KARACHI: After coming to terms with the fact that the 19-year-old Naseem Shah lead the Pakistan pace attack across all three formats since playing his first white-ball game only months ago, what is more pleasantly surprising is how the man thinks, speaks and carries himself off the field.
In an interview published recently, Pakistan bowling coach Shaun Tait said Naseem had “got a head on his shoulders that’s far above his years”. When the young pacer spoke during a promotional event for a brand he’s endorsing here on Wednesday, Tait’s judgment seemed very accurate.
The youngster, has emerged as a heartthrob for the Pakistan fans, especially after how he lead the national side’s pace attack from the front in last year’s Asia Cup and hit two winning sixes to finish off a thriller against Afghanistan in the tournament.
But Naseem is not all about his boyish looks, or his wit which illuminated the session. The mental strength and emotional intelligence he has built over just a few years as a professional cricketer was evident when he spoke about one of the early adversities he faced — a back injury that ruled him out for six months right before he was about to make it big after leaving home in Lower Dir to join a cricket academy in Lahore.
“I kept showing up at the academy regularly and eventually got picked for the U-16s and U-19s before being named in the Pakistan squad for the Emerging Teams Asia Cup,” said the fast bowler. “I was also in contention for the National T20 Cup and the PSL when I experienced pain in my back while bowling in a practice match.
“We got the CT scan done after which it emerged that I had three fractures in my back and I was asked to stop playing for six months. All of a sudden it felt like my life was over. At that moment I thought: ‘This was my time to do everything that I wanted to’.”
It was a moment that could have broken the young teenager, had it not been for his mother, who reminded him why he left his home in the first place. After recovering from the injury, Naseem proved his mettle in first-class cricket before getting his first Pakistan call-up in 2019.
“More injuries did come in my career but by that time I had understood that God gives challenges but He then blesses with a lot of ease too,” he observed. “I realised I was blessed to be able to learn such important lessons from life at such a young age.”
Naseem showed immense mental strength when he received the news of his mother’s death while he was on his first tour for Pakistan in Australia. The teenager, despite being dealt with a heavy emotional blow, went on to make his international debut days later.
“When I go to the academy now, kids over there are in awe of the fact that I get to travel the world and have so much fun at such a young age,” he said. “But then I think these kids don’t have an idea of how blessed they are to have parents.”
‘WHITE MAN’S SPORT’
During that very tour, Naseem had also found himself reflecting over what his father — who was against him making a career in cricket in his days as a tape ball player — felt about the sport. The quick revealed his father used to say cricket was the “white man’s sport” and that he should stay away from it.
“When I was young my father used to say: ‘Cricket angraizon ka khel hai (Cricket is the white man’s sport)’,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t really understand why he said that.
“In my debut match, Australia hit us 500 odd runs. Totally exhausted by the end of the day, I thought to myself, may be my father was right,” noted Naseem with a smirk on his face as the room burst into laughter.
“In the next match, my room-mate Musa Khan made his debut and the Australians hit some 650 runs. Musa came to me after the match and said: ‘Maybe your father was right’,” Naseem went on to say.
The pacer will be next seen in action in the upcoming edition of the HBL Pakistan Super League, in which he will lead the Quetta Gladiators attack. When the tournament’s previous edition was played, Naseem hadn’t featured in an international white-ball game.
“Each wicket at the PSL will be mean valuable to me,” he said. “Over there, no one cares how good you look,” he quipped. “All that matters is bowling in the right areas.”
Naseem was unavailable in some of the most important fixtures for Pakistan last year, including those of the home Test series against England. Being the leader of the attack, the pacer was hardly rested since September last year.
The absence of his senior partner in Shaheen Shah Afridi had already made things difficult for Pakistan before too much cricket exhausted Naseem’s body.
“We’ve talked about this with the management and we are trying to find ways of managing workload,” he said. “Personally I want to play all three formats but we can consider solutions like skipping a T20 or two to prepare for a Test series. However, how we can go about it is still being pondered on and I hope it helps us be better.”
Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2023