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Match Analysis

The fast bowling poetry of Naseem and Afridi

They haven't played together often but seeing them operating in tandem on a famously spin-friendly pitch was nothing short of spectacular

Naseem Shah got on the scorecard when he got rid of Dinesh Chandimal, Sri Lanka vs Pakistan, 1st Test, Galle, 1st day, July 16, 2023

Naseem Shah bowling in tandem with Shaheen Afridi hasn't happened too often, and it was so great to watch  •  AFP/Getty Images

Shaheen Shah Afridi surges in for his first Test-match spell in a year, nips it away from the right-handers, zips it into the leftie, beating edges, eliciting jittery prods. If there is a first over you don't want to miss in world cricket, he is most-often the one bowling them.
Naseem Shah doesn't quite have Afridi's record, doesn't quite have his height, or his control. But he does have that action. He doesn't just run to the crease, he races. At the crease he is a throwback delight, the back unloading like a slingshot.
They haven't been seen together much over the past three years, in this format at least. Afridi hasn't played in whites since tearing a ligament in his knee at the same venue he is currently playing at, in July last year.
Largely owing to injury, Naseem bowled in only the single Test innings in 2021. All up, they've bowled in 19 Test innings together. Even in those, Naseem has often been used first-change, where Afridi operates with the new ball.
But this being Galle, the world's leading venue for ritual shaming of batters at the hands of spin bowlers, no one dares play more than two seamers. And so, you get Afridi and Naseem tearing in, in tandem. For most of two hours, split by a long rain break, they were a fast-bowling spectacle - the kind that greater Pakistan teams than this one had made the pillar of their identity.
Afridi didn't quite send an opener packing in his first over, but it didn't take much longer - his seventh ball of the day nipping away, effectively setting up the wicket he claimed on the eighth. Nishan Madushka was first beaten, then edged one feeling for it away from the body, to become Afridi's 100th Test victim.
Kusal Mendis should have been out first ball of Afridi's fourth over, only Pakistan had not installed a third slip, who would have swallowed the edge off the bat. When an extra slip comes in after a potential catch goes through a vacant area, the commentary cliche is to suggest that there is no point shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. But such was the quality of this over from Afridi, he re-caught the horse and put the padlock on the door himself. Fourth ball, pitching just outside leg, darting it away with the angle, Afridi collected Mendis' edge.
Naseem would not make a breakthrough until later, but right through their opening spells (which the rain break helped extend), they fed off each other's menace, Afridi roughing up a batter with a short ball, before Naseem tested him with a yorker, the Galle pitch offering some semblance of pace and carry for once.
Between them, they decked Sri Lanka's top order, Afridi getting three, as Sri Lanka slid to 54 for 4 before lunch, having chosen to bat.
"They were very nippy," Angelo Mathews said after play. "They were seaming and swinging the ball both. It was high-quality bowling. They were landing the ball on the seam, and most of the time you saw the wicketkeeper take the ball above the waist.
"Shaheen showed his quality. To bowl like that on a deck like this - I haven't seen too many fast bowlers do that."
Pakistan's effort deflated after that, the spinners unable to match the tension created by the riveting new-ball spells. Mathews got past fifty; Dhananjaya de Silva moved into the nineties by the end of a rain-hit day.
There is no telling if we are in the early days of an Afridi-Naseem dynasty, because cricket doesn't work like that for fast bowlers who bowl at this pace. Pakistan cricket careers especially are wild, winding, capricious things, players headed for the stratosphere one moment, plummeting spectacularly the next.
So let's just live in the moment and say that on a morning in which Pakistan had lost the toss, and with an inexperienced spin attack in their ranks, Afridi and Naseem put their side in the match. With the new-ball, they were intense together.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf