Everyone has a story about how they got into cricket. What's yours?
I started watching my cousin, who played for Rawalpindi Rams and was the only one playing cricket in the family at the time. Otherwise we are into tent-pegging and horse-riding. I am the only one who has reached the highest level in cricket.
I developed my interest in cricket in 2015, picking up tape-ball cricket. Then my father's friend taught me to play hard-ball cricket and asked my father to let me join his Al Faisal cricket club. Some six months later, in 2016, I appeared in Under-16 trials and was selected to play for the regional side. Next year I went on play in the U-19 circuit but only played one-dayers, no three-day games.
In my second year in U-19 cricket, in 2018, I scored runs and I was called up to the national team as a reserve for the Bangladesh tour. My first tour was to Sri Lanka in 2019 and then to South Africa. I had good numbers and I was later selected for the U-19 Asia Cup.
Two-thousand twenty was a great year for me. I played the U-19 World Cup and first-class cricket. That is where my career path found a direction towards the national team.
I picked up cricket because I was enthusiastic about it. I never imagined I would play for Pakistan. It all started with hitting the ball over the boundary in tape-ball cricket and being applauded for it. When I look back, it was just fun. I was too young to make up my mind about what I wanted to do. I didn't have a sense that there's a bigger stage outside Attock [a city in Northern Punjab, about 85km from Islamabad], with a large audience, bigger expectations, and bigger stakes.
A sense of representing the country only started to come when I entered a proper pathway. There are hundreds of boys from around the country competing against you, so you have to do your best to be different. I scored runs, but luck also plays a part.
Your father's friend made you play hard-ball cricket, but who spotted your talent in it?
In 2016, a PCB selector, Kamran Khan, came to my region for U-19 trials. There is a trend in smaller districts that when a national selector comes, you get him to check out the best player in the town. I was called and when Kami bhai saw my hitting in the nets, he said, "Tum player bano gay," [You will become a big player]. That was the vindication [I wanted], a relief for me, clearing doubts in my mind.
Years later, I met him when he was the Karachi Kings coach and I reminded him of his words. He did remember saying it but wasn't sure if the boy was me. He was surprised I still had those words in mind. He is proud of me and I am proud of myself that I came a long way.
You have had a lean patch recently, but you still have a big future ahead of you. How do you look back on your time in international cricket so far?
Everyone learns with every passing game. I think nobody is 100%; you can't be. Batting is a much more difficult job than bowling because a batsman [can be dismissed off a single mistake], so I try to give my best in training and in the game. I make sure I move ahead with learning from mistakes. The rest, I think you will get what you have in your destiny.
I did well in 2019 in first-class cricket. In 2020, I had a good time in the PSL and performed well in England and in the Zimbabwe series. On the New Zealand tour and after that, I couldn't perform [well], but that doesn't mean I quit. I am doing extra practice. I am still fresh in the team. I give myself seven out of ten.
Has international cricket been harder than you expected?
Of course, it's not easy. I still have to score runs, but now there are more eyeballs and expectations. Every day is a challenge. The pressure at the international level is immense as compared to playing for a regional team. You have to be quick to learn things, otherwise you will be left behind. It's not just me. The pressure is the same for someone who has played 200 games. I am still young in the team and experiencing things, and thankfully, I am getting the support I need. My basics have never changed. It's about understanding your game. The more I play, the more I learn, the higher are the chances of me performing.
During the lean patch, did you doubt yourself?
You doubt yourself only when you haven't performed. I did great in domestic cricket, did well in [my] early T20I games for Pakistan, and I'm evolving in my role with the team. I know things can go wrong and that's part of the game, but the day I start doubting myself, that is the end.
The self-doubt has been left behind long ago. Kamran Khan telling me that I will become a big player is what I have remembered. I am lucky to have had some great coaches in my early days who made me believe in myself. Sabih Azhar and Bilal Ahmed, at regional level, made me play every single game in U-16 and U-19 as part of my development just to make sure I don't lose my confidence.
When did you figure out how you wanted to play the game?
It was [Mohammad] Akram bhai in the PSL who urged me to play with an open mind. They [the Peshawar Zalmi franchise] told me to play without fear. Daren Sammy figured out my role, set a pattern and told me this is how I should be playing. When I was picked [in the PSL] in the supplementary category after my first-class stint, I had no clue what role I would get and where I would be playing. To be honest, I never thought I will play a single game in my first PSL season. But then I scored a 17-ball 70 against the Quetta Gladiators during a practice game in Karachi and Daren told me I would become the best emerging player.
I think where I am right now is mainly because of Peshawar Zalmi. If they hadn't made me play in the top order and given me the confidence, I might not have ended up in the Pakistan team.
You first made your name with 645 first-class runs at an average of 49.61 and a strike rate of 57.95 in the 2019-20 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. But in the PSL you were told to go after the bowling and hit at a higher strike rate. Was that a big shift?
I grew up hearing coaches say that there are all sorts of players but the best one is the one who adapts to any type of condition and situation. Your game keeps evolving and you learn to control it. If you are asked to play Test cricket, you play accordingly. I remember playing my first first-class game and scoring 99 in 250 plus balls [208 balls] against Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Abbottabad. I was surprised by how I managed to spend that much time at the crease. Since then, I am playing mostly T20s and ODIs, but I will definitely go back [to the long format] when I get a chance.
Before you worked with Pakistan's batting coach, Younis Khan, did you ever have access to a batting coach? Did having those inputs change how you look at your career now?
When you have a bad patch, you think a lot about the problems you are facing. But Younis bhai has been giving me a bit of motivation. He tells me that once you get into a phase, you will be consistent in scoring runs. He keeps emphasising that, telling me not to lose my head, because technique wise, everything is perfect. When you are not scoring runs, you overthink your game, finding fault in your head movement or the movement of your legs. He asked me not to think about it. He gets me to practise, makes me play every shot with every angle, and makes me believe everything will fall in line. It's about getting the right practice and hitting balls in the nets.
Does a change in the batting position affect your confidence?
I think I am young, evolving my game, learning every day, and the batting order is something my team decides. Wherever they ask me to bat, I will play my part. I know things haven't been great lately, but I can tell you I don't really know what I am doing wrong. The only answer I get is that I am inexperienced right now and the more I play, I will get better.
I have been prepared for every number I played at. I am open to any number at this early stage of my career. I am sure soon I will figure out where I want to play. For now, I am leaving it to my elders to decide and I trust them - they are obviously working to develop my career.
What are you thinking when you face your first ball of an innings? Is it different for each format?
I have broken it down between white- and red-ball cricket. I have played mostly white-ball cricket and have a similar mindset to tackle both one-dayers and T20s. But if I go back to playing the longer format, I am sure I will catch up with an aggressive mindset. I don't know yet how I will respond because it's been a while, but I can tell it will be different [from T20]. That is automatic, because you set your mind to play at least 200 balls [in long-format cricket]. In T20, I am out to attack, which is my defined role, and I have the licence to go all out to give my team a brisk start. If the pitch is good, the conditions are suitable, why not get the maximum out of the ball?
If I come from a longer format to play the shorter, it's easier to adjust, but going up from shorter to longer makes you confused. Because with more T20, you give your mind the signal to go aggressive all the time. Then going up to Test cricket doesn't help. But when you come from Test cricket to shorter formats, you have had enough [experience] in terms of hitting the ball on merit. You have patience and the tendency to play the ball on merit. It makes you mature in picking your shots.
Do you think you need to tone down your attacking instincts a bit?
See, I made my name with the game I am playing with. There is no problem with it. Of course, I have to pull myself according to the situation, but when the run rate is going smooth and the team needs me and I slow down for myself, then it's unfair to the team.
One thing I have learned quickly is that in cricket, every day is a new day and you have to start over again. If you had scored a hundred, that doesn't ensure another hundred in the next game. You have to build from scratch again. Everything will be different - how you feel, how the opponent comes at you, and how prepared you are. Another thing I have learned is that you can't joke around with your cricket. It's a serious business.
How much has it helped you to be around a player like Babar Azam and to work with someone like Misbah-ul-Haq?
They are very keen about their profession and their work ethics. Their perceptions about the game are very interesting. Misbah talks a lot about cricket. He is always processing things in his mind. Babar's dedication to the game is extraordinary and this automatically brings success. I speak to Babar about his game and how he actually feels at the pitch. He once said that he feels pressure for the first few balls but after middling four-five balls, he starts to get in his groove. This comforts me. If Babar Azam feels that way, there's nothing wrong with me feeling under pressure. It's natural.
Do you feel there is a difference between playing franchise cricket and international cricket?
Not much, because it's about pressure and that's the same everywhere, from club level to top level. The first five to six balls define everything. If you hit them right, everything will be the same afterwards, no matter what format or level you are playing.