Facing the media for the first time since his recent selection, Sharjeel spent a lot of time defending himself against insinuations
For most players, a meteoric comeback to the national side four years after a player’s last involvement would be cause for unbridled joy and celebration. But in the case of Sharjeel Khan, things aren’t quite as simple. This was a player who seemed to fill a niche nakedly absent in Pakistan’s T20I set-up about half a decade ago – that of a power-hitter up top – and seemed earmarked for a lucrative career in the T20 game. All of a sudden, then, things imploded, and any hopes of involvement at the highest level seemed remote.
The factors counting against Sharjeel’s inclusion have been numerous, at times overwhelmingly so. He was among a slew of players found guilty of spot fixing in the PSL in 2017, and alongside Khaled Latif, handed the longest sanction: a five-year ban (half of it suspended in the left-hand batsman’s case). Upon expiry of the ban, he returned to fierce criticism from PCB CEO Wasim Khan, not normally known for singling out players, lambasting him for turning up to the PSL unfit. Now that he has finally been selected after he was the top-scorer in the truncated PSL, chief selector Mohammad Wasim’s decision to include him – purportedly in contravention to the wishes of several senior members of the PCB’s management – continues to cause rumblings of discontent.
Facing the media for the first time since he was chosen for the T20I squad that will play a handful of games in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the opener was forced to spend much of it defending himself against insinuations that he was still unfit for international cricket. On more than one occasion, he pointed to the amount of cricket he had played in the last six months, insisting it vindicated him.
“Fitness is not an issue for me,” he told an online media conference. “I have played the full domestic season, and missed no match in seven months because of fitness. Every player has a different kind of fitness, and the plan I have been given I am following to the hilt. I am very happy to come back into the Pakistan side. I worked very hard, played a full domestic season, the whole PSL. It made for 60 playing days during which I played with full focus. The camp is going well, the environment is great and I just want to continue the hard work.”
While former head coach Mickey Arthur had taken an inflexible, uncompromising hard line of fitness using a one-size fits all approach, there have been suggestions the current heads at the PCB are more malleable in their viewpoint. Mohammad Wasim spoke last week about different attributes required of different kinds of players, and while Sharjeel claims he accepted he needed to continue working on his fitness, he appeared to suggest his skills with bat in hand were ultimately what counted.
“Being a professional cricketer, I am focusing not just on fitness but also on my batting,” he said. “Fitness is not everything, though of course it is very important, but I am working on my skills to a great extent, too. I am thrilled with my comeback, though I am aware the tour will be challenging. There are the one-dayers first, so that will give me time to suss out the conditions. I want not just to give good individual performances, but those that help the side out.
“Fitness is required of everyone. The fitness session I conducted yesterday was an individual session. I had been given a plan by our trainer Yasir Malik. I’m trying to improve my fitness as soon as possible. I had a training session over the day that required a 15-kilometre drill – not in one go, but over the day. I was happy with how it went, and I am continuing to improve. Nobody has set me an ultimatum to reduce weight. Nobody has set me a task, I am just trying to reach a certain standard consistent with that of my peers.”
Uncomfortable questions about the past still surfaced, though Sharjeel claimed he was never once made to feel unwelcome with the national side, despite the damaging cause behind his lengthy exclusion. “These are the same group of players who have been playing each other in domestic cricket. The environment is great and I feel really good, and I feel very comfortable with the players. Nobody has come up to me and told me I should not be selected. My focus is completely on performance.”
In different circumstances, Sharjeel’s inclusion might have been one of the feel-good stories of the tour. While that is very much not the case for now, Pakistan’s cricket history indicates just about everything can be forgiven as long as the performances continue to flow. In that sense, for a man who had everything taken out of his hands four years ago, Sharjeel may yet be in control of his own destiny.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000