The weight of history is particularly heavy when you represent Pakistan.
There are always callbacks to the Cornered Tigers of ‘92 or the pace-bowling traditions of Wasim and Waqar, and in the case of the junior side in the ongoing ICC U19 Men’s Cricket World Cup 2024, the back-to-back title triumphs in 2004 and 2006.
It’s nearly two decades since Pakistan enjoyed success at this event. They came close in 2010 and 2014, reaching the finals both times, but the trophy still eludes them, even though superstars of the calibre of Babar Azam and Shaheen Shah Afridi emerged through the ranks.
Shahzaib Khan is of course hoping to one day follow in the steps of those two, but his immediate aspirations are simple: “I can’t put into words the feeling of possibly winning the World Cup,” he tells ICC. “For the country and the team, the feeling will be unparalleled if we end up winning.”
Shahzaib has so far done his bit to that end – with an impressive tally of 260 runs in five matches, he sits proudly among the tournament’s top run-scorers.
A high-stakes semi-final clash against Australia awaits on Thursday. With higher stakes comes more pressure, and add to it the weight of history that comes with representing Pakistan, there will likely be nerves.
But Shahzaib isn’t fazed. “We don’t take any pressure, we are playing our natural game,” he says. “We place equal importance on every match. We are putting our efforts into becoming champions this time around.”
That confidence is well founded. Pakistan’s record so far is unblemished, with the team going unbeaten in five matches to make it to the semi-finals. That said, it’s not been without challenges – their fortitude was put to the test in their last Super Six game against Bangladesh, a virtual quarter-final for both sides.
After being bowled out for 155, Pakistan were up against it. However, they showcased resilience with an inspired bowling performance and successfully defended the total, ultimately securing a thrilling victory by five runs.
“There was a bit of nerves when Bangladesh were chasing,” Shazaib admits. “It was a do-or-die match, a virtual knockout. We didn’t have many runs on board, but we knew that the wicket was difficult to bat on and that it would be challenging for Bangladesh to score those runs.
“We wanted to get early wickets and make the chase difficult for them. The pitch was such that it would have been difficult to score the runs despite it being a low score.
“It was a tough match but I feel this was our best performance among the five matches.”
The unity the team displayed during that backs-to-the-wall performance was something Shahzaib speaks of proudly. “If you see our last game when the batting didn’t click, the bowlers put their hands up,” he says. “When the bowlers have an off day, the batters pull the team up.
“It’s a combination of these things that has led to our success. We play as a unit and we hope to continue doing so in the semi-final.”
Even if they don’t make it past the semi-finals, representing Pakistan has already been a dream come true for Shahzaib. The journey began in 2018, in the serene landscapes of Mansehra at the Junaid Khan Cricket Academy.
By the end of that year, Shahzaib had not only embraced the game but also made swift progress, playing in the U13 category and later transitioning to U16 with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“When I started playing cricket, I wasn’t very aware of age-group cricket like U19 and U16 or much about the game,” he says. “But I was always determined to play for Pakistan – I didn’t know how but that was always the goal.
“Once I began (my journey) in 2018, I started to realise that I wanted to become a cricketer. But it was always in my mind that I wanted to represent the country.”
Shahzaib being left-handed, his cricketing idol comes as no surprise – the legendary Pakistani opener Saeed Anwar, who Shahzaib reveals was a big inspiration in how he shaped his approach to the game. Sri Lanka legend Kumar Sangakkara is another name-check when listing his inspirations.
Shahzaib’s rise has been rapid since he joined the age-group ranks, but it’s not all been smooth sailing. He was called up to the Pakistan U19 squad for the home series against Bangladesh in November 2022, but he struggled, scoring just 16 runs in three one-day games. “When I played against Bangladesh in Pakistan, I didn’t perform well.”
However Shahzaib’s resilience came to the fore on the return tour in May 2023. He found his rhythm and scored an impressive 174 in the first four-day match, and soon clinched the Player of the Series title in both the four-day and one-day formats.
Looking back, Shahzaib identifies this tour as the “turning point” in his career. “After that, I have played very well and have been part of all the series, including the Asia Cup and the World Cup,” he says.
There has been no turning back and his performances in the World Cup thus far are testament to his commitment to self-improvement.
For Shahzaib, the U19 Men’s CWC is the pinnacle for a young cricketer, a stage where dreams take flight. The importance of this esteemed event was heightened for Shahzaib when he marked his World Cup debut with a century against Afghanistan in the opener.
“It was a great feeling,” he says. “For a U19 player, there is no bigger event than the U19 World Cup. And for someone to score a hundred on their World Cup debut is a great honour. I was elated to score the century.
“I am happy with my performance in the five matches so far. But I will try to do better and score another hundred in the semi-final to help my team reach the final.”
When asked about his hopes beyond this tournament, Shahzaib Khan displayed that unwavering clarity yet again. “I want to perform to the best of my ability,” he says. “My dream is to play all three formats for the Pakistan senior team and have a long career.”
That weight of history sits lightly on young shoulders.