A relentless training routine and “unparalleled” commitment have taken Pakistan leg-spinner Shadab Khan from club cricket in his remote village to the World Cup in just a few short years.
The 20-year-old, already third in the world Twenty20 bowling rankings, has caught the eye of none other than Prime Minister Imran Khan—who led Pakistan to their only World Cup win in 1992. But when the prime minister singled out Shadab during a meeting with the team before they flew to England, it came as no surprise to the coaches and players who know him.
They credit his heady rise to a tireless work ethic including pre-dawn starts to fit in maximum practice. “Shadab’s commitment to cricket is unparalleled,” said his former club coach Sajjad Ahmed. “He sleeps around 9:00 p.m. and reaches the ground before sunrise. That’s been his routine for years so that he can practice as much as possible.”
Shadab grew up playing cricket on the rough pitches of Mianwali district—a farming community near the banks of the Indus River in Punjab province—which is also home to Prime Minister Khan and fellow Pakistan Test player Misbah-ul-Haq. In between swimming in the myriad canals bisecting the fertile fields in his hometown, Shadab spent hours on the cricket pitch daily, where he developed his signature leg-breaks and love for batting.
“Shadab was so interested in batting that at one time he quit bowling,” said Ahmed. “But I advised him to consider becoming an all-rounder, then he would have a better chance to play top-level cricket and he complied.”
The decision proved prescient.
After playing for Pakistan’s Under-16s, Shadab was selected for the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2016, where he finished as Pakistan’s joint-highest wicket-taker with 11. A few months later he made his first-class debut for Pakistan A during their tour of England, taking five wickets and scoring a valuable 48 in their win over Sri Lanka A in an unofficial Test.
Later that year, he made headlines again with a match-changing 132 and figures of 4-84 and 5-82 for Pakistan A against Zimbabwe A.
After playing for Islamabad United in the 2017 Pakistan Super League, the leg-spinner enjoyed a dream international debut when he was man-of-the-match in Pakistan’s T20 win over reigning world champions the West Indies in Bridgetown.
But despite his success, friends and close associates said Shadab has maintained his long hours on the practice pitch to keep his skills sharp. “I remember once we went on a tour to Lahore for a tournament and after the match all the boys would go sightseeing, but Shadab used to sleep early and would only concentrate on cricket,” said long-time friend Raja Falak Sher, Shadab’s first captain at club level. “To this day his routine is the same and that has helped him rise to where he is today.”
Perhaps one of Shadab’s finest moments so far came at the Champions Trophy in 2017 in a showdown against arch-rivals India, where he trapped Yuvraj Singh in front of the wicket. English umpire Richard Kettleborough was unmoved but Shadab convinced skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed to review—and was proved correct, making Shadab a hero of Pakistan’s win.
Gradually Shadab has also begun to make an impression in the longer format of the game, scoring three half-centuries in as many Tests in England and Ireland last year. “Shadab has talent, passion and commitment and those traits will take him places,” his former coach told AFP. “But he has not forgotten his roots. Siddique Akbar club was his first team. He visits us when he is in the city and now he runs the club out of his own pocket.”