A night before the tour game in Perth against Australia ‘A’, Pakistan’s premier batsman Babar Azam was shaken by a WhatsApp call from the late Abdul Qadir’s son Sulaman from Lahore.
It’s bad news – the young teenaged pace talent Naseem Shah’s mother had died, and Sulaman, a mentor of sorts of Shah and who took in a fresh-faced teenager at his Abdul Qadir Academy a few years ago, wants Babar and the team to break the news gently. “Let him sleep now, no point in waking him and shock him. Please tell the manager to tell the news gently to him,” Sulaman says. Babar promises to do the same and soon, the manager is on line, affirming the same.
As it turned out, after Sulaman’s discussions with the family and the team management’s internal talks, it was decided that Shah would play that ‘A’ game. “He never was going to make it in time for the funeral,” Sulaman says.
He didn’t bowl in the first innings and in the second, stormed into cricketing world’s imagination with an imperious performance – snarling bouncers that shake up Usman Khawaja whose woes convince the selectors not to pick him for the Test series, and snorters from just short of length that harasses the Test opener Marcus Harris. Short videos go viral on Twitter, Cricket Australia puts out slightly longer versions and the cricketing world gets all delirious – nothing quite stirs it like the sighting of the next great pace hope. He is 16, they say, and even if some doubt his age, not many doubt his natural talent.
It’s just not fans that are goose bumping but the cricketing fraternity is salivating. That art is truly international is proven when one hears the excited voice of the pace legend Andy Roberts from Antigua. Turns out, a few years ago, Roberts had been in Lahore for a three-week pace camp and had worked with the very young Shah. More than his own stint, he seems to be more interested in finding out about how the boy is doing now.
As one mentions a few titbits from the internet, and sends videos to him, Roberts repeats the full name “Naseem Shah” three to four times, lingering and stretching Naseeeeem in obvious pleasure.
“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,” Roberts says.
So much so that, Roberts remembers the last day, the farewell moment from the camp. “He was almost crying, tears in his eyes that we were leaving and camp was ending. I used to wonder what happened to him.”
Shah and Roberts didn’t need to be worried for the talent would run in to Pakistan’s wisest cricketing head – Mudassar Nazar, the former opener and medium pacer who runs the National Cricket Academy and the man whose brains Imran Khan used to pick during his captaincy days.
It was during a troubled phase a couple of years ago when Shah reached out to Mudassar. He was hit by a serious back injury. “Not just one but three stress fractures on the back,” Mudassar seems to shudder even now. “It was dark times indeed, and even as I would tell him to be strong and motivate him, even I was worried. But how hard he worked. Great commitment and desire,” Mudassar says.
“Mera kya hoga, sir? (What will happen to me?) Will I be able to play again? Will I be able to bowl as fast as before? Baccha tha, young boy, he used to keep asking and I would keep counselling him that he can if he works hard. His friends and peers like Musa Khan and Hasnain Mohammad were all going past him and that also makes one wonder, na?”
Mudassar suggested a few course corrections: the action was modified a bit – “His front leg was going too far across at the crease, twisting his back, and that was changed. Small stuff like that. His overall strength was increased. All this means, not only did he have to do gym sessions but also change his action – and practise it a lot to make it natural. It needs great passion and hard work to do all that.”
For nine months, Shah spent hours in the morning, afternoon, and evening working on all that was required. “He was with me at the academy for those months and slogged so hard. Any early doubts I had about him disappeared.”
Not just Mudassar but the Pakistan cricket establishment threw their weight behind Shah. He had been signed up by the PSL team Quetta Gladiators when he was hit by the injury. Nadeem Omar, the team’s owner and a godfather to many young cricket talents in the country, allowed him to be with the team even if unfit so that he doesn’t feel dispirited and also learns from the likes of Viv Richards, team’s mentor.
“To bowl fast, you need to be aggressive and you need to want to bowl fast. It causes pain to the body and you need to withstand it. Naseem was always eager to do whatever was required. He had everything I would say,” Mudassar says.
It’s the nuances that Mudassar strived to inculcate. “The angles, for example. How to use the crease better. I would say something about say, the need to bowl from round the stumps and he would quickly pick it up and do it in training. How to bowl different lengths. He would soak it all up quickly. But I would say he was already really good when he came to me.”
It’s an impression that Shah gave to people even years before. Sulaman, son of Qadir, remembers the day when Shah’s uncle Saeed brought him to his academy. Clad in Salwar Kameez, a thin eager-eyed lower-middle class kid from Lower Dir, a place eight hours by road from Lahore, started to bowl at the ground. “I am not exaggerating but the very first ball he bowled, I was moved and started to watch with great interest. I had given him an old ball mind you but he bowled superbly. He bowled a few balls and I remember rushing to him to tell him, ‘Naseem, what do you want to do? Under-16, Under-19 and even Pakistan ODI team you will play even if you don’t work hard. That’s the kind of talent you have? But if you work hard, you will play Test match cricket for Pakistan and there is nothing greater than that. Will you?’ “I won’t say that uski zehen mey maine Test dream daala, but I am happy to have played a small part,” Sulaman says.
Next day, Sulaman took Shah to the pace trials for U-16. But the selection was already done and the last-instant intervention wasn’t enough. “He was heart broken but I told him, just trust me, work on your bowling, next year you will get in. No one can stop you.”
Some time later, Sulaman sent a message to his father Qadir, who was with ZTBL, a team in domestic cricket. “Baba, you have to see this kid. And he said, Bhejo, send.” Soon, Qadir was a fan. “He has everything: pace, action, and cricketing sense. He is going to be a big cricketer, baba said.”
Around this time, Shah started to work with a former pacer and a respected coach Saud Khan. “It was Saud bhai who polished him. At the academy we had worked on his run-up, making it more fluent, and then Saud bhai worked a lot with him during this important phase.”
Roberts entered the picture around this time. “To bowl fast, you have to be aggressive. That he was. I told him and other bowlers about the need to improve the lower-body strength. The legs. Talked a bit about the need to be accurate with bouncers – even then he was very keen in bowling them,” Roberts laughs. “Nothing out of the world but usual stuff that you tell young pacers but he was very eager.”
“You know the difference between Pakistani and Caribbean pacers?” Roberts warms up. “Here they constantly keep talking about need for fast pitches. As if in our days, we bowled on really quick tracks. No way. You have to be fast through the air, not off the wicket. If there is help, great but the real job is done through the air. The Pakistani bowlers understand that. The young kid too got it. I am so happy that he has continued to work and Pakistan cricket has helped him to reach Tests. I would be very interested in watching how he performs.”
Only thing that Mudassar worries now is the kind of hype building around Shah. “It can get tricky. I hope he takes all that and settles down. But it’s great that he has a great bowler like Waqar Younis as team coach there. Who better than him to coach? Remember, even Waqar didn’t have success early in Australia. His record in that country improved later. So he will pass on all that. And even if things don’t go according to what we all wish; one thing is certain: Naseem will come back from Australia a better, improved bowler. This experience will help him a great deal.”
How far can the boy go? “All the way, I would say. He is the real deal,” Mudassar says. “From what I see, he has everything, it’s up to him now.” Roberts says.
Sulaman was at Shah’s house for the mother’s funeral. “I spoke to him that day. And told him ‘remember how happy your mother would be. November 21st (the start of the first Test) is your day, her day. You are born to do this: be a great fast bowler. Just focus on it’. I know how terrible it is to lose a parent; I lost my father recently and he is so young but I just wanted to make sure that he knows all his family, friends, Pakistan cricket and even cricket fans around the world are with him.” What did he say? “I will try my best. Playing Tests for Pakistan has been my dream. Karoonga.”
Australia vs Pakistan: 1st Test: Live on Sony Network: 5:30 am