DUBAI: Two days after he limped off the field with cramps against India, Pakistan’s pace sensation Naseem Shah was back in the nets delivering thunderbolts. All of 19, the spotlight has been chasing him here at the Asia Cup.
In the days leading up to the first India-Pakistan game last Sunday, all the talk revolved around the absence of Shaheen Shah Afridi. In a matter of four overs, at the same venue where Afridi had dismantled India last October, Naseem staked his claim as the most lethal pacer in this tournament. Pakistan captain Babar Azam, in fact, went on to state after the match, “The way Naseem started, we didn’t feel that we were missing Shaheen.”
Baby-faced and all of five-foot-seven inches, at first glance Naseem doesn’t appear to be the quintessential tearaway, someone who can breach the 90-mph barrier with consistency. What is astounding is that he took to formal coaching barely five years ago.
Former Pakistan leg-spinner Abdul Qadir’s son Suleiman, who runs the Abdul Qadir International Cricket Academy in Lahore, remembers the first time he saw a 14-year-old Naseem. “He was wearing a salwar kameez. He had come from Lower Dir, from a humble background and looked very innocent,” Suleiman told TOI from Lahore.
Lower Dir is a mountainous rural region in northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which largely depends on agriculture and mining. It is nearly 600 km from Lahore. Naseem’s uncle had brought him to Lahore and wanted him to train at Qadir’s academy. “I asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to bowl. He wasn’t even wearing shoes. It was the first time he would bowl with the hard cricket ball.
“He had been playing with tape balls till then,” Suleiman said. “I was amazed he bowled barefoot. There was a spark in him. He bowled quicker than expected. His action and pace really impressed me,” Suleiman said.
Starting out at 14 and making his Test debut at 16 doesn’t suggest Naseem had to face too many hurdles, but that is far from the truth. Up to a certain stage, however, he had it easy. “He got into the U-16 teams in the same year he started training. Going through U-16s and U-19s was very easy for him. He went to South Africa with the U-19 team. Wherever he went, people liked him,” Suleiman said while adding: “It helped that my father was coaching Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited. He really liked Naseem and played him with the seniors straightaway.”
Naseem’s career seemed to be zooming on an expressway. If anything, Suleiman had to ensure he realized his potential. “The first thing I told him was that even if he doesn’t work hard, he will make it to the first-class level. I told him that I would be happy only if he played Test cricket,” Suleiman said.
The bumps in Naseem’s career came once he travelled with the Pakistan team to Australia to make his Test debut as a 16-year-old. Days before his Test debut, Suleiman had to convey to the team manager that his mother had passed away. Naseem was, at that time, asleep in his room. “The team management and I convinced him there was no point of coming back for the funeral. He was in a bad shape, but he channelized his energy on the field,” Suleiman said.
Then the injuries followed, one after the other. Waqar Younis was with the Pakistan team as coach. He had seen the boy go through the most excruciating time. Waqar had identified that Naseem’s action was too side-on, which in turn was putting a lot of stress on his back. The result? Three stress fractures in two years.
Suleiman believes Naseem’s greatest strength is that he always knows his target. “He has maturity beyond his years,” Suleiman said proudly.
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Coping with the injury setbacks was tough but Naseem realized the onus was entirely on him to come out of that bad phase. “Mudassar Nazar was a real strength for him at the National Cricket Academy. But it’s up to the player how he drags himself out of a bad phase mentally.”
As the years went by, Naseem worked on understanding his body. “He understands his body structure. He understands he is a professional cricketer now and he has to be responsible for the length of his career. He knows how much load his body can take. He has worked on his diet, sleep and regulated when and how he should practice,” the coach said.
Suleiman knows how fierce a competitor he is on the field. “Every fast bowler likes to intimidate batters. Naseem is very aggressive on the field but is a gentle soul off it.”