As Steve Smith blasted his bat onto his pads in anger after holing out in the deep, his hangman, Shadab Khan wrapped his palms over his face, before he was deluged by his onrushing teammates. He was so over-joyous that he didn’t know how to celebrate. He had not only dismissed the greatest Australian batsman of his time, but his idol.
Last year, during the PSL, he was asked who he aspired to be. Without any hesitation, he replied: “Steve Smith.” A few breezy knocks later, a lot of his fans started likening him to Smith, even calling him, Mianwali ka Steve Smith.
Mianwali, a farming district on the banks of Indus in the Punjab provinces has bigger sheher ka heroes. None more majestic than Imran Khan, who has been closely following his fellow Mianwali.
So is Misbah-ul-Haq. Shadab, though, was quick to stub that comparison.
“I don’t think I can be compared to him (Smith), who is a legend. I am nowhere near him. It is too early to compare me with anyone,” he said with a calmness that belies his age, a trait that has been the hallmark of the 20-year-old.
Two balls before the Smith dismissal, David Warner had slaughtered him over his head. A natural reaction would be to shorten his length a fraction.
But Shadab, unflustered, went the other way. When Smith returned to strike, he went slower and fuller. Due to the slowness the ball held a bit off the surface, consequently, Smith could not get fully beneath the ball. It was a classic snapshot of how he gets his wickets.
Not with expansive turn—he possesses a ripping wrong one nonetheless and can impart decent side-spin on his leg-breaks too—but with subtle variations in pace, trajectory and angles that he prises out his wickets.
The wrong’un, in his hands, is softening the batsmen tool. The one that puts doubts in their minds, the one that conjures illusions in the eyes and mind of the batsmen.
But when he started off all he wanted was to turn the ball. Turn the ball a mile, turn the ball like his idol, another Australian, Shane Warne.
He would spend hours filing through the spin wizard’s collection of 708 Test wickets on Youtube. The favourite was the Shivnarine Chanderpaul dismissal, the one that spun not one mile, but a couple of miles, from a rough outside the off-stump and knocked his leg-stump out.
His first action was a Shane Warne Xerox, but nimble-footed boys in his locality would step down and wrist him through the leg-side. That’s when he burned his leg-spin ambition and dedicated more hours to his batting. So crazed about batting that he nearly forgot leg-spin, but for the intervention of his former club coach Sajjad Ahmed.
“Shadab was so interested in batting that at one time he quit bowling, but I advised him to consider becoming an all-rounder, then he would have a better chance to play top-level cricket and he complied,” he once told The Dawn.
By then, though, the Warne in him had died. His action had become quicker and whippier and his craft had become more pragmatic, whereas it was once romantic. There is no flash about him, his wicket-balls don’t stamp themselves in your psyche. Worse, you forget that he exists. He operates like a phantom—he’s there, yet he’s not, in the shadows.
But he gets wickets in crucial junctions of a game. Like when he outfoxed Warner and brought Pakistan back into the game. He beat the rampaging Warner to his biggest strength, floating one across him and baiting him to a staple drive, only that he had reduced the pace of this ball, coaxing Warner to slash at the ball with hard hands and heavy foot. It’s not a delivery that you fall in love at first sight. You need several replays to fall in love with his craft.
The same applies for both Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh dismissals. To Maxwell, he spun one away off a good length. It was a risk, for Maxwell is efficient at reverse-shots. But he relishes embracing such risks, finds joy from getting batsmen out playing their favourite shots.
Marsh’s was a simple two-card trick, a ball away from him, and another into him. To perform simple tricks efficiently is his biggest gift too.
But the night he took out his idol, and furnished breakthroughs in every over of his, was to end in tears, as Pakistan crashed out. But the best, to go by his preternatural maturity and mastery of his craft, is yet to be. Maybe, one day, he could yet be the Steve Smith of Mianwali.
Or better, the Steve Smith slayer from Mianwali.
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