Made in Canada, toughened in Pakistan
"I don't know my run-up," pace bowler Abraash Khan thought to himself when the Canada Under-19 captain Nitish Kumar threw the ball to him in their opening warm-up game of the 2014 World Cup in Sharjah. Abraash walked back to a point where he felt "this seems about right" and just bowled.
The Canada squad had gone straight to the UAE after months of sub-zero temperatures that did not allow them any outdoor training. There, after just one fielding session and a warm-up match, they were competing against New Zealand.
Abraash, now an allrounder and captain of the side, is the only player from that squad who has made it to this year's U-19 World Cup. He says his team is much better equipped now. The biggest difference, he reckons, is the week-long pre-tournament camp recently held in Sri Lanka. The players washed off their rustiness there before arriving in Bangladesh.
"We lost pretty badly in all games [in Sri Lanka] but nobody was really down about it, we kept getting better," Abraash tells ESPNcricinfo. "In the first game, we bowled around 60 extras. It was the first game after winter and nobody could bowl behind the line."
One of the brightest upcoming talents in Canadian age-group cricket, Abraash was born in Peshawar to Pakistani parents who moved to Canada when he was two years old. He took over the captaincy of the U-19 team soon after the 2014 World Cup and has been relishing it ever since. He says being aggressive, taking responsibility for the team's performances, and his ability to manage older players helped him take to captaincy naturally.
"For my club I would always be captain," he says. "U-15 I was the youngest on the team and captain that year. These kinds of experiences help me develop as a player and person. When you are managing older guys and bringing them together to try and win games, it really helped me out when they made me captain of this team. It's like I've been there before."
When asked who his hero is, he names Imran Khan, who stopped playing international cricket six years before Abraash was born.
"The 1992 World Cup, for a Pakistani that's the biggest thing. It's like the Dhoni scenario - Imran used to bat at Nos. 6-7, and in the final he comes at No. 3 and saves them the game. I just admire that charisma and confidence."
Abraash's Pakistan connections run deep. He was at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore as part of an overseas player programme in 2014 when former Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Akram, in charge of the academy then, spotted him and asked him to join the nets with some Pakistani players the next morning. Akram, also the head of Pakistan's illegal bowling committee at the time, was working with Saeed Ajmal at the time, and Abraash got to rub shoulders with some prominent international players.
"I was bowling with Ajmal, Junaid Khan and Ehsan Ali and batting with Azhar Ali sometimes," Abraash remembers. Young, nervous and anxious, Abraash did not know where he would stand against these international stars he had seen on TV. He returned with immense confidence and a confirmation that he was "doing things right".
"In Canada someone might say you are very good, but someone in Pakistan might say you are very bad," he says. "One of the questions I had for them was, 'Should I actually pursue cricket professionally, am I good enough?' and the responses I got were pretty positive.
"I was asking Mohammad Akram things like how fast he thought I was bowling and he got pretty mad at me and said, 'Why does that matter?'"
Later he also shared the nets with some Pakistan A players such as Fawad Alam, Sharjeel Khan, Imran Khan and Anwar Ali.
"It was easier than I thought because you think that these guys play on TV and they make big runs and take big wickets. Then you see them training with you and you see a good ball is a good ball and a bad ball is a bad ball. That gave me a lot of confidence, even coming into this World Cup. Last World Cup I was pretty nervous. But now I feel like I'm not nervous at all this World Cup because I played with Pakistani players. So it's just playing the game, not the player."
Abraash grew up in Mississauga, close to Toronto. He did not take to cricket just because he was south Asian. He and his younger brother started playing in the neighbourhood and just fell for it, though cricket was not the only sport he played in a country where ice hockey, basketball and baseball take precedence.
"I tried basketball, soccer, tennis and played them for a year or half a year and quit. But cricket I just never quit."
His pace bowling talent was recognised at the Ontario Cricket Academy when he was close to 10 years old, and he was picked for the Canada U-15 squad by the time he was 13. If that rise was not steep already, he became the highest run scorer in his first tournament, despite being picked as a bowler. There has not been a false step since then in a journey he describes as an "easy climb".
One thing Abraash misses, though, is high-performance centres back home, the lack of which hinders the transition of talented U-19 players to the senior level. That, the six months of winter, and the unavailability of players on weekdays due to school or work, are what he thinks hold young Canadian cricketers back.
"Other countries play a lot more cricket than us. For players like [Kagiso] Rabada, in the last World Cup he was bowling around mid-130s and now he's bowling in high-140s. So obviously these players can still improve their games after the World Cups. In Canada, we don't really have that."
Though a big fan of Test cricket, Abraash plays only 50-over games back home. He shares his club dressing room with rising star Nikhil Dutta. An offspinner, Dutta has marked his name on the world stage with CPL and BPL contracts recently.
"Ever since I started cricket, Nick was always the best talent coming up," Abraash says. "As I've grown, Nick's also grown and he's taking big steps. He's on the list for IPL auction as well. It's good to see him doing well, it gives us all confidence and some hope that we could also follow his footsteps."
Abraash is in grade 12 now and wants to make it to the senior side one day but is realistic and practical. "For me school comes first," he says. "Cricket is fun if you become a professional cricketer - then that's great. But it's really based on a lot of luck and if you get injured and all that. It's not really a secure career, so at school my ambition is to become an engineer or go into medicine. Next year I'll be going to university. But missing a month of grade 12 is tough to catch up on."
He stays in touch with his Pakistani roots and speaks Pashto and Urdu at home. And when he's not at the gym, school, or nets, he finds some time for Pakistani music too.
"I love Coke Studio, it's so good!"
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo