Usman Khan cuts against Islamabad United | AFP
Usman Khan cuts against Islamabad United | AFP

An artist’s work holds no significance unless it can be seen. And Usman Khan was an artist, or at least he himself believed so, as he toiled hard in the club cricket grounds of Sheikhupura as a youngster, a decade or so ago.

Usman wanted his work to be seen, to figure prominently in people’s consciousness. That did not happen in Sheikhupura. Nor did it happen in Karachi, his next destination as he sought cricketing prominence. Frustrated, he then packed his bags and flew off to the United Arab Emirates to have another shot at his fate.

Fast-forward three years. Usman would smash the Pakistan Super League’s fastest century, off just 43 balls, for Multan Sultans in Rawalpindi in 2023. A year later, he would finish as the second-highest run-scorer in the T20 extravaganza, just under Babar Azam and with four innings less than the former Pakistan captain, and hitting two unbeaten centuries in his seven outings.

He had finally arrived at the centre stage he had always dreamt of. However, not as a Pakistani, but as a foreign player.

Pakistani-born Emirati cricketer Usman Khan made everyone sit up and take notice of his exploits in the recently concluded Pakistan Super League. Could he still play for Pakistan?

Usman’s home town Sheikhupura falling in the talent-rich Sialkot region, when he was in his early days as an aspiring cricketer, made it too competitive for the opener to make it to the top level.

He moved to Karachi in 2012, playing with the likes of Sarfraz Ahmed at the famous Pakistan Cricket Club and featuring in Ramazan Twenty20 tournaments. For all that hard work spanning eight years, however, all Usman could get were two Quaid-i-Azam Trophy matches and a few outings in the premier First Class tournament’s second XI division.

“At that point, I had accepted that I can never play for Pakistan,” Usman tells Eos.

Aged 23 back then, he had a plan. “I knew if I played domestic cricket in the UAE for three years, I could earn a chance to feature in big tournaments.”

But living in the emirate of Ajman, where Usman settled, comes at its own cost and, to fuel his passion, Usman had to work hard to make ends meet. He would work as a security guard and as a storekeeper, while also burning the midnight oil in corporate tournaments. “I struggled in the UAE because, without a job, you have no chance there,” he says.

Just a year into his time in the Emirates, Lady Luck finally smiled on Usman, when he was picked by the Pakistan Super League franchise Quetta Gladiators for the 2021 season of the league. Although he couldn’t make a mark through that opportunity, PSL’s name on his CV earned him a place in the Bangladesh Premier League in January 2023. Usman registered his first T20 century for the Chattogram Challengers in that season, turning his life around.

Two months later, he featured for Multan Sultans for the first time, and emerged as their main player in this year’s edition. With the T20 World Cup round the corner, Usman became the talk of the town, and the mystery of the town as well.

Who was this Pakistani player playing as a foreign player in the PSL? Could he still play for Pakistan? Could he play for Pakistan in the T20 World Cup?

Usman will be eligible to play for the UAE national team in almost 14 months and that’s what he is at least seemingly aiming for. The explosive right-hander, however, knows that his performances are being hailed by Pakistani fans. “I know what people are saying about me, but I’m not so sure [about playing for Pakistan],” he says.

Usman has his set of views about why it is so difficult to be an international player for Pakistan. “There’s so much competition, you don’t know if you’re going to play the next series,” he notes.

“In other countries, players are told clearly about the opportunities they are going to get. Here in Pakistan, people don’t even spare Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, who are so consistent, so I at least don’t stand a chance.”

While playing for his country of birth may still be a complicated question, Usman is grateful for the platform PSL and BPL gave him to show his magic with the bat. “Leagues like BPL and the PSL surely help in terms of making fans remember you,” observes Usman. “So when I get to play in these leagues, I always wish to perform well enough for the world to remember.

“For me, cricket is about performing extraordinarily.”

In the recently concluded PSL9, Usman piled up 430 runs, with a staggering average of 107.5, including two centuries — off just 59 and 50 balls — and as many half-centuries.

He posed a constant threat to bowlers and was recognised for taking games by the scruff of the neck. Usman has developed this level of explosiveness through his experience in the UAE.

“I play four to five corporate T20 matches in a week in Dubai, and have been doing so in Pakistan as well, since I didn’t get to play in the National T20 Cup,” he says.

“In such matches, you play against four good players, while the rest are mostly amateur, so there’s always a chance to take them on.

“When I put 50 on the board, I am used to looking for a hundred, which has become a habit.”

With “lack of intent” being bandied about as Pakistan’s batting weakness in the T20 format, Usman’s emergence may give the newly appointed national selectors a good headache.

However, even if there’s a chance of him playing for the national side, it has to be Usman who selects Pakistan, and not the other way round.

The writer is a member of staff. X: @shabbar_mir

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 31st, 2024

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