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Nauman Ali, the Khipro kid who turned history-making late bloomer

Nauman, who became only the second person ever from interior Sindh to play a Test, didn't hit his stride till 2018

Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq
Nauman Ali raises the ball after completing a five-for  •  Associated Press

Nauman Ali raises the ball after completing a five-for  •  Associated Press

After Nauman Ali became the fourth oldest debutant to take a five-wicket haul on debut, ESPNcricinfo did a little digging on the man shot to near-overnight fame.
Where is he from?
Nauman Ali was born in Khipro, a small city in a subdivision of the Sanghar district in interior Sindh, connected to India's border on the east side in front of the Thar desert. Nauman spent his childhood in Khipro until the age of 14, with no cricket in sight, until his father's job brought the entire family to Hyderabad, meaning access to decent cricket infrastructure around the Niaz Stadium.
Nauman is a Punjabi, with his family having roots from Attock, but he grew up largely in Sindh. He is the only one among his eight brothers to play competitive cricket, as the others never rose from recreational tape-ball cricket. Nauman did his bachelors in commerce from Latifabad and is an alumnus of Fazul-ur-Rehman cricket club in Hyderabad.
His uncle Rizwan Ahmed, who played an ODI for Pakistan in 2008 against Zimbabwe, was a crucial figure in convincing Nauman to take up cricket seriously. Nauman started off as a fast bowler, but because of the dry conditions in the city, he was converted into a left-arm spinner, giving him a better chance to impose himself.
Rizwan helped Nauman rebuild his action, while his elder brother Faisal Ali (now based in Scotland) and regional coach Iqbal Imam assisted him to spin the ball. Imam in particular was an influential figure for most local cricketers; for five decades until 2019, there were around 16 districts feeding directly into the national circuit.
Is Nauman the first ever cricketer from interior Sindh to play a Test?
Excluding the metropolitan city of Karachi, Nauman is only the second player from the remaining provinces of Sindh to have represented Pakistan in red-ball cricket. Sindh has 95 cities with a total population of 47.89 million, with Karachi alone covering 20 million. Unsurprisingly, Karachi, with bigger and better cricket infrastructure, has taken up most of the sporting opportunities.
Interior Sindh, meanwhile, has been ravaged by poverty and lack of basic necessities. Sport, including cricket, is generally not a priority in the rural area of the province.
Nauman grew up playing on dry and grubby open fields in his native town, with no clear pathway to the national circuit till he moved to Hyderabad, the second largest city in Sindh with a population of over six million.
How did he finally make it into the national circuit?
Once Nauman's family migrated to Hyderabad, his uncle Rizwan's success story sucked him fully into cricket. Rizwan, who is based in Pennsylvania now, played 18 years of domestic cricket until 2016 as an allrounder, scoring 9634 runs and taking 189 wickets (including 7225 first-class runs at 35.94 and 135 wickets). Rizwan got the opportunity to represent Pakistan in 2008 when Shahid Afridi was rested for the final ODI against Zimbabwe, with the team having already secured the series with a 4-0 lead. However, he only bowled four wicketless overs and didn't bat.
Rizwan never played for Pakistan again, but his brief international stint made enough waves back home in Hyderabad, where the locals celebrated him. Before Rizwan, Faisal Athar was the only other local player to feature for Pakistan, playing an ODI against New Zealand in 2003. Like Rizwan, Athar too never got into the national side again.
Still, their respective international appearances turned them into local heroes, and they both became mentors for the small cricketing community in the town that revolves around the Niaz Stadium with Fazur ur Rehman cricket club as its home team.
In 70 years of cricket, so far only five players from Sindh (excluding Karachi) have represented Pakistan: Faisal Athar, Rizwan Ahmed, Sharjeel Khan, Mohammad Hasnain and Nauman. Before Nauman, opener Sharjeel Khan represented the country in one Test, 25 ODIs and 15 T20Is before losing his place in the side in 2017 for his role in spot-fixing.
Nauman only came under the spotlight in 2018, where he has been since 2007?
Nauman began his career in 2004 at the Under-19 level, playing inter-district matches for Hyderabad. Over the next three years, he would play more than 150 games at both inter-district as well as inter-region level. In 2005, Nauman was picked by United Bank Limited under the captaincy of Azhar Mehmood, to play in the PCB Patrons' Trophy. He stayed with the team for four straight seasons until 2008, but couldn't help them qualify for first-class cricket.
Nauman had also spent more than five seasons playing league cricket in the UK, including four consecutive seasons in the JCT 6000 Bradford Cricket League. He was then signed by Khan Research Laboratory after Saeed Ajmal had left them for ZTBL in 2009. Nauman spent 10 seasons with KRL, playing 47 games and picking up 145 wickets at 21.66, including 43 scalps in 2018 alone.
In 2004, he started playing inter-district under19 for Hyderabad, and spent the next three years playing inter-district to inter region level, amassing over 150 games. He was picked by United Bank Limited under Azhar Mehmood captaincy to play PCB Patrons' Trophy (grade 2) in 2005 and stayed with them for four seasons until 2008, but this side couldn't qualify for first-class cricket. He had also spent more than five seasons playing league cricket in UK with four consecutive season in JCT 6000 Bradford Cricket League. He was signed by Khan Research Laboratory after Saeed Ajmal left them for ZTBL in 2009. He played 10 straight seasons thereafter for KRL, picking up 145 wickets at 21.66 (43 in 2018 alone).
Why did he play just 47 games across 10 seasons?
During his time at KRL between 2009 and 2018, the team had a specialist fast-bowling unit including Sadaf Hussain (221 wickets at 18.92), Yasir Ali (182 at 21.86), Yasir Arafat (167 at 17.20), Mohammad Abbas (132 at 14.61) and Rahat Ali (between: 2009-2015: 125 at 20.71).
With such a strong bowling line up, Nauman did not have too many opportunities to make the XI and missed out playing full seasons until 2018-19, when he played eight games to pick up 43 wickets at 14.20.
Nauman was only picked for Pakistan at the age of 34 after spending 14 years playing first class cricket. Since 2018, he has taken 158 wickets at 21.48, which constitute 55.5% of his entire first-class haul.
He has been in the system since 2007 and in the first 11 years of his career, managed to take only 134 wickets, mainly due to the lack of opportunities and being on the bench for more than half a season. But when he eventually had his chance, he made the most out of it. Last year alone, Nauman picked up six five-fors and three 10-wicket hauls to become an inevitable selection for Pakistan.
How did he do that?
There are two factors - tweaking the technical side of his game, and the nature of the pitches he played on. In the last three years, Nauman played 17 games out of 28 on Karachi pitches, where he took 104 wickets. He also revamped his bowling technique with the kookaburra ball, which doesn't have the sharp and uplifted seam to help spinners. But Nadeem Khan, a veteran of 534 first-class wickets, talked him through not to rely too much on the surface, but to go with the spin by revolving the ball in the air at the point of release. Nauman had till then been bowling with pace, nipping the ball by hitting the seam with no control on his field placement.
His stint with Multan Sultans in 2018, with Nadeem around as manager of the franchise, helped Nauman to rework on his bowling by pulling the pace behind the ball and using the air instead. This fundamentally changed his technique and made him more effective with the ball than he was in the first 11 years of his career.
Could this mean Pakistan may omit him for away tours?
This remains to be seen. Nauman's recent wickets have been taken while playing in relatively drier conditions: UBL Complex Karachi (58 at 18.15), NBP Sports Complex Karachi (31 at 20.06), National Stadium Karachi (30 at 30.86). But at the same time, he has taken the most number of wickets - 61 at 22.32 - playing at his home ground at KRL in Rawalpindi, a green top venue.
Pakistan have adapted a policy of horses for courses, with spinners taking a lead role on home soil. Outside Pakistan, it's too early to guarantee a place for him in the playing XI, but he is likely to make the larger squad. Yasir Shah, with his international experience, is still the lead spinner, but Nauman is here to stay as a wicket-taking prospect, at least in England. His fitness, according to him, has kept him active and that is the element he would like to contain to stay in the mix for longer.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent