Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo
Sometime in 2012, around three years on from his first-class debut, Mohammad Rizwan confronted a career choice. And as this is professional sport, let's recognise the reality and call it a life choice: get it right, survive, hopefully thrive; get it wrong, say hello to a life that begins with a snowflake of regret and ends in a snowball of bitterness and anger.
To an extent he had already made it. He was playing first-class cricket for Peshawar and had a job with WAPDA, a prominent department, where, potentially, he could end up playing for their side with its attendant attractions of better cricket infrastructure and a secure financial future.
Now, however, SNGPL - the domestic powerhouse of the day, who had nearly half the Pakistan side in their ranks - came calling. Rizwan had attracted the attention of their coach, Basit Ali, during a Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Division Two game in October 2011. Rizwan, a wicketkeeper, wasn't even playing that game - he hadn't played a first-class game for two years. But - and this is a very Pakistani story - he came on as a substitute for Riaz Afridi (older brother of Shaheen), who had broken his finger, and took a catch at third slip. This must have been some catch because Ali decided then that he needed Rizwan at SNGPL. When, just over a month later, Rizwan played against SNGPL - this time in the division final - and scored 46 and took eight catches, SNGPL made him a formal offer.
Here was the choice. Stay with Peshawar, keep working at WAPDA. He was averaging over 40 with the bat but playing with and mostly among weaker regional sides - a growing fish in a smallish pond. Or move among the whales of the ocean but as a tiny fish. He sought advice from several people. Every single one told him to stick with what he had, because at least he'd be playing regularly. At the star-studded SNGPL there was no guarantee of first-team action. The sole dissenter, an old coach of his, said he should move, because even if he didn't get into the XI, at least he'd be learning around the best players in Pakistan.
Rizwan moved. In his first innings for SNGPL, he top-scored. Against WAPDA.
Every choice reveals a trace of its maker and in this choice was an early idea of the kind of person Rizwan might become. Unafraid to move against prevailing opinion. And given that he swiftly became a mainstay in that elite SNGPL side, a confounder of people's expectations.
In the years since, it has all crystallised into the more concrete shape we see before us: arguably Pakistan's most important cricketer after the 2019 World Cup. All of what came before makes the most sense right here in this rich phase of his career.
That he became a cricketer against the wishes of his father. That he was called "Jonty" when growing up in tape-ball cricket because he didn't care about terrain when diving around. That he would wake up at dawn, first for Fajr prayers and then practice, a time of day when every cell in every human's body rebels against that exact act.
That his wicketkeeping credo is that he'd rather break any bone than let a ball go past him because leaked runs are a pain that will never go. That no bitterness emanates from him from the time of Sarfaraz Ahmed's captaincy, when there was a near-paranoid aversion to picking Rizwan as a back-up in the Pakistan squad. That despite being warned by Mickey Arthur to expect bouncers on his Test debut and to be judicious, he told him, "Mickey, I don't leave bouncers, if I get one I'm going to play it." That he then did get a bouncer first ball and that he hooked it straight to the fielder at deep square leg. That he then didn't play another Test for three years but said he'd play that way again because the hook is his shot. That, when he returned to New Zealand four years later and Pakistan had lost two wickets in the previous over, now as a stand-in captain he hooked the first bouncer he faced five balls into his innings.
That he plays while fasting when he could well afford to miss fasts and make up for them later in the year. That he went to England last year having never kept there before, and - in conditions acknowledged as the toughest for the uninitiated - was flawless. And not least, that when the situation spells trouble and doom for everyone, it makes the mood for him; that what this means in plainer terms is, since the start of the England tour last year, he has arrived at the crease at Nos. 6 or 7, with Pakistan, on average, 115 for 4 or 91 for 5, and he has averaged 55.83 and 47.8 respectively, with a hundred and five fifties altogether in those situations.
Challenge him at your peril. Question him with extreme caution. Best idea? Don't, because he'll make you look silly.
Still, it's one thing to shatter people's expectations or go against received wisdom. To do what Rizwan has done in the last few months as a T20 batter goes far beyond merely proving people wrong. What he has done is prove himself right: infinitely more challenging - but rewarding - because unlike the praise of others, self-acceptance can't be faked.
He is unrecognisable from the T20 batter he was this time last year. In one way that's easy because he wasn't a T20 batter this time last year. By the start of 2020, Rizwan had played 95 T20s with a strike rate - 115 - that never let any conversation about him as a format player begin. In the 2020 PSL, he played two games for Karachi Kings, faced one ball, and was otherwise understudy to Chadwick Walton. That did that not feel unjust.
Suddenly now, since December last year, he has been among the leading T20 batters in the world. In that period, Rizwan tops ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats batting rating charts for batters who have played at least ten matches (114 players in total). Given we're in an age where batting roles are becoming increasingly separate and specialised, it's a little unreal he has done this while simultaneously becoming Pakistan's most reliable Test bat.
The biggest difference is that he is now opening. Before 2020, Rizwan had opened eight times in 75 innings in all T20s; since then he has done so 26 times in 33. Much of that was down to the domestic sides he played in already having settled openers. Nobody ever considered him an opener, despite Rizwan knowing he'd be good at it. No surprises that it took him becoming captain for him to start opening consistently, at the National T20 Cup last October, for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Yet though he ended up as one of the tournament's highest run getters, Pakistan most likely would not have opened with him had it not been for Babar Azam breaking a thumb on the tour to New Zealand. Until then, Rizwan's T20I career was much like his T20 career. He had batted at seven different positions in 15 innings until he opened in Auckland; in domestic T20s he hadn't batted more than a quarter of his innings in any one position. Nobody really knew what kind of T20 player he was, or whether he even was one - other than Rizwan himself.
And then, having been criticised for two innings of 17 (17 balls) and 22 (20), he hit a 59-ball 89 in the third game, an innings that has become a fair template for how he operates best. He was energetic through the powerplay with 29 off 23, rather than shredding it apart; there was an extra gear available depending on circumstance through the next phase, with 41 off 27; then a blitz of 19 off nine through the death.
Since the start of December in all T20s, Rizwan's strike rate through the three phases is 133.55, 132.24 and 201. He can go harder in that middle phase (post-powerplay to the 16th) and as in Auckland, often has done. His striking at the death is no small deal in Pakistan's context.
That's kind of a point about this run, that Rizwan is often enough found at the death. Eight times in the 18 innings in this period, in fact. The run has seen him hit a hundred (at the time, only Pakistan's second in T20Is), a pair of 80s, a pair of 70s, and an unbeaten 91. These are daddy T20 scores.
Big individual scores are slippery measures in this format, even if, in this case, each of those six innings led to a win and - an even more slippery measure - four match awards. Instead, an instructive gauge is the trade-off between the time he spends at the crease and his boundary-hitting. In this period, 30 batters have faced at least 300 balls in all T20s. The median balls-per-boundary (BpB) of these players is 5.6 and Rizwan's is 5.4. It's a tight list outside the top three: Jos Buttler, with a BpB of 4.9, is fifth while Rizwan is 14th.
But among batters with a better BpB than Rizwan, nobody comes close to matching his consistency in keeping it going - his average, in other words, of 73.4. Devon Conway is next best and not really close, averaging 58.7 with a BpB of 5.3. In the entire list of 30, Baroda's Kedar Devdhar's average is closest, at 69.8 but his BpB is 6.7. Rizwan goes big, in other words, and he can go hard.
The plank, by all accounts, has been an expansion in the range of his shot-making. But equally it is that we are only now discovering the T20 game he has never been able to show us. That range, by the way, is not just about different shots but also different aesthetics, like he is mimicking different strands and traditions depending on what shot he's playing. His driving, for example, works off fairly orthodox but minimal movements. The timing in these would be unmatched were he not in a batting order with Azam and Mohammad Hafeez.
There's some give in those wrists when he goes square, for glides and glances. But when he pulls or sweeps, he brings big, dirty violence to it, uncaring of how it looks as long as it works. All through, as he harries runs, it's very street. It doesn't sound like it should come together as it does, but it does.
T20 being such an oniony format, where layer upon layer of data can be peeled off endlessly to reveal new, often conflicting truths, there is a legitimate conversation to be had about his role and position - not so much about Rizwan as about his opening partnership with Azam. Worlds apart as batters, their role in a T20 innings as high-functioning anchors can feel a little samey in impact. In Rizwan's case his death-overs strike rate sets him slightly apart, and it's worth noting that his powerplay strike rate since December is hardly tardy: 133.55 makes him 11th best (among those who have played at least ten innings), not far off Buttler and ahead of Jason Roy, Martin Guptill, Azam, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan.
But because both Rizwan and Azam play to bat long, it brings into play that pre-eminent modern philosophical tangle of T20 - of the most efficient and effective use of batting resources. In Pakistan's case specifically, it amounts to asking whether Rizwan and Azam are making up for a misfiring middle order or making it harder for them (by leaving them with fewer deliveries to play with).
That's for another time, though, because in this moment in Rizwan's career it doesn't feel an urgent question to address. Or maybe eventually he will, like with all questions that have been asked of him, answer it in a way that makes it feel that it should never have been asked in the first place.