Muhammad Zaid: son of a tea-stall owner to Pakistan opener

Shashank Kishore in Whangarei

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  “I was walking back home after buying iftaar dinner when I heard the whole neighbourhood yell in frustration,” Muhammad Zaid says, ...

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“I was walking back home after buying iftaar dinner when I heard the whole neighbourhood yell in frustration,” Muhammad Zaid says, not one bit tired after a long training session in Whangarei. He is bursting with eagerness to tell this tale. “Kya yaar, Virat Kohli ko drop kar diya!.” (What man, Virat Kohli has been dropped!) A minute later, of course, he had heard firecrackers going off in Lahore. “Log naachne lage. Mujhe laga Kohli out ho gaya. Ghar waapas aaya and Kohli gaya. Tab mujhe laga ki yeh match hamaari hai.” (People started dancing. I thought Kohli had got out. I went back home and Kohli had indeed got out. Then I felt this match is ours).zaid

The excitement in Zaid’s voice as he describes the night of June 18, 2017, when Pakistan beat India to win the Champions Trophy, is still palpable. It was a moment that fuelled his desire to become a better cricketer and work even harder in his quest to find a place in Pakistan’s Under-19 team for the 2018 World Cup in New Zealand. Three months on, a day before Pakistan’s squad was to apply for their visas for Malaysia for the Under-19 Asia Cup, he picked up a side strain and was ruled out of the tournament.

That was Pakistan’s last big tournament before the World Cup squad came out. The first week of December was spent nervously waiting for the announcement. Once he found a place, his older brothers told him: “Ab tum phatake phodo New Zealand mein.” (Now you set off firecrackers in New Zealand.)

In many ways, this tournament will be Zaid’s first real test outside the subcontinent. But for someone who has already had to overcome a number of challenges and struggles, a lot of which his parents and two older brothers – they’re totally seven brothers and six sisters – have tried to shield him from, this will be a test of a different kind. Set to open for Pakistan, Zaid’s strokeplay and fluency have earned him plaudits already.

As an adolescent, Zaid’s window into the world of cricket was largely an old transistor in his father Alam Khan’s tea shop that used to blare out Urdu commentary whenever Pakistan played. Zaid spent most of his time in and around the tea shop, either helping his father, or playing tape-ball cricket just outside. It was a business Zaid’s father set up 20 years ago at Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore.

The family’s financial constraints came in the way of Zaid’s cricket dreams. At times, when bored, he would run out to play tape-ball cricket in the maidans, but it would make him feel guilty. It was only five years ago that Zaid seriously took to cricket, because his father didn’t want a young boy at an impressionable age to be distracted by the surroundings and go astray.

“PlayStation is not my thing. I watch a lot of cricket. I watch videos of how AB de Villiers plays those scoops and ramp shots, and I try and imitate them in front of the mirror.”

Muhammad Zaid

Alongside cricket, Zaid’s father also wanted him to study, and instructed his teachers to keep an eye on the boy. But he would invariably give them the slip and run off to play cricket. Zaid and his identical twin Waheed were often mistaken for each other initially. A distinct batting style, a high backlift and penchant to hit the ball hard helped Zaid stand out.

Mohammad Akbar Butt, who was the coach at Muslim High School, was also head coach at Crescent Cricket Club in Lahore. He enrolled Zaid for the trials and subsequently got him an entry into the club. This was Zaid’s first initiation into age-group cricket, where his batting stood out among the Under-16s.

At 14, Butt, whom he affectionately calls mamaji, felt there was a bright future for the boy. But there was the matter of convincing his family that there was potential that would go waste if his raw talent wasn’t nurtured.

Zaid’s father wanted his children to study and get a decent job. His oldest son played a bit of cricket before getting into a day job as marketing manager at a healthcare company. His twin and two other brothers, also twins, were academically inclined too; one of them went on to become a teacher at a madrasa. Zaid’s father gave in after Younis assured the family that he was willing to sponsor kits and other facilities from the club’s funds.

“My father thought I would play for two years and then come back automatically and start focusing on studies,” Zaid says with a laugh. “But when I started scoring and got into regional cricket, that is when they believed I had a future.

“They knew I would be adamant,” he says sheepishly. “Till it was time to sleep, I was either playing tape-ball cricket in my colony, or at the nets in the evening. So they knew I had the hunger to play.”

“Bas kar. Rohit Sharma nahi hai tu. Uski record thodna hai kya?”

Zaid’s team-mates react to one of his more adventurous shots

Zaid draws inspiration from Shoaib Malik. His recent stint with the Under-19 team in Australia, where he made a century and one half-century, resulted in Pakistan winning 2-0. Zaid’s balance and awareness of his game, according to his coaches, has been a standout feature. It’s his cricket ka keeda (craze for cricket) that keeps him hooked to YouTube videos of cricketers and famous matches on loop.

“PlayStation is not my thing. I watch a lot of cricket. I watch videos of how AB de Villiers plays those scoops and ramp shots, and I try and imitate them in front of the mirror. The other day in Australia, while we were playing the one-day series, I tried to get down on one knee and flick. My team-mates later told me: “Bas kar. Rohit Sharma nahi hai tu. Uski record thodna hai kya?” (Stop it. You are not Rohit Sharma. You want to break his record or what?)

He hopes to one day be able to play shots like those, but for now, he’s been trained to play in the “V” and not do chaalbaazi (trickery) – as his elder brothers called and told him soon after the match.

Zaid remembers being particularly captivated by the World XI series in Lahore. He braved the immense security to watch each of the matches. “I hadn’t seen any cricket in the stadiums, so to see top players in the world live was an amazing feeling. I was all the more motivated to score runs and thought to myself how I’d feel if I score runs in front of such crowds one day.”

Zaid’s team-mates describe him as quite a prankster, who indulges in lot of leg-pulling and typical desi masti (typically local fun). He isn’t fussed about food, and tries to soak in the culture wherever he goes.

For now, apart from trying to learn his trade and improve with the bat, he’s also hoping to pick up proper English. New Zealand’s “fast English” leaves him confused, he says with a laugh, but he is determined to converse. “Galti se hi seekhonga na?” (I’ll learn only by making mistakes, right?) he asks. “Mujhe seekhne ka shauk hai. Cricket ho ya English.” (Learning is a hobby for me, be it cricket or English). You couldn’t have asked for a better attitude, could you?

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