Naseem Shah Asia Cup
Pakistan pace bowler Naseem Shah in action against India in a Group A match of the DP World Asia Cup at the Dubai International Stadium on August 28, 2022. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

There as no half measures for Naseem Shah. He doesn’t bowl those slower ones or knuckleballs. Not yet, at least. His deliveries come at express pace, and he can bend them too. That makes the Pakistani pacer a formidable opponent for batters.

All discussions on the current Pakistan pace battery start and end with Shaheen Shah Afridi. He’s been knocking over batters worldwide with left-arm thunderbolts angled across right-handers. The one that comes back is a wicket-taker, bowled or leg before. So when a knee injury deprived Pakistan of Afridi’s pace and aggression, there were worries over the effectiveness of the pace pack.

Captain Babar Azam dismissed such fears on the eve of the game against India. While acknowledging that it would be a different game if Afridi were present, he said there are several young pace bowlers with experience of playing in the Pakistan Super League and other T20 leagues of the world. But Azam didn’t name anyone in particular at the press conference.

When Pakistan posted a sub-par total against India on Sunday, all eyes turned to the pace bowlers. Early wickets were required to push India on the back foot. And that was necessary to make a match of it. Who would do it?

That’s when Naseem Shah, 19, showed up. He steamed in with the new ball, looking for the breakthrough. With the second ball of the innings, Shah found success as Indian vice-captain KL Rahul’s defensive prod deflected the delivery onto the stumps. Euphoria was writ large on Shah’s face as he wheeled away in celebration with his elated teammates in pursuit.

A couple of balls later, Shah nearly claimed the wicket of former India captain Virat Kohli. He brought one delivery into the batsman before feeding him one outside the off-stump. The edge flew high to Fakhar Zaman, only to burst out of his hands.

Shah was not done. When India seemed to have taken control, he returned to uproot Suryakumar Yadav’s stumps. The match was still on a knife’s edge as Shah came into bowl the 18th over. Heavy cramps in his leg left Shah in pain, but the pacer gritted, ran in to bowl at full tilt, and nearly got Ravindra Jadeja. It was a display of sheer courage and will to win.

Naseem Shah Asia Cup
Pakistan pace bowler Naseem Shah gets treatment for cramps during the Group A match against India in the DP World Asia Cup at the Dubai International Stadium on August 28, 2022. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

His performance won the hearts and minds of the Twitterati. Words of praise and encouragement poured in through social media. In the post-match press conference, skipper Azam was effusive in his praise. “Naseem was injured too, but the way he bowled and the heart he showed was commendable,” Azam said.

“Naseem bowled well at the start. He took crucial wickets and bowled well in the death as well. We missed Shaheen [Afridi], but he [Naseem Shah] never let us feel his [Afridi’s] absence. His confidence made him bowl like that,” Azam added.

The display made the world sit up and acknowledge Shah’s talent. But to Pakistan cricket watchers, it didn’t come as a surprise. His debut against Australia in 2019 as a 16-year-old was heartwarming. Those performances came at a time when his mother died, and he could not return home for the funeral.

His sensational bowling resulted from the hard work Shah put under the tutelage of former West Indian pace ace Andy Roberts and former Pakistan skipper Mudassar Nazar, who runs the National Cricket Academy at the Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore. Shah impressed Robert during a three-week training camp at the academy.

How Mudassar helped Naseem Shah

“Wonderful talent, I remember. Just a young kid then. You see young talent and see some good stuff, but this boy was something else. Had everything: pace, skill to move the ball, and was aggressive – he was very eager to learn,” the Indian Express quoted Roberts as saying.

Shah reached out to Mudassar when he was laid low by three stress fractures in the back, something like what the great Dennis Lillee suffered at the prime of his career. The former Pakistan opener was struck by Shah’s commitment and desire to excel despite worries over his future.

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Mudassar allayed Shah’s fears and helped modify his action to reduce the pressure on the lower back. “His front leg was going too far across at the crease, twisting his back. That was changed. His overall strength was increased. Not only did he have to do gym sessions but also had to practise it [the new action] to make it natural. It needs great passion and hard work to do that,” Mudassar told the Indian Express.

Shah spent nine months in the academy, and his hard work helped him recover from the injury and stage a return to the Pakistan team. In March, he impressed everyone with his spell on a flat track against Australia. The delivery that castled Alex Carey in the Rawalpindi Test is still being talked about. People who had seen that were not surprised on Sunday.

If Kohli’s catch had been taken, maybe the match could have taken a different course. Who knows? Pakistan may have lost the game, but Shah’s display earned him many admirers.

Take a bow, Naseem Shah.