Shadab Khan's form returns in the PSL, but this time with the bat

Islamabad United's decision to promote Shadab Khan to No. 4 has paid off, with their young captain contributing scores of 52, 39 and 54 not out in three successive games this season Getty Images

If ever there was a scene dreamt up by a T20 nerd, this was it. In their third game of this season, Islamabad United were set 183 to win against Lahore Qalandars, and they had just lost their best hopes of victory in the space of eight balls. Luke Ronchi and Colin Munro were out, and Islamabad's hopes of a positive result were fast fading.

So what did they do? They sent in a man with a PSL average a shade over nine and a strike rate around 109. It felt like a quintessential "this ain't it, chief" moment.

The man in question was 21-year-old Shadab Khan. He is captain of the franchise this season, just three years on from when he made his name as a slight, skinny teenager with a big smile and a bigger legbreak. He might never have been renowned as a batsman, particularly in this format, but Islamabad have always made it clear they would like to see more from him with the bat. His cricketing hero, famously, is Steven Smith, and Khan was, at least, coming off decent form in the recently concluded Bangladesh Premier League (BPL).


Since he first put on the Islamabad shirt, Khan has risen to become one of the country's most prominent cricketers and among the more canny thinkers in Pakistan cricket. Islamabad's eagerness to groom him as captain was evident when they appointed him vice-captain to 37-year-old Mohammad Sami last year.

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"There's a lot of difference between being the T20 captain and the Test or ODI captain," Shadab said when we spoke before the PSL this year. "T20 is very fast cricket and you get very little time to think, unlike Test cricket and ODI cricket. Time is what makes being T20 captain, in my opinion, more challenging than being captain in any other format."

Time is also significant in another way at Islamabad United, in that players who are out of form will, Khan promised, get more of it in the side to turn the corner. "Everyone goes through bad patches and you can't judge the ability of a player on those bad patches," he said. "Make assessments off their entire catalogue, not just their worst performances."

Islamabad will need that sort of faith, particularly as they figure out how to get the best out of a core contingent that has lost its sparkle along the way this year. A number of players who formed the backbone of the team, and indeed went on to play for Pakistan, find themselves struggling for runs, wickets or economy. Asif Ali has dropped out of national contention and is yet to make more than 20 in an innings this PSL season. Faheem Ashraf, Rumman Raees and Hussain Talat, all part of Pakistan sides in the past, have fallen away of late.

"At the BPL, I wanted to show my batting because people were thinking I was finished as a batsman. I worked hard there and got to bat in a few matches"

Khan, however, insisted he was "200% confident" they can be coaxed back to their best. He said the draft was excellent for United, and was especially enthralled by the possibility of lining up with Dale Steyn in his ranks.

"Last year we struggled in the Powerplay because Rumman was returning from injury and Sami bhai wasn't able to deliver the same performances. In T20 cricket, to win the match you need to win the Powerplay, and we were losing the Powerplay more often. By bringing in Steyn, the thought was to get the best new-ball bowler in the world. What we want is for him to come in and take wickets at the top."

Steyn didn't feature in Islamabad's first five games, but that allowed the two-time champions to persist with a strategy that is as simple as it is effective. Their default batting line-up is four overseas players batting up top, plugging a power-hitting gap that has existed in Pakistan for a number of years. Lower down, they have allrounders and pinch-hitters and a handy group of local bowlers, so they haven't missed Steyn too much.

Perhaps it also speaks to the fact Steyn the T20 bowler isn't quite the towering giant he was in red-ball cricket. Still, in their second game against Lahore Qalandars, he did exactly what Khan was looking for from Islamabad's platinum pick, removing Chris Lynn in his first over and effectively ending the chase before it had begun.

The way Islamabad go about picking players in the draft, while keeping their batting order flexible, has bolstered the reputation of the team as the first in Pakistan to rely on analytics to make key selectorial and on-field decisions. The approach works because there is clear communication between the analysts and the cricketers.

"I think Hassan [Cheema] and Rehan [-ul-Haq] bhai [team analysts] are doing those things very well over the past four years, so I leave that side of things to them," Khan said. "But I play a fair bit of domestic cricket in Pakistan, so if I like a player, I tell them and they begin to follow his stats. That's how we found Akif Javed, through Misbah [-ul-Haq, the coach], and our emerging player Abdullah Saifi, who played Under-19 with me. I knew he was a bowler with great potential and was sure he could play at a higher level."

As much as Khan started his career brightly, his form with the ball has become a major concern, and an economy rate of 7.72 at over 33 runs per wicket has not alleviated those concerns; he has never been more expensive or had a more bloated average in any single PSL season.

"In international cricket over the last year, I haven't played well," he acknowledges. "Form isn't as important as confidence, though. If your confidence is there, I think form returns very quickly. I feel very confident after the BPL [but] with the PSL happening in Pakistan, I will find things challenging because the wickets assist the fast bowlers more.

"But I'm challenging myself to maintain my economy and average at the standards I set myself. I've also worked on a few of my deliveries. I had been having a problem with my googly in that it wasn't turning as much as it used to, but thankfully I think I'm getting that turn back."

At the moment, it doesn't so much feel like Khan has suffered a dip in form as much as a career downturn. In 2017, when he exploded onto the PSL scene, he took nine wickets in eight games, conceding 6.61 per over and taking a wicket every 17.3 deliveries. The following year, he took the same number of wickets at an almost identical economy rate (6.54), but his average had shot up from 19 to 32 and the strike rate to 29.4. In the 2019 PSL he took 11 wickets, but the average still lingered above 30. And his economy rate had risen to 7.38.

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That slide with the ball has almost been mirrored in international cricket, in both limited-overs formats. At the start of July 2018, when roughly the first half of his T20I career so far had gone by, Khan had taken 27 wickets in 18 matches at 15.33 and an economy rate of 6.19. In 22 games since, he has managed only 21 wickets, average and economy rate having climbed to 28 and 7.77 respectively.

Since the start of 2019, he has taken only 17 ODI wickets at 41.11 apiece, conceding 5.73 per over - expensive compared to how he had done previously in the format: 42 wickets at 25.02 from 29 matches at an economy rate of 4.64.

His contribution went beyond just the numbers, though. He brought a joyful exuberance to Pakistan cricket. His cheeky sense of humour, the surprising self-assuredness with which he collected his thoughts and responded to questions with actual answers - this is not common for young players in Pakistan cricket - and that Yuvraj Singh review in the Champions Trophy final, where he all but arm-twisted his captain into challenging, successfully, the umpire's decision - it all epitomised the joie de vivre of a young man who was talented and fun to watch.

No one understands the nature of his struggles as much as the man himself does, and far from looking to coast on early reputation, he is voracious in his appetite for trying to rediscover his groove.

"Everyone goes through bad patches and you can't judge the ability of a player on those bad patches. Make assessments on the player off their entire catalogue, not just their worst performances"

"I think players go through good and bad times," he said. "Our culture is such that we judge players on the basis of one or two performances, be they good or bad. So when you are under pressure, it's really important to get out of that space really quickly.

"I believe in trying to play the best T20 leagues around the world, like the Big Bash. Last year, I played the CPL [Caribbean Premier League], and while I played well, I don't think I learned as much from it. This year I'm trying to go to county cricket in England, where the pitches challenge you. I want to improve my red-ball cricket as well as white-ball cricket. The tracks are quite flat - that will challenge me to develop a few new tricks. You need to keep adding to your repertoire to be consistently good in international cricket.

"In the Big Bash, even their young, uncapped players are excellent, and the overseas players are brilliant too. Look at Haris Rauf, who did so well there. He has obviously learnt from the BBL and now he's a much better bowler at the death. The tracks are flat there and the batsmen are great, so if you learn something from there, it's bound to help you in Asia."

Coming back to that promotion to No. 4 in that game against Lahore Qalandars last month - Khan smashed a Man-of-the-Match-winning 29-ball 52 in what turned out to be a last-over, last-wicket finish. For him, it vindicated his decision to go and play the BPL, where he was as much focused on fine-tuning his batting as on getting his groove back with ball in hand.

"At the BPL, I wanted to show my batting, because people were thinking I was finished as a batsman," he said. "I worked hard there and got to bat in a few matches. Internationally, I haven't quite got the chance to bat in the sort of situations that suit my batting ability. I'm not the kind who'll go out there and attack straightaway.

In four BPL innings this season, he made 111 runs at a strike rate of 148 and an average of 55.50.

"No matter how much you work in the nets, unless you get a chance to bat out in the middle, you can't really feel good about your game."

His ability to self-analyse dispassionately could prove to be Khan's biggest asset. And the confidence he gleaned from the BPL stint has carried over into his home league. Since that match-winning half-century against Lahore Qalandars, he has batted in the top five in all of Islamabad United's games, scoring 39 and an unbeaten 31-ball 54. It isn't just that he's getting a chance to bat in the "sort of situations" he likes; he appears confident enough to mould his game to match situations. Out of nowhere, Islamabad appear to have gained a player who could, for now, justify his place in the side based on his batting alone.

Not that he needs to do that: there has been an uptick in Khan's bowling form as well. In the three games in which he produced runs, he also managed figures of 2 for 14, 1 for 33 and 0 for 23. It appears that the changes that needed to be made weren't so much technical as mental.

He was also particularly excited by the increased responsibility of captaincy this season. He name-checked Ronchi and Ingram as players he could call upon for on-field advice, given they had "played nearly every league in the world". He cautiously stepped back from offering any unique insights he might have with regards to T20 strategy, saying, only half-joking, that he was worried "someone might nick my strategies if I go public with them just now". He even had time for a flippant jibe at former Islamabad United head coach Dean Jones, who moved to Karachi Kings this season.

"Of course we'll miss Dean and that red notebook of his. I've never understood what he scrawls in there. It just looks like pictures to me. Only he can understand what he's jotted down, much like only a doctor can understand his own handwriting."

It's a side to Shadab Khan you're best off cherishing for now. The path from enthralling young prospect to jaded, embittered also-ran is depressingly well trodden in Pakistan cricket. There's no indication just yet that it could be the road he goes down, but the scrutiny that comes with being the country's leading legspinner must take its toll on a man who is still exceptionally young.

One day the jokes may blunt, the ideas may dry out, the hairline may recede, but for now, this young captain leads his country's most successful PSL franchise with a boyish enthusiasm that's infectious. He cannot wait, and if it is indeed this Khan the PSL, and Pakistan, begin to see more of, few others can.