KARACHI: Playing for Pakistan at 18, emerging as the leader of the team’s bowling pack and being named the ICC Cricketer of the Year — all in the space of just four years — is not stopping Shaheen Shah Afridi from learning and striving for more.

Perhaps it is his humble beginnings as a tape ball cricketer in Landi Kotal’s Tatara Cricket Ground that serve as a reminder for the 22-year-old to stay grounded. What he is experiencing, after all, and as he admits, is nothing less than a dream.

“It is indeed special to see your dreams materialise so quickly,” Shaheen told Dawn in a video interview on Wednesday.

For a regular young man or a woman, born at the turn of the millennium and belonging to the ‘Gen Z’, this could’ve been too much success to handle. Stardom at this stage can change people. Shaheen has turned out to be different.

“I’m the same Shaheen, the one who got selected in the [Pakistan] U-16s,” he said with an introverted smile on his face, adding: “I’m very grateful to have started playing cricket so early and then not only representing Pakistan but also performing for the team.”

Since being recognised as a 16-year-old with pace and a two-metre body in a talent hunt programme and starting as junior pro for Fata, Shaheen broke through the age-group ranks and made his debut for Pakistan in 2018 before his blistering rise to fame.

This wouldn’t have been possible without him being special naturally. Shaheen, however, doesn’t believe in giving up on discipline.

“I think I’m god-gifted with my abilities and that is why I’ve progressed so quickly in my career,” he said. “But still I have belief in my training and I’m sure the more I train the more I’ll improve.

“I think if I keep working on my fitness and stay sincere with myself, things will only get better.”

Though individually blessed, the lanky left-armer believes that the team comes first and that there is always room for improvement — the principles believed to guarantee success.

“Changes keep taking place and the learning never stops,” said Shaheen. “I try to keep improving in bowling, batting and fielding.

“The team comes first and then it is about me.

“I want to become the number one bowler in all formats and wish to help Pakistan win more matches.”The urge to keep learning has also helped Shaheen evolve as a leader. He didn’t think twice when he was offered to lead Pakistan Super League outfit Lahore Qalandars before this year’s edition of the cash-rich tournament.

“Leadership does look easy from the outside but it isn’t and that is because you’ve to be responsible for the whole team and at the same time ensure your performances are consistent as well,” said Shaheen.

Not many would have expected what unfolded as he went on to win his first PSL as captain while also finishing as the highest wicket-taker in the tournament.

For Shaheen, apart from managing himself, a captain should be a great man manager and motivator too.

“Reminding the players about the positives from a match they’ve lost is better than appreciating them when they win,” he said.

“Every player knows it when they don’t do well, but when you talk about the good things they did during that match makes the team stand up.

“I did so with Lahore Qalandars and thankfully it worked.”

Shaheen said he would be “proud” to lead Pakistan if provided the option too. However, he backed current captain Babar Azam and Test vice-captain Mohammad Rizwan.

“Babar is the captain right now and he is doing really well and then there is Rizwan; I think these are our two captains, said Shaheen.

“But let’s suppose if an opportunity [to lead Pakistan] comes up, it will be a proud moment for me.”

Under Babar, Shaheen said, the Pakistan camp has “gelled well” and the players are constantly backing each other. The current group will have its next shot at a trophy when they play the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year.

Shaheen said it was too early to think about the T20 showpiece. After their upcoming two-match Test series against Sri Lanka, Pakistan play a host of T20 matches including the T20 Asia Cup.

“We have a Test series coming up and then the Netherlands tour and then 15-16 T20 games before the World Cup which are most important for us,” said the pacer. “As a team we have small goals and we are focused on them.”

Pakistan kick off their Sri Lanka tour with a three-day warm-up match before playing the first Test from July 16 and the second from July 24. Shaheen believed the role of the fast-bowlers would be limited in the series but expressed confidence in the team’s squad’s strength.

“Records say spinners are always dominant in Sri Lanka and we have good spinners,” he said. “Yasir Shah’s inclusion has made the team stronger too.

“Bowlers switch roles according to the conditions at play. If there is more support for the spinners, the pacers have to help them get more wickets and vice-versa. However, as a fast-bowling unit, we’ll try to get breakthroughs for Pakistan.”

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2022

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