The inhabitants of Lower Dir in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were jubilant. They were celebrating in their customary way: firing in the air. Their own 19-year-old boy Naseem Shah has hit two sixes in an Asia Cup crunch game to help Pakistan qualify for the final. More so, the two sixes had eliminated arch-rivals and defending champions India out of the Continental event.
The atmosphere was very tense. Afghanistan pacer Fazalhaq Farooqi had dismissed Pakistan skipper Babar Azam for a golden duck before grabbing the wickets of Khushdil Shah and Mohammad Nawaz. He had to defend 11 runs and Afghanistan had all but upset Pakistan in the Super Four game at Sharjah. The Pakistani fans were distraught, Afghanistanis were upbeat and waiting for the win. Despite that tense situation a young Naseem kept his cool and hit the first two balls of the final over sailing over the long-off boundary.
An amped Naseem threw his bat with a yank and shouted in jubilation in full throttle. All the Afghan players were on their knees. None had thought in their wildest dreams that a 19-year-old would steal a win from the jaws of defeat.
Naseem said he has seen the videos of celebrations back home.
"My brother has sent me video clips of celebrations back home," Naseem told Khaleej Times. "It's a momentous occasion for all of us. I am delighted to have come good when the team needed me. I think it's a reward for the hard work we put in the nets as our coaches direct us to bat for longer periods so that when needed we can bat and help the team.
So what was going through his mind when he went out to bat with Pakistan eight down and were staring in the face of a defeat?
"My first goal was to give strike to Asif bhai (Asif Ali) and that I did initially. When Asif bhai got out I had the confidence that now I have to do something.," said Naseem who took another single to keep the strike for the last over.
"In between the overs, I requested (Mohammad) Hasnain to give me his bat because it looked good and full of stroke. He obliged. I knew that the bowler would try to bowl a yorker to me so I was ready. Luckily for me, both the balls became full toss and I hit them with full power and by the grace of Almighty they went over the boundary. It was awesome and gave me immense satisfaction."
It must have been tense for a boy of tender age. But Naseem has been battle-hardened, having made his Test debut in the toughest of conditions in Australia. On the eve of his Test debut he lost his mother and because of long travel he couldn't come back to attend her funeral. It was tough on a 16-year-old. But he kept on moving.
He became the youngest to achieve a Test hat-trick against Bangladesh in Rawalpindi in 2020 and became Pakistan's spearhead alongside Shaheen Shah Afridi in the longer format.
Many believed that his transformation from red-ball to white-ball cricket would be tough. But Naseem proved that the colour of the ball did not matter much to him.
"I have been playing red-ball cricket for three years but the Pakistan Super League, the Caribbean Premier League and National Twenty20 has given me good experience of the white ball. I did well in PSL 2022 so I had that confidence that given a chance I will be equally good. Shaheen (Shah Afridi) bhai got injured so I got a chance to play the ODI series and in this Asia Cup and I am happy that I have progressed well."
Besides being marvellous, Naseem is modest enough to keep his feet on the ground.
"It's a learning experience. I will not become a top batter in just a few days. I work hard in the nets and try to execute what my coaches tell me. It's very early to say that those two sixes will make me a batting all-rounder."
Naseem is super excited at the prospect of returning to Australia where his international baptism came in 2019. Pakistan's then bowling coach Waqar Younis and head coach Misbah-ul-Haq spotted him in domestic matches and decided to take a punt on him. With his superlative bowling, Naseem is likely to get the nod in Pakistan's Twenty20 World Cup squad.
"It will be exciting to go back to Australia," said Naseem. "It's a tough place to bowl but I am eager to do well there in the coming Twenty20 World Cup," vowed Naseem. "I am sure I will do well from what I did the first time."
An international Test debut came after a tough initial phase in which he had to overcome opposition from his father and injury setbacks. His family wasn't affluent and the meagre resources weren't enough to allow him to take cricket as a career. He defied all odds, migrated to Lahore where he was groomed at Abdul Qadir academy, run by former Pakistan leg-spinner. His routine was to take a bus and train day in, day out.
"I started from my house. I used to play with my cousins. I used to play with tape balls. There was opposition from home because I used to bunk school classes and it wasn't acceptable. Gradually, people saw me bowl leg-spin but I was so young and small that they would become full tosses. When I used to tell my family people that I will play for Pakistan they used to laugh. Then I bowled fast and people took notice. My elder brother lived in Lahore so he backed me a lot."
"It was tough but you know nothing in life comes easy," rescinds Naseem. "I had ambitions: to become a cricketer, to bowl fast and to play for my country. For that I had to work hard and overcome all the obstacles. I had to convince my family. I came to Lahore and faced some tough times. I did not know much Urdu. I had come from the mountains so it was new and strange for me. I was living in a hostel. At times I used to often lose my way. I used to alight from the bus and then walk to the academy. I would be so tired that I used to take lift from people on bikes. Then my name came in the Under-16, Under-19 and Emerging Asia Cup. Then I had that stress fracture of the back and I was told that you won't be able to play for six months. I used to cry a lot that my cricket will finish. I had lost hope. I had three stress fractures but I overcame all those tough times due to my passion. I used to wake up and try to bowl but the immense pain would inhibit me. My mother was always beside me. She did not know anything about cricket and about a stress fracture but, on the phone, she would encourage me to keep belief. Full credit to my mother for keeping me motivated."
So were there times when he thought it would not be possible to make his mark at the national level? He was spotted by PSL franchise Quetta Gladiators in 2018 but a stress fracture of the back delayed his arrival at the bigger stage.
"Yes, there were quite a few occasions when negative thoughts came but I did my best to overcome those thoughts. I kept going because I knew that it wouldn't be easy and with that belief I made it to the PSL, first class cricket and then the Pakistan team. I am blessed to have played for Pakistan and that I never gave up.
"It's that belief that if you are good enough and motivated enough you can make it to the biggest stage. I have learnt many lessons. How to work hard, how to follow tough work ethics and how to keep myself fit. So fingers crossed I want to play long for Pakistan and make a big name for myself.
Naseem is willing to take advice from all quarters.
"I always keep WhatsApp contact with Waqar Younis. He gives me good advice. Wasim Akram is always helpful. I am learning a lot by playing alongside Shaheen.
"It's the start and I have a goal to progress and achieve great heights."
When we brought him for the Australian tour, Naseem Shah was very young. We knew that it would be tough for him. We knew that he had speed, good action and talent. Besides Naseem we had Shaheen Shah, Mohammad Hasnain and Mohammad Musa. We knew he was of tender action and with a pure action there were fears for injury so it was expected. I am sure he has come out of that. He has improved a lot. As a fast bowler myself, I knew that these boys are capable. I also played at a very young age. We kept Naseem with the side so that he learns and he doesn't lose confidence and pace. He has come out of that tough initial phase. He is a force now and will get better and better with each day.
It is good to have a fast bowler at a young age. All those who become greats started at a young age and did well. At a young age you learn to handle the pressure of the bigger stage. I am glad that all those we picked at a young age are doing well and its a great satisfaction and happiness for me because they grew under my coaching."
— Waqar Younis, Pakistan bowling great, who spotted Naseem in domestic cricket
I had heard about Naseem and seen his video clips in 2018. He was bowling very fast and accurately. He was very lucky also that he got a chance very early, after doing well at the Under 19 level. I think credit goes to Naseem for doing his best. Last year I had some time with him and the management of Quetta Gladiators supported him. He was given all the matches. He was hungry for cricket and for wickets. He has worked a lot on his fitness. He is a hard working player and now he knows that to play international cricket he has to follow strict hard work and ethics. I worked on his yorkers and changed his seam position. I also had to work on his length, which was a bit short. That missing element is there now. Full credit to Naseem and I got very happy when I saw him in the Asia Cup. With each opportunity he is grooming. He looks a complete all-format bowler and I hope that he plays for a longer period."
— Umar Gul, former Pakistan pacer, who coached Naseem at Quetta Gladiators
Naseem came to our academy in 2016 and at that time he had pace. The first time he came to our academy he bowled in Kameez Shalwar. I think Allah wanted to give him respect and also as a byproduct we got some names. I took him to Saud Khan for Under-16 trials and he was selected. He went to ZTBL (Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited) where my father was coach. He is hard working and has come out of tough times. He understands things, how to do them and when. His observation is good. He is mentally strong. His mother died ahead of his Test debut but he played under a tense situation. He has got great passion. When he used to play for the academy his passion was unparalleled. Off the field he is very calm and disciplined. His father is very cool and his family is also great.
— Sulaman Qadir (son of Abdul Qadir), who helped him at Qadir Academy
He was quite skiddy, got a nice fluent action. He won't get a harder Test debut than at Gabba. To keep coming back in, having to back up the overs, that heat. You ask any Test fast bowler who's played here and had to keep coming back, it's very challenging out there, and our job as batsmen is to try and keep them coming back. I think he kept his speed up quite a lot throughout the whole day. The back end he cramped up a little bit, but that's obviously going to happen. He charged in, and there's a superstar there. Like when Mohammad Amir came on the scene, the first time, he was rapid and had us all in a pickle. He was a world class bowler, and if you add him to the Test lineup as well, their depth is ridiculous, and having these other young guys like Musa and Hasnain as well, who I faced in the T20s. If Waqar Younis can get a hold of them and get their lines and lengths and their engines going, they're going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future."
— Australian opener David Warner after Naseem's debut
Best bowling in a match: 5-81
Five-wicket hauls: 1
Best bowling in a match: 5-33
Five-wicket hauls: 1
Best bowling in a match: 2-7
DID YOU KNOW?
>> Rising Pakistan fast bowler Naseem Shah’s childhood idol is Shane Bond. Naseem loved his action and even tried to bowl like the former New Zealand fast bowler
The Indian bowlers then struck at regular intervals to bowl Sri Lanka out for 109 in 18.2 overs
The pacer missed Wednesday's opening win over the Proteas and is currently under medical supervision for a stress fracture of the back
The governing body FIA introduced the budget cap, set at $145 million, for the first time last year to make racing more competitive
Pacer's absence from the remaining two T20Is has now thrown more questions than answers at Rohit Sharma's team
It is a perfect opportunity for the players to test their skills ahead of the upcoming Jiu-Jitsu World Championship and Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship
Opener makes unbeaten 88 after the Pakistan skipper scores 87 not out