Naseem Shah: the boy who led the way for men

Two months ago in Karachi, in the second match Naseem Shah played at home, he led his side to victory with a five-for. In the press conference a few minutes later, he would be moved to tears as he dedicated it to his late mother, who had died a few weeks earlier on the eve of his debut while he was half a world away in Australia. He was so overcome the Pakistan media manager pulled him away from the microphone. He was led out, the youthful face shielded by hands he sobbed noiselessly into. No matter what his most cynical detractors might say, he looked, in that moment, like a 16-year-old boy who missed his mum.


The official reason Shah went off today, two balls after becoming the youngest bowler to take a Test hat-trick, is he felt some pain around the rib area on the left side of his chest. But when your heart bursts with joy, dancing in tune with the ecstasy of over 10,000 adoring spectators, you would have to be superhuman not to feel a physical side-effect.

His historic hat-trick wasn't so much a passage of play as an epic compressed into a few minutes, by someone who had been moulded by adversity in every way imaginable.

Shah was born in a small village in Lower Dir, far removed from the metropolis of Lahore and Karachi, or the riches of the capital Islamabad, close to where this Test match is taking place. His old man was dead-set against him pursuing a cricketing career, and who could have blamed him? If you've lived in Lower Dir all your life, you're jaded enough to know those who come from the affluence of the big cities spend very little time caring about your hopes or aspirations. Shah, however, was naïve enough to insist, pleading with his father till he relented.

A few years later, that boy from a village no one quite knew sprinted in for his eighth over in front of a Rawalpindi crowd that had grown somewhat restless with the blossoming third-wicket partnership Bangladesh were quietly assembling. He swung the fourth ball back into Najmul Hossain Shanto's pads; the umpire turned his appeal down. Shah had never taken no for an answer all his life, and he wasn't about to start now. The review was taken. Once more, Shah had taken a punt and seen it rewarded. Pakistan had a breakthrough; Shah had his second.

Bangladesh, bless them, thought they would fob him off with a nightwatchman, and as the shadows lengthened and the sun began to set dramatically in the Margalla Hills, the spell turned into a classic. As the baying crowd roared him on, Shah, at 10 past 5 in the evening, found a gear none of his senior team-mates had been able to hit. He galloped into his delivery stride and darted it at Taijul Islam's feet. It hit his pads.

It may have hit the stumps, knocked the middle peg out of the ground, developed an ability to speak and bellowed, "That's out" in four different languages for the celebration that followed from Shah. The only person in the ground who might have felt worse than Islam in that moment was Nigel Llong, irrelevance personified as the teenager wheeled away in celebration. He still hadn't seen Llong raise his finger; he never will. A tidal wave had swept the stands as 10,000 rose from their seats in ecstasy, and 10 men joined in celebrations led by one adrenaline-fuelled boy who had pulled the kill switch on the Bangladesh innings once more.

And then came the hat-trick ball. It wasn't the best delivery, in truth, but being from Lower Dir, Shah would know it's always better to be lucky than good. Mahmudullah might have let it go, but this Rawalpindi crowd wasn't any normal gathering of people. Their raucousness looked like it might have overcome the Bangladesh batsman, too. The anticipatory hums were almost deafening by the time the ball was pitched full and wide outside Mahmudullah's off stump, and fate took hold of the occasion. How else would you explain Mahmudullah looking to flash at it, ten minutes before the close of play, first ball in, facing someone chasing a hat-trick?

It flew to first slip. Well, not quite. First slip needed to move quickly to his right, and bend low, and if you know much about the left-handed Haris Sohail - well, you'd know bookmakers won't exactly be paying out on it happening. Next thing, Sohail moved instinctively, and when he emerged, there it was, the red ball clasped firmly in his hands. The hat-trick had happened.

So, when he allowed the crowd to applaud him in a moment few here will ever forget, only Shah knows how much he has overcome to enjoy the privilege of being the boy who had helped out his fellow men. If it doesn't seem plausible Shah is 16, it's because he has experienced - and accomplished - too much to look that age anymore.