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Match Analysis

Naseem Shah, the wunderkind from Lower Dir who conquered Sharjah

On an evening when it really mattered, the 19-year old soaked in the pressure and won it for his team - this time, with the bat

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
08-Sep-2022
It's the 18th over of Pakistan's first game at the Asia Cup, and Naseem Shah already looks done. He's bowling to Ravindra Jadeja as India close in on a scrappy win. He's been thrown the ball because Pakistan need wickets, but his 19-year old legs can barely support his body weight. He slumps to the floor almost every delivery, that expressive face contorting in agony. Oppressively muggy Dubai evenings and bowling at 145kph, evidently, do not go together.
He's helped to his feet, is basically hopping on one leg as he starts his run-up and then, like the flick of a mental switch, he canters in, gathering pace as he approaches the bowling crease once more. There's no let-up in pace, and yet, the moment the ball leaves his hand, his body remembers what it's being put through, and the pain overcomes him once more. He goes down again. Then gets up and again. And he does it over and over, showcasing a level of mental resolve that belies his teenage years.

****

The occasion is finally here - Pakistan against Afghanistan. A city so full of migrants from both countries each of them has learned to call it their second home of sorts. Significant Indian interest in the game too, lending it an extra edge - a Pakistan win would put the giants of this continent out of the tournament.
Like it or not - and very few do - India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have seen their fates inextricably linked together in the world of geopolitics. That, for one surreal evening in Sharjah, it also holds true as far as cricket goes is an unusual case of sport imitating life. The narrative is delicious enough to be used as a cliché; of sport bringing people together, or, less pleasantly, chest-thumping jingoism depending on how the game goes. Thankfully, at this Asia Cup, there has been almost none of the latter.
The hype around the game, though, seems misplaced at half-time. Pakistan keep Afghanistan's batters in check, the 129 they manage the third-lowest first-innings score all tournament. Naseem allows just 19 runs in his four overs, the most economical bowler among his team-mates.

****

If there's such a thing as the opposite of a city, that's what Lower Dir - where Naseem hails from - must be to Dubai or Sharjah. It's chilly, mountainous, small-time and tribal as opposed to the desert metropolis that is the UAE. It was perhaps understandable the father tried to talk his son out of pursuing a professional cricket career in his early teen years, but telling Naseem not to do something is perhaps the fastest shortcut to making him do it. Even when it comes to a long shot. The boy was willing to take that chance, and the pain of almost certain failure was just the price he might have to pay.
The route to the Pakistan national set-up sometimes feels less a pathway and more a maze, but the generational nature of Naseem's raw pace and brimming potential was blindingly obvious. You didn't need a pathway to discover him, only a set of eyes. And so, from the day he made his first-class debut, the national side had eyes for him. He picked up a five-for in just his second first-class match. He had not yet turned 16.
But the road from there to here in the UAE wasn't a straight line. There were doubts, setbacks, moments of exaltation, and, of course, a lot of tribulation. There was the loss of his mother on the eve of his debut, when the 16-year old Naseem was on the other side of the world in Australia. Things like this shouldn't happen, a child far from home playing professional sport in the hour of his greatest grief, but Naseem does it anyway. It isn't just physical pain barriers he plays through.
Not that there aren't physical pain barriers to contend with, mind. There was a multiple stress fracture of his back that saw him in the hospital more frequently than on the field. Talk of wrist positions and run-ups quietly - ominously - gave way to chatter about PET scans and period of recuperation. There were issues with his shoulder as recently as this year, so any sense of his presence at the Asia Cup being an inevitability would be misguided.
But as twilight gives way to the night, Sharjah, no stranger to cricketing drama, is adamant not to let this occasion become a footnote in history. This game might still be viewed by some as a proxy between India and Pakistan (and haven't Afghanistan tired of hearing that before?), but Afghanistan have fought for their place in cricket's biggest continental cup, and they will not let anyone else tell their story. Fazalhaq Farooqi (3-31), Mujeeb Ur Rehman (4-0-12-0), Fareed Ahmed (3-31), Rashid Khan (2-25) and Mohammad Nabi (3-0-22-0) take the attack on, landing blow after blow until a punch-drunk Pakistan just about sink to their knees. Asif Ali, ostensibly their last hope and the second-last wicket, is dispatched - first with a short ball, and then a bit of a sledge and a shove. He doesn't like it - Pakistan don't like it, but Afghanistan don't feel they owe Pakistan any pleasantries.
Finally, the boy from Lower Dir comes in. The last obstacle to a famous Afghan win. They've come agonisingly close each of the last two times against Pakistan, but this feels different. For Naseem might be a boy wizard with ball in hand, but wielding the blade, he's a regular old Muggle.
Farooqi steams in. An hour earlier, he had dismissed Babar Azam, probably the best batter in the world, for a golden duck. Mohammad Nawaz, Pakistan's hero against India, and Khushdil Shah, slayer of Hong Kong, had proved no match either. So why would Naseem, with zero career T20I runs and just 63 in all T20 cricket, prove any match?
Eleven needed off the last over. Farooqi strides in and misses the yorker. Naseem has a swing, and it connects, heading straight for a pocket of Afghan fans behind the sight screen who find their celebration give way to nervous anxiety. But one is no judge of success, and Naseem must do it all over again.
It's another full toss, and Naseem has another swing. This one isn't as clean, and for the briefest fraction in time, the ball hovers in the air within reach of long-off, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan's fates hanging on the path it takes on its descent. But Naseem's thrown his arms at it, and if those arms can support a 19-year old bowling at 145kph, then there's strength enough. The ball still teases long-off, but by the time the man puts in a despairing dive, Afghanistan's fate is sealed.
Naseem drops his bat, and, by the look on his face, his guard. Incredulous, he sprints towards the onrushing Pakistan players and staff. With the ball, there might be no end to what he backs himself to do, but with bat in hand, he is subconsciously giving himself the ultimate compliment: even he's surprised by what he's done.
As the mood in the crowd turns sour and ugly, Afghanistan sink to their knees, their eyes shimmering as they take in the bitterest of defeats. This wasn't meant to happen, but Naseem has done it anyway.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000