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Feature

Naseem Shah's latest arrival feels like the real thing

He's still only 19, but the highs and lows he's packed into a 13-Test career have accelerated his growth into a hugely impressive cricketer

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
30-Nov-2022
Naseem Shah returns to the format he lit up first, vastly more mature as a cricketer and as a human being  •  Getty Images

Naseem Shah returns to the format he lit up first, vastly more mature as a cricketer and as a human being  •  Getty Images

He is only 13 Tests old, but there have been several moments when it's felt like Naseem Shah has arrived.
As early as in his third Test, in Karachi, when he became the second-youngest bowler to take five wickets in an innings, leading Pakistan to a 263-run win over Sri Lanka. Maybe you remember that hat-trick in the Rawalpindi twilight that broke open Bangladesh in February 2020. The 4 for 58 against Australia in Lahore perhaps sticks in the mind - he had recently returned after more than a year out with a niggling back injury. Or the second Test in Galle earlier this year, when he was thrust into the role of leading an attack that had lost Shaheen Shah Afridi to injury, and ended up the pick of the Pakistan bowlers.
For sheer exhilaration, though, it isn't a performance, but a particular delivery that defines what makes Naseem the box-office cricketer he has grown into so quickly. It came against Ollie Pope at Old Trafford, one star in the making pitted against another. The ball had become old and soft, and Pope had built a 65-run stand with Jos Buttler as England chipped away at Pakistan's first-innings total. It was a length ball, not short, but it was sent down with enough venom to lift like a bouncer. Pope fended at it and edged to gully, where Shadab Khan held on to a low catch.
It was Pope's nonplussed expression that added to the sense that this was a moment of sorts.
Naseem hasn't been with the Pakistan side for long, but he has managed to fit in enough highs and lows to almost mirror a whole career. Many moments felt like he had arrived, many made one worry that he had faded away.
The debut in Brisbane in November 2019, when he was not yet 17 and very raw, and was coming off a personal tragedy, now feels like it came awfully soon. There's always the possibility of a young bowler struggling to recover from a difficult first game like that: Muhammad Musa, who made his debut when still a teenager in the following Test in Adelaide, hasn't played another Test. The back injury that hampered him kept him out for more than a year, and Pakistan's history of fast bowlers with recurring injuries - and their unfortunate fates - raised fears that it might be career-threatening.
"I think it is a big achievement for him that he is still playing and is very fit and that shows how much hard work he has been doing. He is a legend, and I have learnt from him"
Naseem Shah on James Anderson
Now, England's arrival in Pakistan thrusts upon Naseem a responsibility he has only fleetingly carried for Pakistan before, that of leading the red-ball attack. With Afridi out for the series, Naseem has to, in all likelihood, take over new-ball responsibilities. For much of his career, Pakistan have deployed him as first change, looking to use the pace and the unpredictable bounce and seam movement he gets once the initial shine comes off the ball.
A brief stint at Gloucestershire earlier in the year only ended up amounting to one-first class match, but Naseem has been steadily expanding his horizons in red-ball cricket. In a press conference on Tuesday, he pointed out that the benefits of his time in England extended beyond his game.
"I had a good season. I enjoyed it a lot, and learnt a lot," he said. "They were different conditions and different pitches. In life, you learn a lot when you live alone. I think bowling is not easy anywhere, but in England, you need to know the conditions and pitch. So yeah, it was a different type of experience."
England have arrived to play Test cricket in Pakistan after 17 years; Naseem was just two when they were last here. There have been plenty of peaks and troughs in the England-Pakistan relationship over this time - unsurprising, given there's a generation's gap between these two series. But straddling that gap is James Anderson, the only member of this England side to have toured Pakistan before.
Naseem was keen to pay homage to Anderson's longevity, which, given the 19-year-old's ambitions, he would be keen to draw from.
"I think it is a big achievement for him that he is still playing and is very fit and that shows how much hard work he has been doing," Naseem said. "He does that required hard work, he is a legend, and I have learnt from him. The big thing about him is that he is still fit and playing at 40. He is a legend and knows everything about bowling, having played everywhere in the world."
Naseem now feels very different from the painfully shy 16-year-old who found cricket's invasive and at times hostile media a challenge at the start of his international career. There have been signs of Naseem growing into his own person, and the cheeky confidence of someone who retains his boyish charm even as he develops into the impressive young man he's become.
Speaking of England's newfound aggression in the Test format, he didn't seem fazed. "They take risk and play aggressively, that is their mindset and if they are succeeding in that so be it, we have to bowl accordingly and counter that."
He has dismissed Joe Root once before, but when asked about his plans for the batter, Naseem shot back with a smile: "Why should I tell you?"
Naseem's skills with the English language have come a long way since he made his debut, too, but when probed in a language he is still coming to grips with, he was blunt. "Brother, I have just 30% English," he laughed. "My English is finished now, okay?"
For the past three months, the focus had moved from Naseem the red-ball bowler to Naseem the limited-overs cricketer. It was quite a remarkable turnaround, given he hadn't yet made his international white-ball debut until August, only to find himself among Pakistan's spearheads during runs to the Asia Cup and T20 World Cup finals. He now returns to the format he lit up first, vastly more mature as a cricketer and, just as noticeably, as a person.
Unbelievably, he is still a teenager. But now it does feel like Naseem Shah has arrived.

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