Just before the start of HBL Pakistan Super League 3, Darren Sammy, the captain of the defending champions, tweeted to tell the world to look out for the youngest member of the Peshawar Zalmi “family”.
Going by the picture attached, it felt like typical Sammy high jinks. So youthful was the person pictured with the big St Lucian, it was easy to assume he was talking about a mascot.
The bespectacled youngster looked as though he should be at a GCSE maths class, rather than at cricket training with the PSL’s leading franchise.
Fast-forward a couple of days, and Sammy’s point was clear. Ibtisam Sheikh’s boyish and bookish looks belie a rare cricket talent.
Ahead of Thursday night’s fixture against Quetta Gladiators in Sharjah, the first three games of his debut campaign as an emerging player for Peshawar has brought Ibtisam five wickets, and at a miserly rate, too.
One of those victims was Shadab Khan, another 19-year-old leg-spinner who was fast-tracked into the Pakistan national team, largely on the strength of his debut PSL campaign 12 months ago.
The similarity was not wasted on Dean Jones, Shadab’s coach at Islamabad United.
“He looked terrific, I loved the way he went about it,” Jones said of Ibtisam’s performance in bringing about defeat on his Islamabad side. “He didn’t look 19. I loved what he has got. Where is this kid going to be in a month’s time? It is good this boy is putting pressure on Shadab as well.
"In limited-overs cricket it is good to have players putting pressure on [Pakistan's] Nos 1 to 11, so they know if they miss out on some form, they have someone else knocking on their door.”
Ibtisam was delighted to hear Jones’s complimentary words.
“Everyone loves to be praised,” Ibtisam said. “PSL is a place which gives opportunities to youngsters. This is an opportunity for youngsters like me to perform as well as possible and make a name for oneself.
“And not just in PSL. From the PSL, many emerging players have made it to the Pakistan team in the last year. Players like Shadab. It is also my wish to perform well this season in the PSL and hopefully make it from the PSL to the Pakistan team.”
Talking points: Darren Sammy the darling, Shahid Afridi the danger
Ibtisam turns 20 on March 16, on the day Peshawar play Lahore Qalandars at Sharjah Cricket Stadium.
He had played just three matches of note in Pakistan domestic cricket before this PSL, and was recruited on the strength of one performance at nets in front of the Zalmi coach, Mohammed Akram.
“During my third first-class match, I wasn't playing in the game, I was out,” he said. “There Akram-sir watched my bowling for around 15 to 20 minutes. He made me bowl the googly, the leg-break, the flipper, he made me bowl all kinds of deliveries.
"He left after telling me there was a 90 per cent chance of my selection for Peshawar Zalmi, as an emerging player.”
The dream became a reality when he subsequently made it through the draft.
“I was incredibly excited when I heard my name,” said Ibtisam, whose first name means “smiling”.
“I was watching the PSL draft live. As soon as I heard my name I dropped my mobile phone. There was so much excitement, there was a lot of noise around the house.”
The Hyderabad-born spinner knows his “cricket journey” is only just starting, but he realises he has already come a long way since being persuaded to give up trying to bowl fast in favour of leg-spin.
“When we used to play our 'Test matches' with the tape ball, I used to bowl a little leg-spin,” Ibtisam said. “My coach suggested I drop the idea of bowling fast and choose leg-spin instead and that I have the talent for it.
“My idol has been Shane Warne from the very beginning. I would watch his videos on YouTube. I got to learn a lot just by watching his videos - the way he bowled and the way he talked. I watch everything.”