The long minutes beside the fully-occupied nets waiting for his turn to bowl feels like hours for Shahnawaz Dahani. Wearing a warm smile, he measures and remeasures his run-up, strokes his stubbled face, brushes the grass of his studs, rehearses his action repeatedly, prances around restlessly here and there, whispers something to a support staff that has him in splits. And then he hears the instruction he has been longing to hear the whole evening: “Dahani ab tu ja.”
Those words fall on his ears like manna on dew. Contentment flickers on his face. He turns back and begins to stride in, short, concise strides gaining a furious acceleration as he leaps (not a vertical leap like most fast bowlers) into his load-up and unleashes his thunderbolts with a fluid release and smooth follow-through. His action has a synchronised charm rather than classical beauty—cameras don’t really capture the way he bursts from a standing start to a full sprint in a blur. Every fibre in his body is pointing straight ahead: speed, momentum, economy.
Up close, you could see the strain on his face—shrivelled veins on his neck, face contorted, teeth gritting. The first ball, he always, says is his effort ball. “Poora takat isme dalte hain. Wicket ya nahin, batsman ko dar aana hain pehle ball sein (I put full effort behind it. The batsmen should feel fear),” he had explained in interview on the Multan Sultan website.
The batsman, Asif Ali, felt the fire and heat of his first ball. The ball was straight and straightforwards. He cannot douse the fireball. The ball screams through the gap between the pad and bat that is still on the descent and dishevels his off-stump.
It is when Dahani comes truly alive and turns from from ruthless quick to a pure entertainer. He spreads his arms like an aeroplane and runs around the ground, as though this was happening in a real match. He celebrates his wicket in the nets too, for he says, “Azhar (Mahmood) bhai has told me to practise in the nets what I want to do in a game. So I celebrate in the nets too sometimes.”
It was not just his pace that made him an overnight sensation but his penchant for celebrations. There are all sorts—the Shoaib Akhtar aeroplane sprint, the Shahid Afridi statue pose, the Imran Tahir marathon sprint, the Carlos Brathwaite telephone ring wiggle and one of his own, where he pulls a mask on his face and thrusts his hands forward. He guffaws when he is asked about his celebrations, often the most asked question in press conferences and interviews. His answer is often simple. “Life tho celebrate karna hi hain, aur mere life tho bowling hi hain. Serious hona chahiye lekin thoda entertainment bhi chahiye. (Life is about celebrating and bowling is my life). I watch the celebrations of all bowlers carefully, especially those from the West Indies, it’s how I want to play my cricket, ” he says in an interview to CrickVick.
There is an old-world spontaneity about him, an innocence the game has lost long ago. When he saw MS Dhoni, who was India’s mentor last year during the T20 World Cup, he immediately introduced himself: “Aap hain Dhoni, mein hoo Dahani.” Dhoni was so charmed that after the training session, he took him aside for a chat, where he transferred life and career lessons. “It will take a lot of time for me to explain the level of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Meeting him was a dream come true and I can’t forget that moment. His words were quite beneficial as he told me about life, how to live life, respecting the elders. He told that there will be bad and good days in cricket but you have to embrace it and stay dedicated to the game you love the most,” Dahani told Cricket Pakistan.
— Shahnawaz Dahani (@ShahnawazDahani) October 25, 2021
Like Dhoni gave an identity to Jharkand, a cricketing backwater, Dahani has made people google Larkana, “hamara Larkana” as he always says, on the web. Larkana is a city in northwest Sindh with extreme weather, and has been devastated by the recent floods.
Dahani’s village, Khawar Khan Dahani, is so remote that it’s not even on the google map. The floods have left the village without electricity for weeks, besides leaving thousands homeless. Dahani, on the social media, has been making frequent requests to the government for aid and rescue operations. Every third post on the Twitter is something related to the village— its fields, playgrounds and simple life.
Not just that Dahani is the first international cricketer from his village or his region, he is the first one from his area to even dream that they could play cricket for the country. “We play a lot of cricket on our fields with tennis ball and tape-ball cricket. But we never took it seriously. You play for a while and then work on the farm, or study if you are good at it,” he told Events and Happenings.
So when Dahani told his father that he wishes to play cricket for Pakistan one day, his father gently told him that “no one would take a player from interior Pakistan.” “He told me to focus on my studies and you could get a government job in Larkana. I did not want to offend him and agreed. When I thought harder that made sense. Who would pick me? No one has played for Pakistan from our region,” he recollected.
He channelled more attention on academics and farming. Every morning, he and his elder brother Majid would go their mustard farm and help their father out, before he would rush to the college. But the cricket dream still burned bright in him. His brother realised this and introduced him to a friend who played for the Al Shahbaz Cricket Club in Larkana. “He told me to come over, but then I became a bit scared because I had never played with hard ball. But he put me at ease and took me to the club, where I first started bowling with the leather ball,” he said.
To not evoke his father’s suspicion, he would say there was special classes or exams. The bigger hurdle was the money to buy the gear and shoes. “I used to borrow shoes and even socks from my friends. Sometime, every day I wore a different pair of shoes that some of my club-mates thought I was rich,” he told Events and Happenings.
But so natural his talents were that he made his first-class entry just two years after he touched a cricket ball. And just two years later, he was playing for Pakistan. He was travelling in a packed bus from Lahore to Larkana that he got the selector’s call. He immediately broke down.
“Baba ka yaad aagaya. He was the first person that I wanted to tell that I have been picked for Pakistan. He would have been so proud. I wept throughout the journey and after reaching home I went to offer my prayers beside his grave, before distributing sweets to the villagers.”
They kept aside all the chores and celebrated wildly. Bollywood songs blaring in the background, he was and paraded around the village on an open-roof car, flowers were showered on him from every house. “I felt so happy that I could do make my village proud. Ummeed hain ki mera gaav sein aur bhi log Pakistan ko khelega,” he said. He is so popular that PCB chairman Ramiz Raja feels that he could win the polls from Sindh.
He carries a slice of Khawar Khan to wherever he goes. The innocence, simplicity and humour could be traced to his background. But the backstory and entertainment value are just subtexts of what makes him a special package. He is special because he is a special bowler too—one blessed with raw pace, unbridled aggression and a robust physique to withstand the strain of bowling at extreme pace. “Dahani is always smiling, whether he’s been hit or no. The whole team lights up. It’s like we’ve found a new Shoaib Akhtar,” says Azhar Mahmood, his coach at Multan Sultan.
But his bowling is still an unfinished product, he feels. “He has to work on his out-swinger. I have sent a whole list of where he needs to improve to the Pakistan bowling coach,” he had said. Akhtar, impressed with his attitude and pace, wants him to focus more on first-class cricket. Waqar Younis, in whose insistence he was picked when he was the team’s coach, believes that he could emerge a bowler as lethal as Shaheen Shah Afridi. Dahani has not set the international stage on fire with the ball as yet in his limited outings—just five white-ball games—but he would wait patiently and smilingly for his turn to come to celebrate.