Pakistan batsman plays down clash against India, but adds a good showing will mean fans see them as heroes
Ahmed Shehzad’s is an extraordinary tale – the tale of a precocious talent who made his first-class debut at 15, played for Pakistan in the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia in 2008, made his One-Day International debut the following year, and then returned to the Under-19 World Cup in 2010 in New Zealand.
It took the young man – he has been around for so long that it is hard to believe that he is only 22 – until the last day of 2013 to break through into the Pakistan Test team, but already, he has shown the stuff he is made of. Three games have yielded 263 runs including one hundred and a fifty; he has made five hundreds as an opener in ODI cricket and averages in the mid-20s in Twenty20 International cricket while striking at upwards of 117, all indicative of a special talent that could go a long way with the right backing and a proper support structure.
Shehzad is quite the new-age Pakistan cricketer. He has that unique accent that comes from playing county cricket in England, except that he hasn’t played county cricket. He is confident bordering on the cocky, he walks with a swagger, is quick to ask questions – “All from Bangladesh?” he asked at a media interaction on Saturday (March 15), then flashed a ready smile when a few of us told him we are from India. “Hope you are doing well,” he said, politely – and doesn’t mind talking himself up, though how much of it is deliberate and how much slips through the cracks is hard to fathom.
Everybody from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to Virat Kohli and Mohammad Hafeez to Sohail Tanvir has spoken of the attendant pressures of an India-Pakistan game as well as, paradoxically, the need to approach it as just another match. “Playing India means playing another match,” Shehzad says, then smiles at the profundity of his statement. “It’s like playing just another game for my country. Every single game I play for Pakistan means the world to me. It is a chance to represent my country, I feel very lucky.”
He pauses, almost mid-sentence, works his mind and then comes up with, “I love my country.” It is said reverentially but also with some drama. “The passion is there. If we are all asked to give blood for our country, I will be the first to do so.”
The veneer of the ‘just another match’ facade collapses temporarily as Shehzad speaks again of Pakistan’s opening match of the ICC World Twenty20 2014, against India in Mirpur on March 21. “As players, we invariably raise our performances,” he tells his captive audience. “India and Pakistan don’t play that often, and people create a lot of hype around this contest. I am looking forward to the match; you want to perform and win the match for your team. One good performance here will catapult you high in the eyes of the fans. But at the same time, we need to take it easy, we need to keep it simple and focus on the job.”
Ask him about the pressure of playing India, and he comes back with, “You need to absorb pressure. There is pressure in every international game. If you are playing a smaller team, there is pressure because if you lose, the whole world will talk. And if you are playing the No. 1 team in the world, there is pressure because you want to pit yourself against the best and perform. At the end of the day, you need to play good cricket – every game, against every team.”
Shehzad is happy to stroll down memory lane, recalling his days at school and an adolescent phase totally different from his pals. “I did my 11s from Cathedral in Lahore, but from then on, it has been only cricket,” he tells you. “Once I got into the Pakistan team, first junior and then senior, it was constant travelling, touring, playing. Cricket took up the entire 24 hours of my life. I had to choose between pursuing education and taking up cricket, and I chose cricket.
“Do I miss not having gone to college? Of course I do, it is a setback. I see my friends go to the university and I wish I did, too. But then, I am a Pakistan cricketer now. The whole world knows me, many people look at me and wish I was there, I was an international cricketer too. I think we are all very fortunate to be doing what we love doing, to be representing our country at the highest level.”
Pakistan has the legendary Zaheer Abbas as batting consultant and Moin Khan as head coach. The two former captains from different generations, Shehzad reveals, are never short on motivating the players. “Zaheer bhai in particular is brilliant. We all sit down and discuss matches, and especially when it comes to the India game, everyone says the same thing – ‘We are going to win the game’. But how do we do it? We all share thoughts, everyone voices his opinion.
“Zaheer bhai is a legend. Cricket has changed from the time he used to play, but he is a brilliant brain. He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you just listen to him transfixed. How much you take out of what he says depends entirely on you, but he talks so much logic that it is impossible not to take what he says on board.”
Shehzad made a hundred in the Asia Cup game against Bangladesh earlier this month, and has also played in the Bangladesh Premier League, so it is no surprise to hear him say, “It’s like home here in Bangladesh. These are good conditions for us. We have been playing and performing in Bangladesh. The pitches will help the spinners and the batsmen, and we have decent capacity in both departments. We have a few world-class spinners in our ranks, and our batsmen have shown what we are capable of. There are no easy games in international cricket, but we are ready.”
Shehzad has already shown that not only can he talk the talk, he can walk it, too. The World T20 offers him a great chance to walk some more.