T20 World Cup – Safyaan Shariff

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The Scotland fast bowler on training alongside Ajmal, picking Hardik’s brain, bowling to Williamson, and more

Scotland’s players had to pinch themselves when their Super 12s fixture list was confirmed but for Safyaan Sharif, their final game against Pakistan in Sharjah on Sunday carries particular significance.

Sharif, Scotland’s fastest bowler and their leading wicket-taker since the start of the Super 12s stage, was born in Huddersfield to a Pakistani father and a British-Pakistani mother before moving north of the border at the age of seven. He credits much of his development as a player to two winters training at National Gymkhana Cricket Club in Faisalabad as a teenager, shortly after leaving school, and is relishing the prospect of playing against a country with which he has close ties.

“I went when I was 18, firstly to train for six months,” he tells ESPNcricinfo. “I came back for the Scottish season and then went back again for another four or five months. My dad funded it for me and I have family back home, so it was easy accommodation-wise. It helped me a lot, to develop my skill and especially my mental toughness as well.

“I trained at the same club as Saeed Ajmal. I didn’t know who he was at the time and I can still remember the first time I batted against him. I came forward to my first ball and he bowled me through the gate. Next ball, I came forward again – he bowled his doosra, and he bowled me again. I was just like, ‘bloody hell, who is this guy?’

“It’s going to be exciting. I’ve got a Pakistani background and my family is Pakistani so it’s definitely one I’ve been looking forward to. You don’t get these opportunities all the time so we’ll be picking their brains after the game. I’d like to speak to Shaheen [Shah Afridi] and Haris Rauf, who are obviously world-class fast bowlers, and maybe Asif Ali – who is also from Faisalabad – about power-hitting.”

The ability to rub shoulders with the world’s best players has been a huge benefit for Scotland – and Namibia, the other associate nation to reach the Super 12s – throughout this tournament, as evidenced by their interactions in the India dressing room after their defeat in Dubai on Friday night. Sharif, who has been carded at No. 9 in this World Cup but is a useful lower-order hitter, took the opportunity to seek out Hardik Pandya for some advice.

“It was great to talk to him: he’s one of the best, hardest-hitting batters in the world. He was talking about the fact that guys know not to bowl full at him because he always sets himself to go big at the end, using the crease and going deep in it. He said that because he has those strengths – and teams know about it – he has to develop other strengths, so if guys bowl wide of him, he’ll practise those shots to have them in the bank.

“It was good to learn from him tactically and about his mindset. We need to make the most of it. These guys are world-class players who have played in ICC events for so long. It’s a morale boost, talking to them and trying to learn what they do differently to us. It gives us things that we can take back home and work on.”

Sharif’s personal highlight of the World Cup to date was his performance against New Zealand, taking two wickets in an over in Scotland’s tight defeat – including the big fish, Kane Williamson, whose scoring he stifled with a clever field returning a wide gully, preventing his trademark guide down to deep third.

“Williamson is obviously a top-quality player but we knew that was his release shot,” he explains. “If you look to bowl on off stump, he’ll run you down to third man. We were like, ‘right, we need to stop that – especially when he comes in because he likes to take his time’. It wasn’t the best ball that got him [a leg-side strangle] but it managed to do the trick.”

Ahead of their final game, he has his eyes on two more prized scalps. “It would be good to pick up either Babar Azam or Mohammad Rizwan. If you look through their order they’ve got class throughout – Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez are experienced players and Asif Ali is doing pretty well at the moment – but they’ve been the key to Pakistan’s success.

“To get either of those two out would be a massive achievement: they don’t give their wickets away easily. If we can get the two openers out early, I think Pakistan will be under a bit of pressure because they’ve been scoring most of their runs in the tournament. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98