On the eve of Naseem Shah’s departure from Pakistan for the Asia Cup, his mentor and son of Abdul Qadir Sulieman Qadir told him, “Ab aapki zindagi ki udaan shuru hue hain. (The time has come now for you to fly high in your life!) These six months, starting from Asia Cup, if you perform for Pakistan, then you will also become a super star like Shaheen Shah.” Nadeem, Sulieman says, promised him he will do his utmost best. “Banega superstar, aap dekhna! ( He will become a superstar, you wait and watch).
Naseem took his first steps on his actualising his promise on Sunday in Dubai right away from his first over. KL Rahul hung his bat out at a skidding thunderbolt outside off to drag it back onto his stumps. He then nipped one back in to Virat Kohli before cleverly dangling one full and well outside off – Kohli’s nemesis in the last year and half – and nearly had his man but the second slip clanged a difficult chance. He then hurried both Kohli and Rohit Sharma. He returned later to take out Suryakumar Yadav with a fast straight one that rushed past the attempted big hit to knock out the off pole.
Not just mentors from home rave about him but one of the brainiest pacer of them all Andy Roberts too has been keeping a close eye on him. Turns out, seven years ago or thereabouts, Roberts had been in Lahore for a three-week pace camp and had worked with the very long Shah.
When one sent bowling videos of Naseem to him in 2019, Roberts repeated 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.
The talent and eagerness had obviously stayed with Roberts who recalled the last day of the camp. “He was almost crying, tears in his eyes that I was leaving and camp was ending. I used to wonder what happened to him.”
Good and bad things have happened to him since then. In 2019, on his debut tour to Australia, a night before a tour game in Perth, Babar Azam was shaken by a WhatsApp call from Qadir’s son Suleiman from Lahore. Naseem’s mother had died, and Sulieman, who had taken in a fresh-faced teenager at his Abdul Qadir Academy, wanted Babar 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,” Sulieman recalled telling Babar. Sulieman also suggested that the kid should play the game.
“He never was going to make it in time for the funeral,” Sulaman says. He stormed into cricketing world’s imagination with an imperious performance – snarling bouncers that shook up Usman Khawaja and snorters from just short of length at the Test opener Marcus Harris. The videos went viral. A day or so later, at the Indian camp during an informal chat, the then bowling coach Bharat Arun pipes up: “Did you see Naseem Shah bowling? Super star looks and super star pace!”
Going back to Andy Roberts’ concern about “what happened to kid”, it turns out he didn’t have at least worry too much as Naseem would run into 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.
Though it was during a troubling phase that Naseen Shah had reached out to Mudassar. A serious back injury had him worried about his future.
“Not just one but three stress fractures on the back,” Mudassar told this newspaper. “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 counseling 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.”
Good things keep happening. He was picked by PSL team Quetta Gladiators even when he was injured, and its owner Nadeem Omar, a godfather to many young Pakistani cricket talents, 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.
Naseem shah 🔥 pic.twitter.com/E2fNzPRNpA
— uzair 🇵🇸 (@uzairjafry) August 28, 2022
“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 Naseem Shah gave to people even years before. Sulieman, son of Qadir, remembers the day when Shah’s uncle Saeed brought him to his academy. Clad in Salwar Kameez, a thin eager-eyed kid 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.
Some weeks later, Sulaman sent a message to his father Qadir, who was with a 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 the 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 got it too. 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 him perform.”
How far can the boy go? Couple of years ago, Mudassar Nazar predicted to this newspaper: “All the way, I would say. He is the real deal. From what I see, he has everything, it’s up to him now.” Roberts says.
Sulieman 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. You are born to do this: be a great fast bowler. Just focus on it’. What did he say? “I will try my best. Playing for Pakistan has been my dream. Mein karoonga.”