Feature

Left-field choice Naseem Shah builds his reputation on slow Lahore surface

In 19 overs, Naseem bowled nine maidens, took two wickets and conceded only 36 runs on day one

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
21-Mar-2022
Naseem Shah runs in with David Warner and Shaheen Shah Afridi looking on, Pakistan vs Australia, 1st Test, Rawalpindi, 3rd day, March 6, 2022

Naseem Shah bowled nine maidens in his 19 overs on day one  •  AFP/Getty Images

It's unclear what Naseem Shah was told before the game, but a candid conversation might have gone like this: "this pitch is quite slow, so we're picking you. Yes, yes, we know you bowl fast, but that's why you're playing, see? We just need you to bowl even faster. You know those developing joints of yours that you constantly feel might break down at any point? Do you mind putting just a little bit extra stress on them?
"See, this wicket is really very slow, and that's the only way for you to be effective. Otherwise, you know, you might go for lots of runs and pick up no wickets? What were your figures in that last New Zealand Test again? 0 for 141, yeah? And 1 for 89 in Rawalpindi? The average is pushing what, 45, now? You don't want that to get much worse, right? Don't much worry if you get injured, young man, we'll put you on the path to recovery yet again, as we've done before. And if you lose that extra yard of pace, let me reassure you, there's no need to worry. We've got new fast bowlers coming up all the time, so we can always turn to them. Anyway, it's really hot this week in Lahore, I need a shade and a cool drink."
In a series that has contributed its fair share to the #MonotonousMarch theme that Test cricket has seemed to adopt this year, the developments that saw Naseem's inclusion for the third Test against Australia moved at warp speed. It was fewer than three weeks ago, remember, when his inclusion to replace a crocked Faheem Ashraf was considered so deleterious to Pakistan's prospects the PCB chairman all but admitted to laying out a moribund surface the ICC rated "below average" in a soporific snooze of a Test match. Was that Faheem Ashraf being dropped? The man who's contributed with either bat and ball every Test match he's played? The man Pakistan didn't hesitate to play last week in Karachi after he tested positive for Covid once but negative the next day?
To replace him with Naseem in expectation of extra pace only spoke of how slow this wicket would likely be, and the extra effort Naseem would have to put in if he was to get anything back. Still a teenage boy, he has spent the last couple of years in and out of the treatment room, because bowling this fast with a body you're yet to properly develop fully places unnatural demands on various joints and muscles. He has recently suffered ankle and groin injuries and after an impressive start to his Test career, had fast begun to fade.
And so, on a pitch ill-suited to him, both as an express fast bowler and an injury-prone young man, Naseem began his thankless task in the seventh over. Shaheen Shah Afridi had delivered two early breakthroughs, and as if the pressure wasn't already intense enough, he was supposed to follow that. He would start against Usman Khawaja, the best batter of the series, and on current form, among the best in the world. He would push him slightly back into the crease with a succession of deliveries slightly short of a good length. It's a length he has worked on lately, honing this skill as a guardrail against the natural tendency of Pakistani pace bowlers to continually push fuller. Besides, the ball was keeping low, and that meant retreating to the back foot was never quite without risk.
Steven Smith at the other end fidgeted and fussed, but Naseem refused to let him get under his skin. The first three overs allowed just two runs, but as the morning session wore on, Naseem was quietly adding another arrow to his quiver. While the new-ball swing for Shaheen Afridi had evaporated so early the sun might well have scorched it off, Naseem had found reverse in the low 140s. It was the only time Khawaja, so serene and unflappable all day, stuttered for confidence. A couple beat the outside edge, and when the opener tried to overcompensate, Naseem would bring one back in and nearly take an inside nick through to the keeper.
Smith and Khawaja were grinding Pakistan down, 53 overs into what seemed like a repeat of the partnership that had killed Pakistan's chances off on the first day in Karachi. And yet, Naseem persisted with his length, never straying as the afternoon wore on and the energy reserves dwindled. In 73 deliveries on length or slightly back that Naseem bowled to the pair, they managed only 12 runs. And it was him, when it felt as if Pakistan's bowling unit had collectively run out of ideas, that produced the wicket to prise the game open, jagging one back into Smith so sharply even he couldn't stop it crashing into his pads adjacent to the stumps. By this time, nine of Naseem's 13 overs were maidens.
"It's quite hot and not easy to bowl in these conditions," Naseem later said. "The bowlers do get frustrated in such conditions but you have to keep yourself calm because you have to bowl for long periods in these conditions on a good line and length. "The ball was keeping low and the wicket of Smith gave me lot of confidence. I tried to bowl more dot balls to him and doesn't allow him to score freely which in the end earned me his wicket. If you bowl with pace you can get reverse swing on such wickets and that's what exactly I tried to do."
Pakistan's spinners began to find breakthroughs once the impregnable stand had been broken. But tellingly, when 80 overs were sent down and the new ball due, Babar, instead, turned around, and put the old ball back into the hands of his teenage prodigy, the man who's been around for long enough for people to forget he's still barely out of boyhood. It was instantly obvious why; his first ball this spell had seen Travis Head edge through a vacant second slip region, and the nip Naseem was able to command both ways was verging on unplayable. The final ball of that 81st over, a perfect fourth stump line drew Head's edge, and Pakistan had their fifth.
...it was him, when it felt as if Pakistan's bowling unit had collectively run out of ideas, that produced the wicket to prise the game open
Babar smiled, and two overs later, called for the new ball. Naseem would send down a couple of overs with it, but his wasn't the glamour spell nor the easy work. He had taken on the Lahore heat, the Australian batters, and perhaps even his own young body; it might not thank him for it in the long-run.
But in Pakistan, reputations are made and destroyed match to match, day to day. And with a body he hopes he can come to trust more, Naseem painstakingly built his once more today in Lahore.

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