Some cricketers – precociously talented – get fame, riches and acclaim at an early age. Others have to work hard in order to make up for their lack of talent. But there is also a third kind; those who have always had the required talent but were still forced to struggle. Sohail Khan is of that ilk.
Born in the village of Sahakot in Malakand Agency, Sohail always loved sports – be it swimming, kabaddi or cricket – but his father Syed Nawab Khan was not supportive of his son playing cricket. “My father used to break my bats,” he said.
Sohail had to turn to kabaddi in order to keep himself fit. His heart, though, always yearned for cricket. “In our village, kabaddi was played very regularly and I also used to swim upstream for long periods to build my stamina and lifted oil cans filled with cement,” he recalled. “With those exercises, my body became really solid for a 16-year-old.”
With a ridiculous amount of talent and a body to further go with it, there was a chance that it would all have gone to waste because of his father. And so in desperation, Sohail decided to leave. “I moved to Karachi with my cousin Umar Farooq Khan and lived in his house while my younger brother Murad Khan supported me throughout,” he said. “I used to only play with the taped ball, but when I first bowled with the cricket ball, I absolutely demolished the opponents.”
But even the country’s largest city was not kind to him. The speedster was not included in Karachi teams, be it grade-II or first-class sides, despite being the fastest bowler in the city after Muhammad Sami.
“I was never considered by the Karachi City Cricket Association for either grade-II or first-class team, which really affected me but I kept on believing in my ability,” Sohail told The Express Tribune.
Sohail was finally noticed in a club match when he came up against Malir Gymkhana, which boasted the likes of Latif, Younus Khan, Asim Kamal and Khalid Latif. From there, Latif took Sohail to Malir Gymkhana and RLCA.
“I used to get disheartened but knew that one day I will play for Pakistan,” he said. “I kept on honing my skills at the Rashid Latif Cricket Academy (RLCA) and waited for my big chance.”
Later, Dr Muhammad Ali Shah took him to his club but there was a string attached; he was to assist the famous doctor at the AO Clinic.
“Dr Shah asked me to play for his club and used to pay me, but also asked me to assist him as the compounder during operations,” claimed Sohail. “I felt really queasy during operations as he cut through flesh and bone so after only six or seven operations, I told Shah Sahib that I cannot bear to assist him.”
Sohail’s big chance came in 2007, when two first-class players – Adnan Malik and Mansoor Khan – urged former Test cricketer Sikander Bakht, coaching SSGC at the time, to have a look at the prodigy. It did not take long for Sohail to convince Sikander to sign him up.
Sohail took to first-class cricket like a duck to water and claimed five-wicket hauls in both innings of his debut match against Pakistan Customs.
Unfazed and eager to impress, Sohail continued to rattle wickets throughout the season and finished as the leading wicket-taker in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy with 65 wickets in just nine matches.
In that first season, he picked up most the highest number of five-wicket hauls (eight), had the best bowling figures in an innings with his 9-109 against Wapda as well as the best bowling figures in a match with 16-189; breaking the long-standing record of Fazal Mahmood’s match-haul of 15 wickets.
And suddenly the man deemed not good enough for grade-II cricket was catching the eyes of Pakistan selectors and was awarded with his ODI debut in 2008 against Zimbabwe, but Sohail was unable to live up to expectations and could not cement his place in the side.
Seeing his struggles, the man who had given him his chance in first-class cricket offered him an unusual route out; modelling. But Sohail was much more comfortable with the sun and the sweat of the pitch, than the limelight and the glamour of the ramp, and left quickly.
“Sikku bhai [Sikandar] said he will take me to a more glamorous world,” revealed Sohail. “He took me to a modelling agency but after two or three shows, I realised that it wasn’t the place for me.”
In the 2013-14 season, he did enough to convince Latif to sign him for PQA and once again repaid the faith placed on him, finishing the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy as the highest wicket-taker in only his second season.
The selectors were once again forced to stand up and take notice. Ten wickets in the Pentangular Cup later, he had done enough to convince them to make it into the final 15 despite not even being in the provisional 30-man squad.
“Rashid bhai [Latif] told me to just bowl for longer periods and forget about heavy body building,” he said. “He helped me swing the ball both ways.”
His inclusion may have come as a surprise to almost the entire nation but not to the man himself. “I had made up my mind before the start of the season that I will do enough to convince the selectors to take me to the World Cup,” said Sohail.
But when his name was not included in the provisional 30, even the man who had backed him all these years told him to forget about the World Cup. “Rashid told me to think about breaking into the team after my World Cup but as fate would have it, I will be there. Now that I am in, I want to be the surprise weapon and have already started working with Waqar Younis.”
He won over the selectors with his exploits on the pitch, and in the process, also convinced the man most against him playing cricket. Now, with Sohail once again set to don on the famous green, his father’s anger has turned into pride. “I called him and told him that his son is an international cricketer and whether he will still break my bats. He was really proud of me and has now started to watch cricket.”
For the sake of cricket, Sohail has journeyed through swift mountain streams, operation theatres and modelling ramps; but when push comes to shove, the 30-year-old is at home only with the Kookaburra in his hand. And so his latest journey — to New Zealand and Australia — finally takes him to where he always felt he belonged; the highest echelons of cricket.