Shadab Khan is Pakistan's Mr T20, and it suits him fine
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, he says he loves data, he loves batting at No. 4, he knows bowling legspin is his calling card; he wears his fame lightly and at 24, he isn't about to lose perspective
Shadab Khan laughs bashfully, hesitates. He could easily go through the motions, answer the question in the most inoffensive, prosaic way, and get the interview done with. But spouting banal platitudes about T20 cricket he doesn't believe in won't work for him. And so, while trying to clear his fatigued mind - he has just arrived in Australia - he starts to answer.
He's been asked to rate, on a scale of one to ten, Pakistan's reliance on data analytics in T20 cricket, holding his franchise, Islamabad United, as a constant at ten on that scale. "It's a tricky question," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "Franchise cricket is mostly data-based, whereas I think nations don't rely on data to that extent. But, then again, in franchise cricket, even if you lack something, you can fill those gaps with overseas options. You can't do that in international cricket."
It's a diplomatic answer, but also a deeply thoughtful one. It's what makes Shadab perhaps the most fascinating character in this T20 line-up. His career rose at the cradle of the data revolution in Pakistan, when United were becoming dominant forces in the then-nascent PSL. The franchise made no effort to conceal their belief that data analytics and match-ups were at the centre of the future of T20 cricket, and Shadab bought into the concept whole-heartedly.
Empirical evidence suggests the national side wasn't quite sold on the idea for quite a while longer, and comparing the way Shadab has been used by franchise and country throws this into the sharpest relief. Shadab batted in the top four 29 times for domestic and franchise T20 sides - doing so for the first time as far back as the 2018 PSL - before he first reprised that role with the national side.
It has paid off in a statistically significant way, with his strike rate batting in the top four rising to nearly 147, a full ten runs higher than when he bats lower down. The most obvious explanation for this is Shadab's predilection for attacking spin; he's arguably Pakistan's best hitter of slow bowling.
That reflects well on him, but even so, Shadab throws in a caveat. "As an allrounder, you're a bit more fearless with the bat compared to specialist batters. Because you know if it doesn't come off with the bat, you have a second skill to fall back on. [Mohammad] Nawaz and I played for our franchises up the order and we performed there, too. But we're bowling allrounders. Batters, by comparison, can't be as fearless.
"I've now stopped caring what people say. When I return home at night I just assess myself and ask myself if I gave my all. If I did, then it's fine"
And then some. Coming on while Pakistan stuttered in a chase, Shadab smacked the first ball for four before tucking into the match-up he favoured most, against legspinner Ish Sodhi. In six balls against him, Shadab hit 19 runs, including two fours and a six. It broke the back of New Zealand's low total, and a game that threatened to turn into a scrap ended up in a canter for Pakistan.
So why had it taken so long for Pakistan to cotton on to the fact that this was the most effective way to use Shadab the batter?
"We wanted to give our middle order the chance to bat at their designated positions so they could feel more confident," he says. "We wanted them to carry the confidence of runs under their belt going into the World Cup. It is a position where we have struggled in the last 12-18 months. What we lack in domestic cricket is a depth of middle-order performers; even in domestic cricket, the guys performing bat at the top of the order. The middle order has had plenty of unnecessary pressure placed on it."
But Shadab's primary skill, as he's keen to point out, is bowling legspin. Having celebrated his 24th birthday earlier this month, Shadab is already Pakistan's second-highest T20I wicket-taker with 87; a solid World Cup in Australia should see him go past all-time record holder Shahid Afridi (97). Despite his youth, he is one of Pakistan's most seasoned T20 cricketers, experience his side will need to draw on in Australia where, aside from himself and Haris Rauf, most of the side has played almost no T20 cricket.
"Different grounds pose different challenges. In Brisbane, there is extra bounce so you have to use pace. The square boundaries are large and the straight boundaries are short. So you have to use the bowlers' pace," he says. "The guys I played with here used to use the bowler's pace. In Asia, we don't get that kind of pace or bounce; you have to generate it yourself. You don't have to do that here. You have to be flexible with what ground you're playing it. Whether the square corners have large boundaries or the straight, you have to adapt."
Shadab's game is so all-round it gives him a level of flexibility even a contortionist might envy. In the BBL as well as the PSL, he hasn't been averse to bowling in the powerplay, even opening the bowling in the BBL. With Pakistan, he has become a valuable go-to option through the middle overs, where a blend of economy and potency means he almost always bowls out by the 16th over. He has also become far more frugal with the ball over the past two seasons after a difficult couple of seasons prior. Between July 2018 and December 2020, his economy rate had surged to 8.03 with his average doubling from around 15.33 to 30.19. But, since 2021, the economy rate had dropped down to 6.81, and the average to 21.79.
"I think my judgment of how to use variations has definitely improved," he says. "When you get experience, you understand which variation to use and when to use it. I've been playing for a long time, so I can judge it better now.
"I didn't change much, I kept things simple. I used to try and do something extra, looking to get a wicket with every ball. But now I've developed my own theory. I'll just bowl in the right areas. If those balls still go for runs, I don't really care. Sometimes you can be hit for six off a good ball and get a wicket off a poor one. But I can recognise that that wicket was off a bad ball. So I just try and bowl good balls, and not worry about the runs and wickets. I just want to keep my plans simple."
"When we were young, we used to say, 'oh, as long as you beat India, nothing matters'. So there's some unnecessary pressure that can come. But we've beaten them a few times of late"
But Shadab also accepts he's less likely to bowl up top for Pakistan simply because, in Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris and Naseem Shah, Pakistan have three of the best new-ball bowlers in the world. And with no place for legspin at the death - unless your name is Rashid Khan or Wanindu Hasaranga - the middle overs are the most obvious time to throw in four overs from their frontline legspinner.
Shadab may geek out over the latest T20 strategies, but back in the subcontinent, the game currently commands the attention of millions of casual observers who don't get, or care about, match-ups. India are about to take on Pakistan in a T20 World Cup, one year on from Pakistan's maiden win over their rivals in a World Cup game.
The players on both sides get on with one another, but even at the best of times, the relations between the two nations don't get much warmer than an uneasy truce. To add further intrigue, the build-up to this game was overshadowed by a contretemps over where next year's Asia Cup (where Pakistan are the hosts) would be held, and if Pakistan would participate in the 2023 ODI World Cup, to be hosted in India.
Shadab has a sharp brain for T20 cricket, and that means he recognises when a matter concerns the heart rather than the head. "There's pressure playing against India. It's a different kind of pressure because of the atmosphere generated on both sides," he says. "When we were young, we used to say, 'oh, as long as you beat India, nothing matters'. So there's some unnecessary pressure that can come over you. But we've beaten them a few times of late. The team that starts well in this format is the one that's successful, but now that we've beaten them in a few big games, the pressure that used to be on us is now on them."
This tournament has set just about the perfect platform for Shadab to showcase his talent. He's in form, and just shook off a niggle during the series against England at home, and says he understands his body much better now. He's finally being used the right way. He is just entering what should be the prime of his career and is one of the most marketable cricketers in Pakistan. He is a clever batter, an excellent legspin bowler, a gun fielder. He's vice-captain of the Pakistan team, and captain of United.
The gratitude he expresses doesn't seem feigned, but that doesn't mean all of this hasn't come at a cost. Everyone wants his time and attention, and the criticism can be as toxic as the adulation overwhelming.
"Fame can be tricky in our culture, because our personal lives are scrutinised a lot," he says. "I've seen a lot of criticism at a young age. Our personal lives effectively come to an end. In other countries, players still enjoy their own private lives, but ours comes to an end with fame. If you're enjoying your personal lives, that can be viewed in a negative light. And god forbid if you don't perform, people say your focus has been lost. But I've now stopped caring what people say. When I return home at night I just assess myself and ask myself if I gave my all. If I did, then it's fine."
Such burden on 24-year-old shoulders can wear anyone down, but for now, Shadab stands tall enough to carry it. Of course, it helps if those shoulders also carry a wise enough head to understand his craft without allowing him to lose perspective. On those counts, Pakistan's premier short-format allrounder has little to worry about.