Naveen-ul-Haq hopes to start a pace-bowling revolution in Afghanistan

Naveen-ul-Haq has taken 13 wickets in eight limited-overs internationals for Afghanistan so far AFP

November 14, 2019, Lucknow. Twenty-year-old fast bowler Naveen-ul-Haq is one T20I old and up against West Indies captain Kieron Pollard, a T20 legend and the most experienced player in the shortest format.

West Indies are 150 for 5 in 19 overs. The first ball from ul-Haq is a slower legcutter that swerves away from Pollard, who swings and misses. The next delivery is also slow and Pollard swings again, this time dragging the ball only as far as square leg. Pollard and ul-Haq exchange verbals, but the rookie isn't intimidated.

The bowler then pushes a slower bouncer wide of off. Pollard spots the change-up and clouts it over the long leg-side boundary for six. He finishes the innings with a straight four and West Indies go on to secure a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.

Three days later, the series is on the line. West Indies need 45 off 17 balls with six wickets in hand in the third T20I. Ul-Haq v Pollard once more. With his first delivery, ul-Haq takes the ball away from Pollard's reach once again and dares him to clear that long leg-side boundary. This time Pollard can't quite get hold of it. He is caught at deep midwicket and Afghanistan go on to clinch a memorable come-from-behind series victory.

"The plan was to not give pace on the ball to Pollard and keep it away from his range as much as I can and keep him wondering what's coming next," ul-Haq says.

"Yes, there was pressure bowling to one of the best T20 players, but I took it as a challenge and an opportunity to show that I can be in this place and play against these guys.

Having a word with the batsmen - that comes naturally to me - so I had some words with Pollard. Getting him out in the final T20I gave me more confidence as a bowler."

Afghanistan's attack is well stocked with spinners these days, with Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman leading the way, and teenage wristspinners Qais Ahmad and Waqar Salamkheil breaking into T20 and T10 leagues. The quick bowlers have largely only played supporting roles to Rashid and Co.

Ul-Haq, who captained Afghanistan in the 2018 Under-19 World Cup, bears promise that he will strengthen the national team's pace attack.

"I first saw the knuckleball when Zaheer Khan bowled it at the 2011 World Cup. From then I worked on it for eight-nine years. It's the toughest variation I've come across"

He has a slingy action and naturally brings the ball into the right-handers at speeds of 135kph and above. He sharpens his white-ball skills and temperament by playing T20 cricket around the world. In the inaugural Afghanistan Premier League, in Sharjah in 2018, he shared the Nangarhar Leopards dressing room with Andre Russell. That stint with Russell and "valuable tips" from his hero Hamid Hassan, who is now a commentator, prepared him for the West Indies challenge in Lucknow last year.

"Russell said quite a few things to me, like, I just need to stick to my strength and not change my game too much when I see a batsman. He told me: 'It doesn't matter whether it's me or any other batsman in the world. You should always back your ability.'

"When we were playing West Indies, I also had chats with Hamid on how to improve my bowling." The sight of Hassan tearing in - with a snazzy headband and the Afghanistan flag painted on his cheeks - at the side's inaugural T20 World Cup, in the Caribbean in 2010, was what first hooked ul-Haq on fast bowling. "He gave me tips on my run-up and advised me on handling pressure."

Ul-Haq then went to the Bangladesh Premier League, where he learnt to "use the crease better" under Sylhet Thunder's fast-bowling coach Nantie Hayward. He reckons that using the crease tactically helps him execute his variations, which include the offcutter, legcutter, knuckleball, slower bouncer and wide yorker. Among the lot, the hardest to nail, he says, is the knuckleball.

"I first saw the knuckleball when Zaheer Khan bowled it at the 2011 World Cup. From then I was trying to bowl this knuckleball and worked on it for eight-nine years. It's the toughest variation I've come across because of the control it needs."

His skills also caught the attention of Rajasthan Royals, who called him up for trials ahead of the 2020 IPL auction. Ul-Haq hasn't been able to get a franchise contract for the upcoming season, but he says the Royals are tracking his performances closely.

"It was a match scenario at trials and there were also quite a lot of India players from U-19 and first-class cricket," he says. "It was like six-over targets. An official at Rajasthan Royals told me to just focus on what I'm doing and said my variations are good for IPL cricket. If you want to play IPL, you need variations. He said, 'If this year we can't get you, be ready for next year because we have a mega auction coming up and we will follow you at the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup.'"

Ul-Haq is also hoping to train under Glenn McGrath later this year as he looks to take his pace into the 140kph range. "If I get one word from McGrath, it will be great for my career. I am eager and excited to learn from him if the opportunity comes through."

He's early in his career but ul-Haq has already faced challenging circumstances. A serious back injury sidelined him for a year or so around 2014-15.

"I was depressed," he says of the time. "My muscles were weak and my action had some problems. I trained hard and became fitter and since that period I haven't got any back issues. If you have a one-year break, not playing cricket and doing just rehab and exercises, it's quite difficult.

"My father wasn't happy when I took up cricket. He was a doctor and he wanted me to study medicine or engineering. There wasn't much cricket in Afghanistan that time, and he said cricket doesn't have any future here. But I liked the sport and eventually he understood my passion and supported me in everything along with my big brother [a former tape-ball cricketer]."

Ul-Haq has just completed a training camp in Dubai under Afghanistan coach Lance Klusener and is gearing up for the three-match T20I series against Ireland in India next month, although it's the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup later this year that could really shape his white-ball career.

He has Test ambitions too and was part of the Afghanistan A team that toured Bangladesh for two four-day games in July last year.

"The mindset changes while playing first-class cricket because it's not just about dot balls and variations. It's about being patient and bowling long spells," he says. "Basically you need to bowl with the new ball and then you can try to reverse-swing the old ball. I'm working on these aspects too to become better in red-ball cricket."

So will the world get to see this youngster wearing a headband, like Hassan, and winning matches across formats for Afghanistan in the near future?

"I might paint the flag on my cheeks. The band suits Hamid, not sure about me (laughs). Hopefully…"