In the summer of 2017, three boys from a working-class family travelled by road from Islamabad to Gujranwala, four-and-a-half hours away, to participate in an open cricket trial. They arrived late and were denied entry as the stadium was filled to capacity. The trio had made the journey in peak hours on one of the busiest roads in the country -- the Grand Trunk Road. There was no way they were going back without taking part in the trials. One of the scouts persuaded them to break into the stadium from one of the less-busy entrances. They broke an iron-gate lock and snuck in, mixing with the thousands of boys already inside and waiting for their turn in the nets.
The three boys were all fast bowlers, all tapiyas, hardened tape-ball cricketers. Each one of them was seriously quick and effectively a professional on the tape-ball circuit, freelancing for villages, mohallas and any other team that paid them well enough. The games took them around the country. They had never played hard-ball cricket, nor did they have any ambition to, but the prospect of open trials being held by Lahore Qalandars lured them in. All they had were raw pace and athletic bodies. They managed to clear the initial rounds, but only one made it to the final round of the day. The last session had narrowed down the field from the thousands to the dozens.
It wasn't about bowling accurately as much as it was about bowling as quickly as they could. The one who made it to that final round was Haris Rauf and in that round, the speed gun clocked him at 92.3 mph. Five hundred thousand had turned up over the course of these trials, of whom 145,000 were bowlers.
Officially, the PCB has 3822 clubs registered all over the country, with approximately 80,000 players at the grassroots level. Unofficially, there are millions out in the open, playing cricket daily who never fall into this official circuit.
These trials are part of a Player Development Program that Lahore Qalandars launched in 2016, holding trials from Rawalpindi all the way down to south Punjab. The program has welcomed boys of all ages and from all backgrounds. Some have turned up barefoot and been given shoes. Others have turned up in shalwar kameez and still managed to get a chance to do what they do. Everyone has had a fair chance to bat and bowl with scouts whittling down attendees each day.
Those selected at the end of each trial are organised into eight city-based teams who compete against each other in a tournament that is broadcast every year. The 15 best performers in those games are picked in a development squad, who are then fast-tracked: this squad has travelled to Australia to compete against clubs there. In 2018, the development squad won the Abu Dhabi T20 trophy, an international tournament that included a full-strength Titans side, the reigning T20 champions of South Africa. While the program has taken time to mature, several players are now coming through.
"To identify any talent in the world, you need a few seconds," Aaqib Javed, the Qalandars coach and the man behind the program, says. "If something is natural in you … for instance, it takes just 10 seconds to judge the potential of a singer. Similarly in cricket, if you know what you are looking for, it takes three balls to judge if anyone has basic talent in him. This is exactly what we did in our program. There were hundreds of thousands who turned up and that was systematically filtered through down to the very best.
"The process was stringent enough to catch the good ones. We weren't looking for ready-made players. We wanted players to show potential, and we will invest in them. Rauf had pace, and bowling at 92.3 mph isn't a joke. We saw his potential, and there followed a process of nurturing and developing him. He had the pace, but he needed two years of proper training to become a proper bowler."
Until he was 23, Rauf had no hard-ball experience. He had grown up near one of Islamabad's biggest cricket clubs - Diamond CC - but had never enrolled himself there. The son of a welder who worked for the Public Works Department, Rauf had done his Intermediate and was in the process of completing an IT degree before cricket took over his life. He worked as a salesman at a mobile shop but would make extra money on the tape-ball circuit, playing for teams he had no attachment to other than that they were paying him to play.
If you wanted a fast bowler who can hit the blockhole ball after ball with a tape-ball in those days, the guy to call was Rauf. He was only ever a phone call away and always ready to roll as long as teams could afford his travelling expenses. How did he choose which team to play for? Simple: whichever one paid him the most. A good tournament could make him up to Rs. 50,000 and more. But because tape-ball cricket is not regulated, the earnings fluctuated. There were good days and bad days as far as earning money went.
His parents were never keen that he make a career out of it by playing hard-ball cricket - that was too risky a path. Risky because of the widespread belief that you can only make it with some sifaarish. In a game played mostly by the working class but run by an elite, it's hard to quash the notion that you need the right support from somewhere to elevate yourself.
Cricket was something he played for fun and a little bit of spending money. The priority, while he was studying and then working, was always to make a living. A career in cricket was always the fantasy, but he was hesitant about committing himself to the path that took him there.
"I had never given any trials ever before this," Rauf had said while talking to ESPNcricinfo in 2019. "Never really trusted that there would be a fair trial, and I would be selected. I didn't even play club cricket mainly because I didn't find fairness as they also used to play their own boys. When Lahore Qalandars were taking trials all around the country, I missed the one near my home in Rawalpindi because I had a tape-ball match in Attock.
"But my friends took me along with them to Gujranwala, and it was just an outing and a bit of fun for us until we started competing with each other on who could generate more pace as Aaqib was watching us. One of them hit around 87 or 88, and I wanted to push it further. I pushed my limit and hit 92.3 mph which caught Aaqib bhai's attention and that is where I was selected. It was just one ball."
Rauf was handed a contract and taken in by the franchise for further development. At 5"11 and 71kg, he needed to put on some serious muscle to make sure his body could handle the pace he could bowl at. Qalandars set him a strict training and nutrition plan and Aaqib took personal oversight of his training. He was sent to Australia as part of the program to feature in competitive cricket with Hawkesbury Cricket Club. He made his T20 debut for Qalandars against the Hobart Hurricanes in 2018 and picked up 1 for 23 in Qalandars' defeat of Titans in the final of that tournament. It was then that he was picked by the franchise for the PSL, where in his first season in 2018-19, he took 11 wickets in 10 matches with an economy rate of 7.41. That included a match-winning 4 for 23 against Karachi Kings.
That same year, he hit the jackpot when he landed a Big Bash contract. Dale Steyn's debut in the BBL for the Melbourne Stars was delayed due to an injury. Rauf was already in Australia playing grade cricket in Hobart. Sameen Rana, one of the Qalandars' owners, pushed Rauf as a replacement with the BBL authorities, telling them that if he didn't perform, they never needed to listen to him again.
Rauf was duly picked and quickly became one of the headlines of the season, more than filling his own hero Steyn's shoes. He bowled with great pace consistently and despite playing only 10 games, ended up as the fourth-highest wicket-taker that season with 20 wickets. His strike rate of 11.3 was second only to Sean Abbott's among those who took at least six wickets. The highlight of his season was taking a hat-trick on the same day as Rashid Khan.
Back home, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz were fading away from the scene, and within a couple of months, the PCB had signed Rauf on to an emerging central contract.
"I wanted Haris to be free from the burdens of the legacy of fast bowling in Pakistan, of Wasim, Waqar and Imran, which can weigh a new bowler down"
Aaqib Javed, Lahore Qalandars' head coach
"He is a special character," Aaqib says. "A person who absorbs a lot and is very self-aware. He knows what he is doing and what he wants to do. I have come across so many boys, and a lot of them lose focus easily, but Rauf was committed. The clarity in his mind about what he wants is exceptional. Having talent is one thing, but the basic difference is his determination. All I did was just make Haris be himself."
Playing in an actual cricket stadium could only have been part of the imagination of this tape-ball cricketer who grew up playing on streets and in open, dusty fields. It's still difficult to grasp that in just over two years, Rauf has gone from no experience with a hard ball into one of the hottest commodities at the T20 World Cup.
"Players often come with a lot of misconceptions about the game," Aaqib says. "They think it's just about bat and ball, but it's more than that. You are committing to a profession that takes everything out of you. Only a very few manage to really find the true essence of cricket.
"I wanted Haris to be free from the burdens of the legacy of fast bowling in Pakistan, of Wasim, Waqar and Imran, which can weigh a new bowler down. I didn't want him to feel overwhelmed by me or anyone else. He responded well, and I am proud of him and happy that Lahore Qalandars made a real difference and gave back a superstar Pakistan deserves."