Zulqarnain's long road to recognition
"I was 100% certain that I would one day play for Pakistan," Zulqarnain Haider told Cricinfo on the eve of his Test debut at Edgbaston. As it turned out, his first taste of the big time was brutally anticlimactic. He came to the crease with his team in disarray at 36 for 5, and edged his first ball, to fall for a duck to Stuart Broad.
Nevertheless, it's been a long and eventful journey for the 24-year-old wicketkeeper from Lahore, and given the distance he's already travelled, the disappointment of the moment will surely pass. His story began at the Under-15 World Cup here in England in the summer of 2000, in which he participated only six months after his mother's death from cancer.
It was a big step to take for a 13-year-old, never mind one coming to terms with such a loss, but his mother's dying wish had been that one of her four sons should travel abroad. Zulqarnain, the second, was the only one with the talent to excel as a cricketer, and it was the promise he made to her that drove him towards the top. Four years later, at the Under-19 World Cup in Dhaka, he scored a vital 23 not out from 18 balls, and claimed three catches, as Pakistan took the title in the final against West Indies.
Now, in a grimly tragic turn of events, he found himself preparing for the biggest moment of his life with another family trauma hanging over his head. Three days ago, his father, Syed Raza Haider, was hospitalised with hepatitis C. He had an ulcer in his digestive system that caused profuse bleeding, leading to a coma. On Thursday morning, he briefly regained consciousness, but Zulqarnain doesn't yet know if he's aware of the step his son has just taken.
For a man battling with such competing emotions, Zulqarnain's challenge has been to keep a clear head. He thinks cricket has been a good distraction, a comfort blanket through which to relieve his stresses.
"I would like to make a hundred and take 10 catches," he said, when asked about his ambitions for his maiden Test. "And to end up as the Man of the Match."
On the eve of the match he was as excited as any Test debutant would be. The world wanted a piece of him and he wanted the attention. There was nothing wrong with that. But there were plenty of nerves on display as well, especially as he hadn't been expecting the call-up so soon, regardless of the criticism that Kamran Akmal attracted during the Trent Bridge Test. "I had the hopes that I would play at least one Test but at the end of the series, not the second Test," Zulqarnain said.
If there is something he still has in common with the 13-year-old boy of a decade ago, it is intent. Add to that guts. Immediately after the two-day warm-up match against Leicestershire last month, he wandered into the Lord's nets, where some of the Pakistan fast bowlers were preparing for the first Test against Australia. Aaqib Javed, the assistant coach, was looking on as Mohammad Amir, Umar Gul and Mohammad Tanvir gave Imran Farhat a serious working-over.
Zulqarnain, sitting on the sidelines, was getting restless to bat. Dressed in black sneakers and some non-team whites, he looked more like a net bowler than Pakistan's reserve wicketkeeper. Eventually when Aaqib gave him permission, Zulqarnain hurriedly padded up, donned a helmet and took guard on a wicket with ample bounce and movement.
The bowlers laughed and warned him for not wearing an arm guard. "I don't need one," he replied with a boyish smile. For the next 20 minutes he played without getting hit once, and even impressed his captain-to-be, Salman Butt, with his solid technique, keeping the bat close to the pads while still looking to play his shots.
Zulqarnain thinks it was his "outstanding" work in the two-day warm-up game against Leicestershire that forced the tour selectors to keep an eye on him. His acrobatic saves on both sides of the wicket were a happy sight for the bowlers who had grown used to watching Kamran spill extras on many an occasion. At 180cm, Zulqarnain is tall for a wicketkeeper, and he agrees it is an advantage. "My reach is a strong point."
Despite Kamran's shoddy glovework at Trent Bridge, long-term followers of Pakistan cricket believed the team management wouldn't dare drop him. But Waqar Younis and Salman Butt are steadily turning the tide in their own way. The pair believe it is time to be bold, and they have remained transparent in their ways and encouraged every member of the squad to put in effort.
"Even after what happened [in the first Test] I never expected I would still play here at Edgbaston because he [Kamran] is a senior and has been playing for many years," Zulqarnain said. "So to play a youngster in the second Test would not be possible. However, now that they have shown the confidence in me, I need to repay the faith. Now that I've got another chance, I would like to prove and establish myself."
Zulqarnain had reason to be nervous, given it was his Test debut, and the swinging and seaming conditions in England that have sent chills up the spines of many experienced keepers. But he believes he'll be kept in good stead by the basics he first learned on the streets of Lahore, when he used to cope with the wild flight of a tape ball. He developed sharp reflexes and the daring to dive without fear on the hard concrete of his mohallah on Link Road in Model Town.
"One of my acquaintances saw me take some good catches and told me I had the guts and I could play at a higher level," he said. He started playing with older boys and became more popular as a result. Those days of coping with the swift and random swing of the tape ball are bound to come handy now in England, where reflexes and reach are paramount.
Those were also days of wearing torn shoes and torn gloves. Days when passion got the adrenalin pumping. It was also a trying time for the Haider family, with Zulqarnain's mother's cancer spreading rapidly. His father was the lone breadwinner, working at a local factory, but the treatment was expensive and at times the family could not save enough to eat two meals a day. "The injections cost around Rs 60,000 and she needed about two to three per month," Zulqarnain said. "We needed to save every penny."
His elder sister, Any, suffered from typhoid when she was young and in the absence of their mother, somebody needed to take care of her. Zulqarnain's dad made sure that he married as soon as he reached adulthood. "He did not want me to get spoilt," Zulqarnain said with a hearty laugh. The first person he called, a minute after his name was announced during the team meeting on Thursday was his wife, Iqra.
Meanwhile, he hasn't forgotten the promise he made himself after his mother's death. "I promised that the day that I make my Test debut I would donate half my match fee to the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, where she was treated." Fittingly, it is the hospital founded by Imran Khan in memory of his own mother.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo