Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000
It's often said Pakistan is a nation that places too heavy a burden on young talents looking to make a splash in competitive cricket, a country that expects the world of its youngsters and gives them fame and fortune much too easily. They are showered with praise and swarmed by fans. Everybody wants to be their friend, and everyone is kind to them.
There wasn't much kindness on offer when 20-year old Azam Khan made his debut for Quetta Gladiators 18 months ago, though. When the visibly nervous young man walked out in the Powerplay against defending champions Islamabad United, the feet weren't moving, the hands weren't loose, and the runs weren't coming. He hung around for a scratchy 12 off 15, and was off the pace in the field. To protect him, almost, from the relentless mockery and contempt he faced - he was benched once more.
Let's get one thing out of the way, Azam was never good enough, or fit enough, to play at that level last year. The son of Moin Khan, and one of the most exciting power hitters in the country, would come to realise batting at the Moin Khan academy was rather different to facing the world's best in the Pakistan Super League. And he needed to contribute more in the field. He was overweight, and it was that appearance, and his relationship with Quetta Gladiators' coach Moin Khan, which served as the catalyst for the criticism, more so than any cricketing value he might have to offer his side.
"I fully realise that I was overweight last year but I have reduced [my weight] more than 30kgs," Azam told the PCB's in-house website pcb.com.pk. "My ambition is to work even harder now and especially on my fitness. I still have a long way to go and I know I have to keep myself grounded if I have to achieve sustained success while further improving my batting skills."
He didn't play another T20 for nearly a year, before he was thrown in against the same opposition in the first game of this year's PSL. He may still have needed to work on his fitness somewhat, but there was little doubt he was sharper, both in his physique and his technique. Taking charge of a stuttering chase, he smashed 59 off 33 to power Quetta home. Two matches later, a Player-of-the-Match 30-ball 46 served up a further reminder of this exciting young Pakistani batsman, and while he fell away during the latter part of the campaign, his form has returned in style in the ongoing National T20 Cup.
A 43-ball 88 for his side, Sindh, helped them trounce Northern, the top-performing team in the competition. He's fitter than ever without losing any of that power - the 19 sixes he's hit are the most for any player in the tournament besides Khushdil Shah. And after that match-winning knock took Sindh to the semifinals, he's fast becoming Sarfaraz Ahmed's team's trump card, a wrecking ball that bowlers would rather find ways to sidestep.
"Tape-ball cricket helped me develop big-hitting; I started playing cricket at a semi-professional to professional level at a young age which further enhanced my batting skills," he said. "I really enjoy practicing big-hits during nets and range-hitting sessions and I really back my ability of clearing the boundary which brings me a lot of joy.
"The year 2020 has been a great one for me despite the Covid-19 situation that held all of us back for a considerable time. I am very happy I made most of the opportunities provided to me by Quetta Gladiators and now this National T20 has been a wonderful experience that I am thoroughly enjoying.
"The seniors in the Sindh team like Khurram Manzoor, Sharjeel Khan, Sarfaraz Ahmed and Anwar Ali have supported me wholeheartedly and I am really enjoying their company and learning so much by both sharing the dressing room with them and taking the field."
It would be irresponsible not to make the point Azam is fortunate to have had the opportunities that might potentially have put him on the cusp of breaking into the national side. Moin is one of Pakistan's most well-known cricketers; his uncle Nadeem Khan also played two Test matches. His father established the Moin Khan Academy in 2000, and Azam's first cricketing memories include playing there. Few cricketers in his situation might have got a look-in to a PSL side in the manner that he did, and he is effusive in his gratitude to his father.
"My dad has supported me throughout, I feel indebted to him and at the same time it is such a wonderful feeling to be backed by a legend of the game. He understands everything and is very rarely fully satisfied with my performances, as he always wants me to strive harder and harder. I really want to make him happy and proud of my performances and that matters the world to me.
"We talk a lot about cricket and have quality discussions at home, which are a big opportunity to learn about the game at a young age. "My dad and I watch a lot of old Pakistan matches together and discuss the details of the game and have some very healthy conversations which I thoroughly enjoy."
No young cricketer deserves the level of ridicule Azam was subjected to when he made his T20 debut. But in coming out the other side, the 22-year old has shown that beneath an exterior he is still working to get into tip-top shape, he possesses an extraordinarily thick skin he need not shed. Not if he is to make it in Pakistan cricket.