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Young, fast and furious

Shaheen Afridi and Naseem Shah have the makings of a left-right pace partnership Pakistan were once famous for. Believe the hype; it’s fun.

cricket Updated: Aug 13, 2020 07:31 IST
Somshuvra Laha
Somshuvra Laha
New Delhi
Nasim Shah of Pakistan bowls watched on by Shaheen Afridi and Waqar Younis during a nets session at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Nasim Shah of Pakistan bowls watched on by Shaheen Afridi and Waqar Younis during a nets session at Old Trafford, Manchester.(PA Images via Getty Images)

Ten years since their pace resurrection project was dealt a devastating blow in a fixing scandal in England that saw Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir banished, Pakistan are daring to dream again. Making batsmen jump and heads turn in England is the tearaway duo of Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah, a left-right fast bowling combination that evokes memories of Amir and Asif.

Afridi is 20 and Shah just 17. One has played nine Tests and the other five. Comparisons, therefore, don’t apply. Plain old exuberance at watching the rise of express pacers, though, needs no justification. In just these many games, the two bowlers have shown that they have it all: intimidating speed, plenty of variations, and the ability to move the ball. They have Pakistan’s rich history of producing great fast bowlers to draw from. Yet they also have to contend with another legacy that hangs over them like smog over Lahore: Pakistan’s recent cricket history is fraught with examples of fast bowlers labelled ‘has been’ or ‘could have been’.

Since that infamous England tour of September 2010, Pakistan have handed Test debuts to 17 fast bowlers with Wahab Riaz being the most experienced having played 27 Tests. A bulk of that pace talent was lost due to indecisive selection, dubious injury management and shifting priorities. Only four fast bowlers from Pakistan have ever made it past the 50-Test mark, and they all belong to a time long gone: Wasim Akram (104), Imran Khan (88), Waqar Younis (87) and Sarfraz Nawaz (55).

It is this unappealing legacy that Afridi and Shah are up against; one that should prompt them to approach the second Test against England, in Southampton from Thursday, with caution. Playing in England should give them some heart because Pakistan have always fared better there than in other nations. But having already failed in two innings defeats in Australia last year, the pacers, especially Afridi, know England might be where the buck stops.

“I think once they play a few matches more over a period of a year they will get better and Shaheen is an example of this,” Waqar Younis, Pakistan’s current bowling coach, had said after a defeat in Australia last November. Nine months since, Afridi seems primed to lead the attack.

Left-arm pacers are like royalty. And Pakistan have produced quite a few over the years. While Riaz (in the current Test squad) struggles with fitness, Amir retired from Tests fearing burnout. Both have pace and swing but not height. Afridi is an imposing 6ft 6. He had mediocre Test tours of South Africa (9 wickets @26.66) and Australia (5 wickets @36.80) in 2019. But in England, Afridi has shown his Test aptitude by altering the length. Blessed with an easy action and the ability to summon bouncers at will, he showed potential to blossom if encouraged with regular selection.

The wunderkind

What about Shah, the 17-year-old wunderkind? Making his Test debut in Brisbane a day after his mother’s death, he became the youngest pacer to take a five-for, against Sri Lanka in Karachi last December. Two months later, Shah became the youngest to take a hattrick against Bangladesh in Rawalpindi. So sure was Pakistan about his credentials that Shah was withdrawn from the U-19 World Cup squad earlier this year so that he could play for the senior squad. He is promising, but breaks down often, his fledgling career having already seen back, knee and rib injuries. Shah’s long-term aim should be to avoid becoming a blip on the radar.

“Shah bowls probably 88-90mph and swings the ball both ways, bowls a terrific length and has the purest of actions. Not many people have seen him bowl, but he has a similar action to Fred Trueman,” former England skipper Michael Vaughan said during commentary.

Shah’s bowling belies his age. With a measured run-up, he steams in with almost a side-on action and a longer than usual follow-through. Fear of injury may be preventing the stocky Shah from coming close to the stumps while releasing the ball—veering away on the follow-through to avoid transgressing on to the danger area in the crease takes a toll on the knees—but even then, his control is thrilling. Like when he dismissed Joe Root in the second innings: fast and with pinpoint accuracy to induce an edge off the bat to first slip. The one that got Ollie Pope in the first innings was another jaffa—spitting from full length to snare a massive edge that was scooped up at gully. But two wickets in two innings may not be a just reflection of the talent that is Naseem Shah, born two months after James Anderson, the England bowler he admires the most, made his international debut.

The same goes for Afridi.

In Misbah ul Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Younis Khan and Younis, Pakistan have an all-star coaching staff. Armed with the experience of County cricket, Pakistan would be hard-pressed to find someone better to handhold two promising pace prospects than Younis, one of the greatest pacers the game has seen (and who, with Akram, formed their most fierce left arm-right arm combination).

Also, never has any Pakistan fast-bowling pair been so well supported since the turn of the century. At 30, Mohammad Abbas is an aberration in their long history of temperamental fast bowlers who have thrived on seam, swing and raw pace. So for 31 overs at Old Trafford, he concentrated on bowling an off-stump line with just a hint of movement that forced batsmen to play. Topping it off was the outstanding dismissal of Ben Stokes, Abbas coiling the batsman with an angled delivery that moved away just enough to take off-stump. Then there is Yasir Shah who, with his excellent repertoire of leg spin and stock balls, can be paired with any bowler. With Abbas and Yasir acting as disciplinarian and provocateur, Afridi and Shah can run through lineups. They had half the England side back in the hut rather early in the second innings of the first Test before Chris Waokes and Jos Buttler took the match away from them. But England opening batsman Dom Sibley bordered on caution ahead of the second Test. “They are a very good attack—they have got a bit of everything,” Sibley said. “Abbas is very accurate, they have left-arm angle (Afridi) and the youngster (Naseem) who has some pace and bowled really well last week and a world-class spinner (Yasir). It is a very good attack.”

But for that attack to make a mark, like the way young Shah wants—“ at the moment, they won’t know who I am, but hopefully by the end of the tour they will know all about me,” he told—they will need careful nurturing.

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