaction after the triumph against India. With a quiet Shaheen Afridi beside him, Rizwan’s voice booms out clear and confident. A smile, a look, and a volley of words from a man who has been often in the wilderness and knows how to bounce back from adversity.

When he started to become a wicketkeeper, everyone persuaded him not to bother. “But he is a stubborn man; it’s almost as if disbelief is his fuel. ‘Agar mehnat karoonga, toh log khamosh ho jayenge, bhai’ (If I work hard, people will fall silent).”

People kept turning mute. Good things began to happen, too. Sometimes, he was selected not because of his batting or ’keeping but due to his fielding. Called ‘Jonty’ as a kid due to his acrobatic dives on dicey turfs, he went in as a substitute for Peshawar against the strong SNGPL (Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited), which had Pakistan stars like Mohammad Hafeez, Azhar Ali and Co. and was coached by Basit Ali. The story goes that Rizwan took an extraordinary catch at third slip and caught Basit’s eye. The Sui Gas talent spotters came calling to persuade him to leave the small confines of Peshawar and join them.

But the disbelief continued. ‘You are never going to get a chance there. Adnan Akmal, the wonderful ’keeper, is already well established. And your wicketkeeping isn’t any good.’ “Of course, he joined SNGPL!” Talha says. His logic was that Sui Gas had all the “cricket ke diwane (cricket lovers)” and he can soak up cricketing wisdom and challenge that he could never get in Peshawar. And the boy who grew up in narrow gullies left for bigger pastures. Not that life turned immediately; he had to wait until Akmal picked up a serious injury to get a chance that he grabbed.

A similar story continued with the Pakistan team with Sarfraz Ahmad in great form as ’keeper and captain. By now, Rizwan was comfortable with waiting but his ambition to become world no.1 kept burning brightly.

***

Last December in New Zealand, Pakistan coach Misbah had a chat with Rizwan about opening. “Open karoge na? New ball mey koi masla nahi, na? (Will you open? No problems with the new ball, right?).”

“I will open, I am ready bhai” was the answer. Luckily, Rizwan and Talha had had lengthy chats about it already. “You know what was his hesitation about opening? He said, “If I open, kisi ka haq na maara jaay! (I hope no one else’s right would be taken away if I open). He was finally convinced and ready when Misbah came calling.” Two failures popped up before that career-turning 89.

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Not that it meant security elsewhere. In this year’s Pakistan Super League, no team was willing to pick him. Until, finally, Multan Sultans got him. Though speculation was rife that the non-regular ’keeper Khushdil Shah will play instead of him for his hitting prowess. But just days before the start, Rizwan was named captain.

Out came another special note from Rizwan. “We will be champions!”. When the management handed him the tournament details about the Eliminator and play-offs, he struck out the ‘Eliminator’. “We shall qualify for the final directly.” That confidence, again.

Even after they lost four of their first five games, Rizwan wasn’t turning into a shrinking violet. “Bhai, hum champion banenge (we will be champions)”. When the PSL shifted to Abu Dhabi, Rizwan would call, “All this is happening because we will be champions. We will work doubly hard to get there.” Talha would laugh and gasp in the end when Multan Sultans won every one of the remaining games and did become champions.

“He is also a very practical person. His belief is God will only help those who work really hard. And he backs himself and works his backside off. He doesn’t leave anything to chance or fate in the way some people can do. It’s a great combination: self-belief, hard work and faith.”

In the night after the victory against India, Talha would get the most recurring text he usually gets from Rizwan. “Alhumdullilah! With a crying-tears emoji. It’s gratefulness for everything. From where he was to where he is now.”

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