Ravi Bopara patted the ball down towards point and set off for what he probably thought was a routine single. He knows the PSL as well as anybody. Last year he was Man of the Tournament, and as a bonus, he was initiated into off-field Pakistan, having to take over as captain of an unhappy Karachi side after Shoaib Malik abruptly resigned. He has played enough Pakistan sides too, so that, at the time of playing this shot, he would have been pretty assured in his estimation of what was likely to happen.
He must have thought - reasonably so, let's be honest - that the fielder at point, Pakistani, would run in to the ball at the wrong angle. And that he would be slower than a point fielder he might come across in other leagues (in the Big Bash, Bopara might not have attempted the single at all). Or that he would fumble the pick-up. And if he did do all that right, there was no way he'd hit the stumps. No way. And if he did, then the throw would not be bullet enough to beat him, a first-world batsman, fitter and quicker than most Pakistani batsmen the fielder would have thrown against. The best the fielder could hope for was that he might end up looking good, just with zilch outcome.
Except that this fielder did everything right. Attacked the ball. Did so from the right angle. Kept his eye on the ball as he picked it up. Was moving as he did. Left arm came out to steady and take quick aim. Let go like a baseball pitcher. The throw was Ravi Shastri - tracer bullet - bouncing once before hitting the top of the stumps. This was slick, seriously dance-move slick. Bopara was a good foot short. How was he to know?
In real time, and on first glance from the open-air press box in Sharjah, the reflex was to think it must have been one of Islamabad United's foreign players. But who? Sam Billings was boundary-riding. Shane Watson was at first slip, and anyway he stopped moving like that last century, if he ever did. Brad Haddin was next to him, with the gloves on. Dwayne Smith would have covered that ground over the course of a year maybe, not milliseconds.
Then, the revelation on replay: Shadab Khan. Pakistani. For real?
For the disbelievers, the entire sequence duplicated itself next ball. Babar Azam dabbed to point. In scurried Shadab, same pick-up, same speed, same slickness, except this time he missed. Good thing too, for had he hit, it would have torn a massive hole in the continuum of reality as we know it, because how many Pakistanis have ever pulled off two run-outs in two balls?
This whole business - a little play of ultra-modern fielding by an athlete from cricket's least modern fielding nation - it eventually turned out, was no accident. Shadab loves fielding. When he was first getting into cricket, in a house of older brothers, fielding was often all he got to do in organised games. And he loves it in spite of the fact that he grew up fielding on grounds that are deathtraps for athletes. He recalled in an interview to his PSL franchise, Islamabad United, the days he used to fling himself around on rough, non-manicured outfields, strewn with stones and pebbles, uncaring of what damage he inflicted on himself. So much so that Mohammad Nawaz, a club team-mate then, and an international one now, would tell him to hold back a little and not hurt himself. In Pakistani attitudes to fielding, Nawaz's caution is the rule, not the exception.
So fielding isn't just a discipline for Shadab - that thing you to have to do to while away the time between the really important stuff in cricket; it is a habit, maybe even an act of faith, dutifully carried out and unquestioningly adhered to.
It helps that physically he looks like a stray from an academy set up for Arsenal midfielders who have accidentally fallen into cricket: small, wiry and lean, but quick, skilful and smart about the areas and spaces around him. It's easy to get carried away, forgetting that not too long ago Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad in the circle were dragging Pakistan forward with them into a new fielding age. But in light of how drastically Pakistan's fielding was exposed the longer the tour of Australia went on - forget the drops, balk at the weak arms, the lack of athleticism and endurance - it's impossible to not get carried away.
The rest of the package isn't just an afterthought either. No country falls harder for the googly than Pakistan. Shadab's, right now, is so fresh and new, it's like being around a newborn: every time it appears, whatever it does, we coo and go gaga. Already it has its own highlights reel - and if you're a member of the Akmal clan, the solemn advice is to look away now. Kamran, Umar and Babar Azam - the last not once but twice - each done by it at the PSL like they were Englishmen facing Abdul Qadir. The promising Fakhar Zaman, meanwhile, was leg-before to a legbreak, but that was a goal-line tap in. The googly the ball before, which Zaman was beaten by, was the weapon that had run through half the side and left the goalkeeper for dead. Chadwick Walton, Shadab's first international wicket, has an undergrad degree in accounting and a recently completed Masters in sports science and marketing, but in this school for reading googlies, he failed.
Pace has done for most of them, at least as much as the length and degree of turn (and he does get break, both ways). Imagine if Shahid Afridi had a proper, back-of-the-hand wrong'un that spun (and not just the one that went on with the angle), or if Qadir or Mushtaq Ahmed bowled theirs quicker - imagine but don't be wedded to the image, because it's not really that either. It is its own thing. So far, off a smallish sample, it doesn't look like it is read easily from the hand, but that will change. It will not always be as new as it is now, especially because he bowls plenty of it - seven in his first four international overs, for example. But it is probably no bad thing in limited-overs cricket. Imran Tahir's has never suffered from over-exposure.
"If he can get his batting anywhere near Steve Smith's level at little or no cost to his bowling, then forget Smith, we're talking Garry Sobers, and so, basically, we're talking impossible"
Caution, though, because Shadab is so young and because the environment he is in is bursting with cautionary tales. Countless are the ways in which Pakistan cricket can corrode him. One would be to not know what he is. He counts Steve Smith as his role model, which is admirable and also confusing. Does Shadab want to be Smith as he is now, a modern giant of a batsman and all but forgotten legspinner? In which case: Shadab's bowling already looks too developed for anyone to be forgetting it. And if he can get his batting anywhere near Smith's level at little or no cost to his bowling, then forget Smith, we're talking Garry Sobers, and so, basically, we're talking impossible. For now, all that can be said is that he can bat.
Or is he talking about the first Smith we saw - a legspinner who could maybe bat a little? And if so, does he understand that that Smith only survived and became this Smith because he had the good fortune to be Australian? Sure, Australia floundered with Smith for a while, but at least they were patient enough to not give up on him, and the environment was enabling enough for him to figure out what he really was. In Pakistan, Shadab can only draw upon unconvincing precedents. Such as Afridi having no idea what he was for an entire decade, and his career ending with plenty of electric moments but essentially unfulfilled. Or one and a half decades of Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez being so mouldable and adaptable, like putty, that they end up being… what really? Or Abdul Razzaq, a boy prodigy consigned now to a career lived brightest in memory, via YouTube? Being an allrounder is a fraught business in Pakistan, especially when the team is in such dire need of one.
But all this is for another day; these headaches will come when they come. For the here and now, enjoy the scenes of a boy with the world opening itself up in front of him.