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Coming from Gilgit-Baltistan, Riazat Ali Shah eager to leave a mark for Uganda at the T20 World Cup

He admired Wasim Akram for his personality and left-arm fast-bowling skills for Pakistan
03:20 PM Jun 03, 2024 IST | IANS
coming from gilgit baltistan  riazat ali shah eager to leave a mark for uganda at the t20 world cup
Coming from Gilgit-Baltistan, Riazat Ali Shah eager to leave a mark for Uganda at the T20 World Cup

New Delhi, June 3: With its mesmerizing mountain peaks and countless glaciers, the Gilgit-Baltistan region in northern Pakistan has gained a reputation for its natural beauty. However, the scenic beauty surrounding him failed to captivate Riazat Ali Shah's attention, as he developed a powerful love for cricket.


He admired Wasim Akram for his personality and left-arm fast-bowling skills for Pakistan. He became a big fan of Kevin Pietersen's fast and modern-day cricket during a time when T20 cricket wasn't popular.


Now, Riazat, 26, is ready to play in the men's T20 World Cup. However, there's a twist - Riazat will wear Uganda's yellow jersey as they debut in the showpiece event, with the all-rounder, who also bowls right-arm medium pace, serving as their vice-captain.


Like many youngsters in Pakistan, Riazat started his cricket journey by playing tape-ball cricket, where he had to bowl fast and bat against a tennis ball covered in electrical tape. After his success in tape-ball cricket, especially in hitting big sixes, Riazat started playing club cricket with the hard ball for Khan Eleven Club at City Park, the only cricket ground in Gilgit at that time.


When Riazat expressed to make a career out of playing cricket, there was a natural fear about it from his father Hidayat Shah, a pharmacy businessman doing wholesale distribution in the region, and mother Meher Nigar, a home-maker. Cricket at the highest level had never seen a player from Gilgit-Baltistan until 2015, when fast-bowler Diana Baig made her debut for the Pakistan women's team.


"The parents had the view of me focusing on studies first, while keep playing cricket as a side-by-side option. I did study, but a lot of my focus was on the cricket, so I used to keep both running. But when I had tours of Islamabad, the parents allowed me to go for it for two weeks."


"Once my performances began to be good, automatically the support from parents came. They also felt that 'yes, this boy has something in him', so slowly they began to be supportive and are now totally into it," recalls Riazat about his starting day in a chat with his friend Afzal Jiwani, the recording of which is exclusive with IANS.


After a successful first year with the club, Riazat got drafted into the Gilgit-Baltistan U19 side. He would travel to Islamabad to play four matches, each lasting two days. Despite being selected for Islamabad U19 team due to his impressive performances, he had limited playing opportunities in regional cricket for two years.

At U19 level, Riazat played alongside Aamer Jamal, who took a six-fer on Pakistan Test debut against Australia last year. In search of playing opportunities, Riazat went to play Jubilee Games in Dubai, where he had a chance to meet with current Uganda captain Brian Masaba, then the skipper of Aziz Damani Sports Club in Kampala.

"He offered me a place in the club as they needed an overseas player for one season and said, 'If you can, please come'. But I didn't go in 2016 as my education wasn't over by that time and I arrived in Uganda in 2017, and played for them for six months. The club coach at that time was Steve Tikolo, a legend of Kenyan cricket."

"After I played my first game for the club, Tikolo said to me, 'We have trial matches coming up and require some players. If you are free, then you can attend it. Since Kampala club cricket is mostly played on weekends, I had weekdays off and took part in two trial matches, as well as trained with the national team,” Riazat described his initial days in Kampala.

Riazat slowly started training with the national team, but then he moved on to playing trial matches and did really well. Uganda offered him a contract to play for the national team, with an aim to get ODI status and qualify for the 2024 T20 World Cup, as well as to bounce back from previous disappointments.

But Covid-19 pandemic altered the qualification format - two sides from Africa qualifiers would qualify for T20 World Cup, with Uganda sensing an enormous opportunity to seal their qualification spot. Riazat, who debuted in T20Is and ODIs for Uganda in 2019, says the team focused on 2024 T20 World Cup qualification after the Covid-19 pandemic.

"To be honest, when we were seeing the 2022 T20 World Cup, we wished that next time it shouldn't be Namibia and Zimbabwe qualifying again for the 2024 edition. The thought was from these two great teams, one should be up, while other one has to go down, as it would make things easy for us."

"As a cricketing group, 80% of the Uganda players were together for the last six years and gelled along as a combination really well. We were very well-aware of who are the guys in the team who can be the best fits for us in a particular situation. The senior players in the team played games against each other, lived in the same city, so we knew each other very well, apart from the U19 boys being added."

Despite the resignation of their head coach Lawrence Mahatlane in October 2023, Uganda approached the T20 World Cup Africa qualifiers in Windhoek, Namibia with confidence, relying on their strong bowling and batting abilities.

But the absence of two key fast-bowlers due to injuries meant all-rounders like Riazat, his long-term team friend Dinesh Nakrani, and Kenneth Waiswa had to shoulder a greater bowling workload.

"We knew if we got slow and bowler-friendly wicket, we can beat any team as we still had good bowlers and had lots of options as all-rounders. We beat Namibia previously, but didn't play against Zimbabwe before – we had doubts against them as they were a Test-playing nation and had been playing well."

"We then thought of defeating Namibia, but they were the hosts, knew their home conditions well and we lost to them. Our next game was against Zimbabwe, which became a do-or-die matter. But the advantage was, we had a slow wicket. Plus, the venue where we faced them, we had played 9-10 games previously and knew which angles were the best in terms of boundary sizes."

Uganda approached the clash against Zimbabwe with a nothing-to-lose attitude. They were aware of the more high stakes in the game for Zimbabwe, who played in Super 12 of 2022 T20 World Cup.

"If they lost, they would have been out of reckoning for T20 World Cup. If we lost, it would have been like 'okay, it's normal and we will come back next year'. For us, it wasn't much of a pressure game; we just had to go out and play the match," said Riazat.

Riazat contributed 1/29 with the ball as Uganda restricted Zimbabwe to 136/8. In the chase, Uganda lost two early wickets before Alpesh Ramjani took charge with a 26-ball 40. With Roger Mukasa struggling, Uganda desperately needed a push to win.

Following Mukasa's run-out, Riazat showcased his batting prowess by smashing five fours and a six in scoring 42 runs off only 28 deliveries, as Uganda celebrated an extraordinary five-wicket triumph over Zimbabwe. "When I went in to bat, I was thinking 'Our target is 137, which isn't a big margin between bat and ball'. The thought which came in was, 'You stay till the end, as the team would easily win the game'."

"After playing two-three balls, I got the confidence and things got easy for me. I stopped thinking that I was playing against Zimbabwe; my focus became to put the bat on the ball. With not much to separate between runs needed and balls left, we knew we could come back into the game anytime."

"The equation soon became 18 balls, 30 runs and I hit 20 runs in one over, which got the game in our favour. I was waiting for that one over to swing the game in our favour – it came against Tendai Chatara and he was coming against the wind, which became advantageous for me. Then next over came of Ngarava, who bowled well as compared to Chatara, who was struggling to bowl on that pitch," he elaborated on how he went his way to seal an important win for Uganda.

Uganda triumphed in their remaining matches against Nigeria, Kenya, and Rwanda, to seal their spot in the T20 World Cup alongside Namibia. Zimbabwe, unfortunately, fell short of qualification. The process, which started three years ago, had ultimately yielded the desired outcome that Uganda had been pursuing for a long time.

"It means a lot to me, especially considering where I have come from. Like, no one from Gilgit-Baltistan has played at this level of cricket. This is the biggest stage of cricket and personally, it was a dream for me – to play a World Cup. Plus, here, it was the dream for everyone for a very long time and achieving it was really a dream come true."

West Indies, Afghanistan, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea are grouped with Uganda in Group C at the T20 World Cup. In the face of enormous challenges for Uganda in the competition, Riazat is eager to highlight his talent and the team's abilities in playing against formidable opponents.

"If you are going to the World Cup, you need to win every game. As a team, we wish to do well and show to the world the talent we have in our side. Personally, I am keen to show the world what I can do with my all-round skills and perform well against the big teams."

"Playing in this World Cup will open many opportunities for us – like, we can play in leagues all over the world. IPL is one of the best leagues in the world – personally me and other players in the team want to play in it as league-wise, it's the biggest stage in the world. If I do well in the World Cup, it can propel me to reach the level of playing in the IPL," adds Riazat.

The desire to meet talismanic India batter, Virat Kohli, is also on Riazat’s T20 World Cup wishlist. "If presented a chance, he's the only person I wish to meet in the World Cup. His work ethic, discipline – it's right up there at the top. I want to learn how he maintains the discipline and focus towards his cricket. The one thing I really admire about Virat is, how he's never lost focus at any stage of his playing career."

Being an inspirational figure for the Ismaili community is also on Riazat's mind, as he feels it is the best profession to choose for the kids and their parents who share the same heritage as him and are keen to have a career out of playing the sport. He also has immense gratitude towards his 'very friendly and supportive' first coach Shalaique, who played first-class cricket for Islamabad and featured in matches alongside Umar Gul.

"For someone who was just starting out in cricket, you need a figure to back you. Otherwise, when you don't have a person like that, you begin to feel that 'maybe I don't belong here'. But he said, 'You play well; I will be supporting you'. He supported me a lot, especially in my bowling and taught me a lot of things about it."

Riazat is also indebted to the support he got from the Aziz Damani Sports Club in Kampala, especially from CEO Siva Koti Reddy, fondly known as 'Shivanna', who helped him settle when everything was new for him, especially in food and allowances. He stays clear of the sport on his time off the field to get some sukoon (peace) and regain the hunger to perform well.

His off-field routine before leaving for a major tournament is a mix of gym work, and training two hours extra with coaches on his skills, apart from eating proteins and staying away from oily plus spicy food. Riazat's long journey from Gilgit-Baltistan to Uganda has shaped him into a driven individual with immense promise to be a standout all-rounder for Uganda at the T20 World Cup.

"Whenever I come to the ground, I just want to be the best and be different from others so that opposition teams are like, 'This is the guy who we want to watch out for'. Whenever I play, I want to be up there, always."

"In five years, I want to be the best all-rounder in the world – just like how Jacques Kallis, Ben Stokes and Hardik Pandya have been. It should be that when young boys see me play, they got to feel like we want to be like him," he concluded.

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