Asia Cup: Naseem Shah builds white-ball repertoire

“Aisa kuch nahi hai ke cramps agar usko nahi aatey toh hum haar jaate. (It’s not as if we would have lost had he not picked up cramps).” A day after defeating Pakistan, Ravindra Jadeja tried to be matter-of-fact about Naseem Shah’s cramps. He was right of course. Hardik Pandya’s 17-ball 33 was the reason India didn’t crack under pressure. But Jadeja also had the advantage of hindsight. For as long as Shah was in the equation, it had gotten mighty close.

The ball that KL Rahul dragged on to his stumps second delivery of the chase was a peach but the one that got Suryakumar Yadav was a headturner in its own right, dead-straight and cannoning in at 142 kmph. India were 89/4, and a teenager playing only his first T20I was causing predictable havoc till he pulled away from his run-up clutching his leg.

This too wasn’t unpredictable. In just three years of international cricket, Shah’s career has witnessed more twists and turns than a bestseller. Shah was all of 16 when he made his debut in Brisbane a day after the death of his mother, and dismissed David Warner for his first Test wicket, only for it to be called a no-ball. Warner turned out to be his first Test wicket alright, thanks to a brute of a bouncer. In the following home summer, Shah became the second youngest fast bowler to take a Test five-for and the youngest to take a hat-trick.

He was three Tests old when Shah was named in Pakistan’s U-19 World Cup squad, only to be withdrawn two weeks before the tournament because then Pakistan head coach Misbah-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis—their bowling coach—wasn’t in favour of releasing him for age-group cricket. Two balls after claiming his hat-trick, Shah left the field complaining of a rib cage pain. He didn’t return to bowl. He has since suffered an ankle sprain, a back injury, a knee niggle and a shoulder injury that cut short a county stint at Gloucestershire before the latest injury scare at the Asia Cup. These are all tell-tale signs of a teenaged body still not entirely in sync with the rigours of international cricket.

But there is no doubting the bowling intellect. Or the bending of back that goes behind every ball. Or the beautiful, measured run-up with an effortless follow-through that disguises those incoming balls so well. Rahul couldn’t read it on Sunday. Neither could Hong Kong’s Babar Hayat on Friday, playing all over a length ball that clattered into his off stump. To Nizakat Khan, Shah was all length, length and length till he finally bowled a fuller ball. Aiming to loft it over the infield, Khan could only chip it to cover.

These are not easy deliveries on lifeless pitches. Shah however brings with him a wealth of experience with an action honed on slow home pitches for years. Want reverse swing? Bring on Naseem. Try the cutters? Ask Naseem to show it. Not born into the privilege of training with new balls too has its advantage. That is why against Australia in Lahore earlier this year, even Shaheen Shah Afridi was looking to Shah for cues to work with the old ball. Afridi can be more of a hit-the-deck kind of bowler, which is why Shah’s role widened during Pakistan’s home series because nobody was being able to reverse the ball as early as him. It’s a thankless job, bowling fast on unforgiving pitches with an injury-prone body. Even before the Hong Kong match, Shah was seen bowling with his leg taped. Rarely do 19-year-olds play more Test cricket than the white-ball version. But now that he is getting the hang of it, expect Shah to go the whole distance.

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