A teenager from a small town you’ve never heard of discovers his love for cricket. But there are no pitches or facilities around him, just sand, concrete, and vast expanses of land.
But he loves the game and knows that he has to leave home. To do that he must convince his desi father that he can balance his dream with his education. It takes a while, but the patriarch finally agrees to let him go to the big city. Mom gives him some parathas for the journey.
Once in the city, he trains with legends he never imagined he’d ever meet. It’s surreal, and he doesn’t want to say or do anything stupid, so he nods his head more often than he usually would. Over time, he breaks into his regional team. He wins a game. And then another. He’s carried on shoulders. He belongs. He knows it. He also knows that if he has a good season, he will be on the selector’s radar.
Before the season ends, however, he gets that life-changing call.
“What? Me? For Pakistan?”
His eyes have doubled in size. His eyebrows threaten to jump off his forehead. Life has become a Bollywood movie. He’s the hero…but he’s also in the audience, witnessing an epic scene he will never forget.
Naseem Shah is the latest in Pakistan’s never-ending line of overnight sensations, who fit the masala-fied archetype outlined above.
What makes his story even more inspiring is how he delivered that fiery spell against Australia A only a few days after his mother passed away. Naseem’s sudden emergence, raw talent, and his undoubted resilience is perhaps the most engaging sub-plot in the lead up to the first test at the Gabba on Thursday.
However, if he is indeed a guaranteed starter, this will force Pakistan to leave out one of Mohammad Abbas, Shaheen Afridi or Imran Khan: all of whom have strong cases to make it to the starting XI.
There have been suggestions that Yasir Shah, who leaked 4.53 runs an over on his last tour down under, could be sidelined, but that would leave Pakistan with an incredibly long tail: something that Cummins and co. will have no problems feasting on.
The 32 year-old Imran Khan, who last featured for Pakistan in January 2017 on their previous tour to Australia, looks most likely to miss out come Thursday.
However, he was the chief architect of Australia A’s collapse with his spell of 5-32. One could argue that if it weren’t for the domestic stalwarts efforts, very few would be talking up Pakistan’s chances on the 2-test tour.
The case against him is that he performs a similar role to Mohammad Abbas, who snared 17 Australian wickets in a Player of the Series performance when the two sides last met in the UAE. Australia still carries the mental scars of facing Abbas, although their batting line-up looks very different now than it did with the absence of Smith and Warner in the UAE.
What works against Abbas is that he struggled for the same impact in South African conditions that should have suited him. He’s also the slowest of Pakistan’s seamers: a trait that is often viewed as a handicap on the truer batting surfaces of Australia.
On the other hand, the six foot six Shaheen Shah Afridi is tailor-made for Australian wickets. He comes into the series on the back of 13 wickets in his last 3 World Cup games. He was also one of the few bright spots during Pakistan’s disappointing tour of South Africa, where he finished as their leading wicket-taker.
Much like Naseem, he’s viewed as a youngster with a mature head on his shoulders. In fact, Shaheen’s story is very similar to that of Naseem Shah. The tall left-armer was spotted at an early age and was fast-tracked into the national team after a vicious spell of 8-39 on his Quaid-e-Azam Trophy debut. He’s Pakistan’s best left-arm quick and by most accounts, he will go on to serve the country for years to come.
It won’t be easy to decide whose place Naseem takes and many are questioning whether two teenagers should be thrown into the cauldron of an Australian summer. For all the hype surrounding him, Naseem has picked up just the solitary wicket for the cost of 79 runs on the tour so far.
However, he could be someone special and Pakistan cricket always has—and always will—root for the type of romantic saga that may well continue at the Gabba on Thursday.