The first thing you notice about Naseem Shah is his action. It’s smooth and slick and sideways-on, as if the unnatural act of bowling fast were a perfectly instinctive thing, and those strange, awkward contortions of legs and arms, the leap and twist, the tangle of limbs, were all as simple and obvious to him as putting one foot in front of the other. His coach, Waqar Younis, once said it reminded him of watching Dennis Lillee bowl, which is rare praise. And that’s what the fielders were crying out to him in between deliveries, “Lillee Shah! Lillee Shah!” Whip, snap, crack, whoosh, what a thing. Capture him mid-stride, and he’d be a study for Phidias.
Then there’s his smile. Naseem is young, 17, officially, although there was a lot of back-and-forth in the Pakistani press about whether that is accurate after the PCB pulled him out of its Under-19 World Cup team last year. Someone dug up an old Andy Roberts quote from 2016, when he’d said how impressed he had been with a “16-year-old” fast bowler called Naseem who he had spotted on a talent hunt programme. But Naseem’s old coach says his paperwork is all in order, and the PCB says the tests have been done to prove it. He doesn’t look like he has much use for a razor. And he’s young enough, certainly, judging by his childish delight for the game.
He enjoyed every breath he took during his 16 overs, seemed alive with excitement, and full of admiration for his own bowling, as if he was thrilled to discover what his own body could do. The ball that got Ollie Pope on Friday morning popped up off a length, smashed into the handle of the bat and flew away to gully. It was all but unplayable. Naseem stared at the batsman as he shouted in celebration. It may have been the only wicket he took in the innings, but it was such a good one. Pope was well-set on 62, and, along with Jos Buttler, the only batsman left threatening Pakistan’s lead. Naseem was buzzing now and three balls later he clattered Chris Woakes on the helmet with a wicked short ball.
There’s an energy to his bowling, it isn’t so very frightening, lightning quick yet. He’s up towards 90mph, not much above, but he makes the ball whizz off the pitch and weave through the air. And the old pros in the commentary box spoke about how he has the potential to get better yet. Wasim Akram, who admitted even he hadn’t actually seen him bowl very much before, explained the changes Naseem could make in his run-up to help him generate more swing, Michael Holding spoke about how he could make better use of the crease. But the way they talked made you feel that these great old bowlers already considered him a junior member of their club.
Now Naseem is out of age-group cricket, the only people who really worry about his age will be the statisticians counting the youngest men to play the game. He was listed as 16 years 269 days when he made his debut against Australia in Brisbane last year, which puts him ninth on their list. There are five other Pakistanis in the top 10. They’ve always believed that if you’re good enough you’re old enough too, since Abdul Kardar picked a 16-year-old leg‑spinner, Khalid Hasan, on their first tour of England in 1954. All together, Pakistan have given Test debuts to 37 players who were under 19 at the time. England have only done it once, with Brian Close.
Naseem’s teammate, Shaheen Shah Afridi, was another of them. Between the two of them and Mohammad Abbas, Pakistan have come armed with an attack that has every last thing a team needs; pace, guile, and left-arm variation. And that’s before you mix in the two leg-spinners, Yasir Shah and Shadab Khan. They are shaping up to be one of the very best, and most entertaining, bowling units any team has brought on tour to England so far this century. A friend who supports Pakistan texted to say that she was enjoying them so much she hadn’t even remembered to “think wistfully of Amir & Asif and what could have been, which would have been my usual reaction these last few years”.
Of course Mohammad Amir was one of those 37 young men, too. He was 17 when he made his debut, against Sri Lanka in 2009, and 18 when he arrived in England a year later. And there are lessons there, if Naseem or anyone else needed them, about how hard the game can be. It’s not just that he was banned for spot-fixing. Amir is still only 28. He could be alongside Naseem in this attack, but he quit Test cricket last year because the demands of playing in all three formats were too much. He said he was “screaming on the inside” that “his body won’t let it happen”. There are no guarantees, even when you have Naseem’s talent. It’s why he is right to cherish every last second of this. We all should, too.