For die-hard followers of Pakistan cricket, their side’s tour of South Africa earlier this year was an eye-opener for a number of reasons. Quite apart from the dismal and lacklustre batting performances, there was another startling and rather depressing realisation that one of the qualities that have differentiated teams from Pakistan over the years from many others was disappearing.
The land which has been blessed over the years with a production line of fast-bowlers such as Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar was suddenly unable to produce more bowlers of that stature and calibre. A crisis of sorts had therefore beset Pakistan cricket and predictions of a dire future where meek medium-pacers concentrating on line-and-length would be feasted upon by batsmen around the world seemed to abound, with no respite in sight.
But then, suddenly, in true Pakistani cricketing style, out of almost nowhere, the names of some young, raw, but gifted bowlers came to the fore. The murmurs started from the Under-19 level and hopes began to emerge in the 2019 edition of the Pakistan Super League where a new breed of fast-bowlers, the likes of Mohammad Musa, Mohammad Hasnain and a very young Naseem Shah emerged.
While Musa and Hasnain wowed the crowds with their impressive performances during the PSL, Naseem Shah, who was due to play for Quetta Gladiators, had to sit out the tournament due to a back injury. Shah's absence from the PSL turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his replacement Hasnain who was then picked for the World Cup-bound Pakistan squad.
Those who had seen Naseem Shah prior to his injury never really doubted his talent and felt that it would only be a matter of time before he would be charging in and representing his country.
Khawaja didn't pick that up!
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) November 13, 2019
Predictably, Naseem returned from injury and impressed all during Pakistan Under-19 team's tour of South Africa in June this year. His pace and ability to swing the ball proved to be a handful for the opposition. Not only was this boy quick, but he was also proving to be an ‘old-school’ pace bowler who didn’t mince his words with the opponents’ batsmen and letting them know that he was around. Talks were on for when will Naseem be picked for Pakistan. There was a sense of excitement in the air as fans of pace-bowling were licking their lips at the thought of Naseem in a Pakistan shirt. During the 2019 domestic season, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) instituted some radical changes into structure of Pakistan cricket. Just as these measures came under great scrutiny, Naseem Shah — who models his bowling on New Zealand pacer Shane Bond — again started to make waves. Unlike before, when experts and fans alike spoke of Naseem with much enthusiasm, this time around, there was more substance to the hype. From being regarded as a youngster with promise, Naseem Shah became a player that Pakistan could use to add some very useful firepower to their pace attack in Tests, especially with the retirements of Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz.
Waqar Younis, Pakistan’s newly-appointed bowling coach, mentioned Naseem’s name in glowing terms, as did Head Coach-Chief Selector Misbah-ul-Haq stating that Naseem is a bowler with skills. And so, it was no surprise when Naseem was included in Pakistan’s Test squad for the trip Down-under. As if to underscore his readiness for the tough assignment, Naseem duly took a 6-wicket haul in his last domestic game before taking a flight to join the Pakistan Test squad in Australia.
While there was appreciation showered on the Pakistan team management for picking a talented rookie for what is considered one of the toughest overseas tours for teams from the subcontinent, there were some reservations too.
Former Pakistan fast bowler Aaqib Javed felt that it was too early for a young bowler like Naseem to be exposed on debut in a tough environment like Australia. The long-term effects on the psyche of a young bowler of failing to adjust to the right lengths needed to bowl against the likes of David Warner and Steve Smith could have detrimental long-term effects, stated Aaqib. But then there were others, Waqar Younis being one of them, who felt that the teenager already had it in him to challenge the most hardened of competitors.
The debate over whether the inclusion of Naseem, seen as a torchbearer for the next generation of Pakistani pacers, will depend on how he performs when given the chance in the two-match Test series. But ask the Australia A batsmen who had to skip, hop, jump and look anxiously back at the slip cordon and wicket-keeper every time the ball went past their bat, and they would probably agree that Naseem Shah is as close to the real thing as they can imagine. Add to that, the mental resolve and strength of a young man who bowled his heart out at a time when he would have been devastated at the news of his mother’s passing away back home, and one begins to understand the very special bowler that Pakistan have been blessed with in Naseem Shah.
Like always, the expectations will be huge. Already the world is looking at Naseem as the next big thing in Pakistan cricket, but expectations also have to be realistic. Let the young man run-in, bowl fast and enjoy his cricket in an extremely tough environment. Naseem has all the ingredients to become a tremendous and eye-catching pace-bowler, but the Pakistani cricketing fraternity needs to give him time and be patient with him. For now, let's just enjoy the latest edition in the Pakistani pace-bowling factory.
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