Naseem Shah, the boy who will rule the world

Take a peek into the life of one of Pakistan's most exciting fast bowlers

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Naseem Shah made a big impression on T20I debut, India vs Pakistan, Asia Cup, Dubai, August 28, 2022

Naseem Shah, 19, has already made a big impression in international cricket  •  AFP/Getty Images

There is a boisterous energy Naseem Shah brings to everything he does on the cricket field. And he makes things happen. If his fiery lifters to Virat Kohli elicited a raised brow and a nod from the batter, his late seam movement back into KL Rahul to clang into his stumps triggered an Imran Tahir-like sprint of celebration. Even his handshake comes off with a sideways high-five vibe. It's all or nothing.
When Naseem is running in, everyone must stop what they are doing and watch. At training, and at press boxes. Even in the dining room, people put down their spoons and forks and watch him. On Sunday, he bowled Rahul first ball, and then welcomed Kohli with a sharp bouncer and a smile. Everyone's eyes were on him. Even the private security guards whose job it is to survey the crowed for signs of trouble couldn't help but steal a glance.
Yet, for all that aggression, there's a boyish charm to Naseem, in the way he just seems to enjoy everything about the game. Bowling is what he absolutely loves, though. Even at the end of a long two-hour session, if he still has the ball in hand, you know batters are going to be challenged, if not cop blows. It doesn't even matter that they are all his team-mates.
Naseem plays with a smile; angry barbs aren't his way. If you know his story, just 19 years' worth, you would know why playing cricket means so much to him. He has seen poverty knock on his door. He has had to deal with the loss of a parent - his mother. He's experienced challenges every step of the way. It has all been in search of a dream. A dream that may have once seemed as far from becoming a reality as his hometown in the Lower Dir in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is to Karachi or Islamabad. But not anymore.
Naseem has overcome setbacks on the field too. Some serious, like multiple stress fractures on his back that has had him spend more time on hospital beds, looking at PET scans and reports, than the nets or at the ground. And others not quite so frightening, but worrying all the same, like his shoulder troubles earlier this year.
In between, he has roughed up batting line-ups with swing, seam and raw pace. He is the youngest bowler ever to pick up a Test hat-trick. He has played in England, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and is now in the UAE for the Asia Cup. In a month's time, he is likely to be on the flight to Australia, the country of his Test debut, for his maiden [T20] World Cup.
Not bad, you'd think, for someone who didn't have a pair of spikes till four years ago. He didn't know what a leather ball was or what seam position meant. All he knew was bowling fast. No compromises.
Mudassar Nazar, the former Pakistan allrounder, remembers watching Naseem in his debut season, in 2018, and being spellbound. Mudassar was director of academies at the PCB and was in charge of honing the skills of young cricketers who had been handpicked to be part of the National Cricket Academy in Lahore.
"In his maiden first-class season, I remember a game where Naseem was bowling to a tailender, a No. 11, I presume," Mudassar recalled in a chat with ESPNcricinfo. "You could see the guy was scared of Naseem. He kept exposing all three stumps, it was basically an open invitation for Naseem to clean him up. But he kept bowling short, bowling bouncers at him. He was so aggressive that he wanted to knock him out. We had to sit him down and tell him this is not how you bowl; the prime objective is to get people out."
The NCA in Lahore shares a wall with the Abdul Qadir Academy, where Naseem began his formal training at 15. He had just moved into his uncle's house in the city, from where he would cycle long distances to reach the academy. On his first day there, he was handed an old ball. Two overs later, Naseem made a beeline for the new ball, and he wasn't to be denied. Clearly, he was special. Saud Khan, a man with an eye for talent and one of the coaches at the academy, was Naseem's first instructor, and Sulaman Qadir, one of Abdul Qadir's sons, his mentor.
For six months, Naseem's routine was something like this: cycle to training, bowl for four hours, cycle home, grab some food, then go back and do it all over again in the evening. It wasn't for everyone. But for Naseem, it was all he wanted to do. Once word about him spread, he was immediately drafted into one of several age-group camps at the PCB Academy.
This period coincided with Mudassar's return to Pakistan from Dubai, where he had been in charge as head of cricket development at the ICC Academy. Mudassar, a veteran of 76 Tests and 122 ODIs, had been at the forefront of the academy's development since its launch in 2009, but couldn't refuse an offer when then PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan came calling.
Mudassar's first task was to identify a pool of players at the Under-16 level to take part in PCB's exchange programme with Cricket Australia in early 2017. Sure enough, Naseem figured in that list. It was Mudassar's first proper sighting of the fast bowler, long before he played that first-class game where he roughed up tailenders with bouncers.
"My first impression was the guy can bowl sharp, and that he was quick, but can get quicker," Mudassar said. He continued after a long pause: "But he had a terrible bowling action that was putting a lot of strain on his back. Much of it came about because of non-stop cricket. He'd bowl at the NCA, then hop over to the academy next door and bowl there. And this took a toll on him without him realising it."
Towards the end of 2017, Naseem had his first stress fracture and it needed six-seven months of rehab. "He dealt with the news of his injury better than me, or better than many other kids would," Mudassar said. "But that desperation to play was there. It was a stressful time, but he was so composed. Every morning, he'd come and say, 'sir, mujhe khelna hai' [I want to play]. Our challenge as coaches was to control hm and tell him he needed to look after himself."
Mudassar has undertaken several courses about biomechanics and injury management over the years. His ability to explain a complex issue in layperson's terms helps put things into perspective.
"Naseem's action is side-on, and his front arm kept falling away from his body instead of going across his body," Mudassar said. "That would take the head position with it, and all his energy, instead of going straight down the pitch, would be going towards gully. This put immense stress on his back.
"He would be so fond of bowling that you couldn't keep him still. You have to do a certain number of repetitions to get a message from your brain to form your muscle memory. But because young players are so fond of playing, it's easy to go back to old habits. We had to control Naseem for six months. And inch by inch, we worked on bringing his front arm across. Only once we were fully satisfied, he was able to do that, we let him play."
Within two months of getting fit, Naseem was playing for Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited in a Quaid-e-Azam Trophy game against Lahore Blues. Less than a year later, he was in Australia, making his Test debut. He was that good. He didn't need to play Under-19 or 'A' team cricket. It was straight into the senior team.
"The boy simply wanted to knock batters out with his aggression and pace, the main thing was to get him to understand how to bowl to every batter, how to bowl on different kinds of pitches and how to get people out," Mudassar said. "He slowly started to play more matches. Which is why he was also in the scheme of things for the Under-19 World Cup in 2020. But you knew he was way ahead of his mates at that level."
Naseem made his Test debut in Brisbane, a week after he had received the news of his mother's death. The fastest flight home was going to take 48 hours. He chose to stay on.
Since his debut, Naseem has become a regular member of the Pakistan line-up, and although he only made his T20I debut a couple of days ago, he looks a shoo-in for the T20 World Cup squad. Especially now that it is clear he was only suffering from cramps when he went down, screaming in pain and clutching his leg, in the India game earlier this week.
But, for all his gifts - his pace, his swing, his aggression - there are still things Naseem can get better at. "I don't see him using the crease yet," Mudassar said. "But as he bowls more, he'll pick up the finer aspects. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he stays fit. This boy, like his second name, Shah - which means emperor in Urdu - will rule the world."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo