So how old was he really? Was he eligible for Pakistan’s U19 squad still, or was he a 28-year-old who had never made his mark in the domestic game? Those were the questions being asked at the Gaddafi Stadium among whose job it is to know everything about Pakistan. The confusion came from having differing sources, but by the end of the day everyone knew who he really was; by the end, everyone needed to know who he was. At the start of the T20 Cup for Departments, even in this hallowed hall, Usman Khan Shinwari was an unknown commodity.
It’s a tale that exists in all sports cultures, none more so than cricket. The story of the demon fast bowler waiting to be found; somewhere in a remote village he terrorises everything that moves. The bowler need not even be a speed merchant; as long as he is taking wickets, his fame spreads. Yet even in the era of over-exposure and club cricketers putting up their “Best Of” compilations online, there are still those who can surprise. Throughout the T20 cup that finished earlier this month, that role was held by Shinwari. Until the final he had been impressive, without being otherworldly. A true modern-day Pakistani quick – he can swing the ball (even if it is in only one direction), he generates pace and he bowls left arm. Sohail Tanvir without the action, if you will; only with enough time on his side to develop more than one arrow in his quiver. Yet as recently as May, when Wasim Akram held a camp for the best quicks in Pakistan, he didn’t make the cut. But by the time the final of the T20 event finished, more than one person had laid claim to having “discovered” Shinwari and inducting him into an underage team in Abbottabad.
Going into the final of the T20 cup he had been troubling the batsmen enough for it to be noticeable. Only once did he take more than a single wicket, but his economy rate had been under six – a measure of how well he’d bowled considering most of his overs had been in the powerplay or at the death. So it was a given that he was going to be difficult to handle when ZTBL set SNGPL a huge target of 185. But for him to singlehandedly destroy the top order of the best domestic team in Pakistan over the past 18 months, that is what made him the talk of the stadium. By the time his first two overs had finished, the match was over, anticlimactically. Suddenly, every fan was licking his lips. Shinwari had finished with 5 for 9, helping him become the leading wicket taker in the tournament. His wickets included the scalps of Taufeeq Umar, Muhammad Rizwan and Misbah-ul-Haq. A star was born.
The reason the tale of ‘a diamond waiting to be found’ exists is because of the hope that the fans have, especially when the national team isn’t performing, that there is something better off that exists. In a country where the national mantra might as well be about the hyperbolic belief in being the most talented people in the world, this desire often leads to unreasonable expectations – particularly from raw youngsters.
A tradition in Pakistan cricket, throughout the 80s and 90s was to throw the cub in, and see if he floated or sank. It made quite a few careers, none more so than Wasim Akram's, who made his international debut in his first season in the first-class game. Similarly, Mohammad Zahid a decade after Wasim, and Mohammad Amir a decade after him, made their debuts after only a single season of senior cricket – neither really doing what Wasim did, becoming instead two of the great ‘What Ifs’ in Pakistani history. In recent years, Pakistan have tended to move away from such follies, two decades of throwing in kids who weren’t good enough was lesson enough – surely a player needed to understand his game before he was pitted against the best in the world. In Shinwari, a star had been born on that night in Lahore, but it could well be a shooting star, never to repeat his most famous feats – the Anwar Ali of this decade.
And yet, Shinwari’s late selection for the Sri Lanka series makes sense.
Using the same logic as applied to so many players who debuted in the 90s, if he’s good enough then he’s experienced enough. There is no harm in the best and most experienced players in Pakistan having a look at him from up close – judging his bowling in the nets and his temperament outside. And he has nothing to lose, even if he doesn’t play. A taste of the highest level can either go to his head and throw him off his game, or hopefully, be a tangible motivation when he is inevitably dropped.
There are obvious, and necessary, questions that have been asked after his inclusion. This, lest we forget, is a player who only made his first-class debut this season. Until the final of the Department T20 he had never had a five-fer in his senior career. Is it too much too soon? Does he deserve to be selected when those that have performed year in, year out are still ignored? Does this not smack of the messiah complex that Pakistan suffers from in sports and otherwise? Can you really judge a player based on two over spells? What message does it send to the rest of the domestic players – that it is more important to shine in the T20s once than to convince consistently in the longer formats?
Those questions will have to wait. If ever there was a time to induct a young ‘un it is now – in a team which finally has a happy disposition, and can afford to rotate in a low profile series. Shinwari will never have a night like last Tuesday again – now there are expectations.