In the small village of Katlang near Mardan, a boy named Fakhar Zaman would often daydream of becoming Pakistan’s Adam Gilchrist. He was a dashing left-handed batsman too, like his idol. And he wanted to open the innings and hit the ball out of the park, also like his idol. But before he could pursue his dreams, family compulsions came calling.
At just 17 years of age, Fakhar was thrust into the responsibility of becoming a breadwinner. It was 2007 and his family were in dire financial straits. An able-bodied young man, Fakhar was forced to take an induction test to join the Pakistan Navy as a sailor. Although he passed the test and bagged a decent-paying job, young Fakhar wasn’t too happy. “I didn’t want to do what I was doing,” he narrates.
He trained hard in the navy for one year, waking up before dawn, going on miles-long runs, then going to school and later playing a sport in the evening. After his first year, the young sailor was sent to Karachi for further training at the PNS Karsaz and PNS Himalaya. Although Fakhar was only leaving home on a professional assignment, Karachi would change his life forever.
He shot to prominence in the Pakistan Cup but getting to this point has been far from smooth sailing for the man from the village of Katlang
At PNS Karsaz, Fakhar ran into Nazim Khan, coach of the Pakistan Naval Cricket Academy. Fakhar expressed his desire to play cricket and Nazim welcomed him to the fold.
“I asked him before the match what he was all about,” recalls Nazim. “He told me he was a left-handed opening batsman so I sent him to open the innings. Lo and behold, he scored a century! His talent really caught my eye.”
Nazim subsequently recommended Fakhar to Azam Khan, renowned for grooming and promoting young cricketing talent in the city. Fakhar didn’t take long to impress Azam either as he scored a half-century in the first inter-district U-19 game played at the Asghar Ali Shah Stadium. His knock included four sixes.
By then, Nazim Khan was convinced that Fakhar’s future lay in sports rather than in service. He lodged an application to release Fakhar as a sailor but to re-induct him into the navy as a professional sportsman. Fakhar’s family were apprehensive but Nazim swayed their opinion. The application was approved and Fakhar joined the navy as a professional sportsman in 2008. A special clause was inserted into his contract: he could be rehired as a sailor if he failed to make the grade in cricket. Fakhar went on to represent Karachi U-19 and Karachi U-23 before making it to the first class level.
“Fakhar was undoubtedly a very diligent cricketer and worked hard at his game,” says Nazim. One such example is the countless number of hours he has spent practicing the pull shot through a bowling machine delivering balls at a speed of 95 miles per hour.
But financial insecurities at home and some failures on the field often made Fakhar doubt himself. Was it worth it? Was he chasing a pipe-dream? What if he failed? What if he couldn’t make a living out of cricket? It was during those difficult times that his mentor Azam Khan cajoled him, motivated him and kept pushing him — something that Fakhar remains eternally grateful for.
“There have been a number of times when I thought of quitting cricket. One of them came when I was playing a senior district tournament and could only score 25 runs in the first three games,” he recalls. “Azam Bhai told me, ‘whether you score a duck or a century, I won’t drop you.’ I scored three consecutive 150 in the next three outings and topped the Karachi district for runs scored. It was the last time I thought of leaving cricket.”
Despite the support of Azam Khan, Fakhar soon became impatient about playing first-class cricket. He tried to find an easier way to advance in the domestic circuit — a mistake that landed him back in Mardan.
“I tried to play for Mardan. I was innocent. I thought it’s difficult to get selected from Karachi as there is tough competition. I didn’t see too many players in Mardan and I thought I could easily get through from there … but I couldn’t,” he explains.
Azam Khan was extremely cross with Fakhar for having left Karachi and didn’t speak to him for six months. But when he did, he advised Fakhar to return to Karachi. “Azam Bhai said, ‘If you play from Karachi and perform, you will easily get noticed. The media here also supports these players.’”
Fakhar returned to Karachi in 2011. The next year, Pakistan were making their debut at the 2012 International Defence Cricket Challenge in Australia, which is a world cup of sorts for forces personnel. Fakhar propelled his side to the final and Pakistan eventually returned home with the cup. This proved to be Fakhar’s last cricketing assignment with the navy; he left the navy as a professional cricketer in 2013 and signed for domestic giant Habib Bank Limited.
“When I was in the navy, I’d live inside the PNS Karsaz premises. After leaving service, I lodged with a friend in his apartment for two months,” says Fakhar. Although he was living his dream of playing cricket, life on the outside had its own challenges.
“When I visit Karachi now, I stay in an academy named Motivators Academy, which is situated in Manghopir. Three or four of us sometimes sleep in the dressing room or other rooms, and if the weather is pleasant outside, I don’t mind sleeping under the open skies either,” says the opening batsman.
Despite boasting an inspiring average of 31.31 in T20 cricket, Fakhar was ignored in the first edition of the Pakistan Super League. He was in the draft in the emerging players category, but no one picked him last year. He hopes this year will be different and he’ll get to prove his mettle for one of the five franchises.
But when it came to the Pakistan Cup, Fakhar was picked by the Younis Khan-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the draft. He scored 297 runs in five matches at an average of 59.4. He opened for his team alongside Ahmed Shehzad and the duo dominated bowling attacks throughout the tournament.
In the final, Fakhar delivered a man-of-the-match performance with a mesmerizing 115 runs off 111 deliveries. “I give all credit to Ahmed Shehzad for my performance. He is a great stroke maker. I wasn’t under pressure as he was scoring well from the other end. He advised me not to play a rash shot and to keep the scoreboard ticking,” he narrates.
Fakhar’s Pakistan Cup performance even drew praise from his navy trainer and coach. Nazim had wanted to mould Fakhar into a silky smooth timer of the ball à la Saeed Anwar but ran out of time as Fakhar left the navy. But his former coach was pleasantly surprised at the poise with which Fakhar constructed his innings in the Pakistan Cup final.
“It was the best of him I have ever seen. He used to be a predominantly leg-side and risk-taking player, but it was pleasing to see that he scored 65 percent of his runs in that innings on the off-side and he did so while playing risk-free cricket, says Nazim. “I wanted to turn him into Saeed Anwar, but Saeed Anwar was Saeed Anwar of his time and he is Fakhar of his era.”
The young man from Katlang recently travelled to England with Pakistan-A and is currently on tour in Zimbabwe. His exploits at the top have seen him secure the spot of opening batsman for the A team, with his 180 against Zimbabwe-A in Harare, the pick of his innings.
With the senior Pakistan team experimenting with openers, Fakhar’s performances will surely be under the microscope. Two of his team-mates from the England tour, Sharjeel Khan and Babar Azam, have managed to install themselves as fixtures in the senior team. Their success gives Fakhar hope that he, too, can get a look-in at some stage.
The writer tweets @ArslanShkh
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 16th, 2016