16 years, 359 days. There’s a fast bowler of this age making headlines. When you hear this, you’d like to think it’s at the Under-19 level at the very least and when the Under-19 World Cup is going on, you’d surely think the news is from that tournament. But it’s not. Naseem Shah was supposed to be on that trip to South Africa. He was supposed to be taking part in the Under-19 World Cup 2020. He was supposed to be spearheading Pakistan’s charge with the ball in this mega tournament.
But he didn’t. He was pulled out of the squad to give someone else an opportunity as he had already showcased what he is capable of.
And he exactly proved why he was pulled out of the Pakistan Under-19 World Cup squad. Shah became the youngest ever player to take a hat-trick in Test cricket. In fact, he is the Pakistani first player to take a Test hat-trick since Mohammad Sami who scaled the feat in 2002.
It was in October 2018 when he shot into the limelight and caught quite the attention of the cricketing world. He was wreaking havoc in Pakistan domestic cricket at the Under-16 level and about a year later, he was included in the Pakistan Test squad. Yes, he didn’t have the best of debuts and made more headlines for his age than his bowling after he picked up 1/68 in 20 overs. He was pretty impressive in bursts but the talk was more about how Pakistan have rushed him onto the big stage and he needed more domestic cricket behind him.
But that was all talk and Shah didn’t pay too much heed to it. A month after his Test debut, he became the youngest fast bowler and the second-youngest bowler in the history of Test cricket to take a five-wicket haul. He played in both matches against Sri Lanka in what was the first Test series on Pakistan soil in more than a decade. He returned with figures of 2/92, 0/71 and 5/31 in the three innings that Pakistan bowled, and the talent, temperament and the skill was on display.
There was a tug-of-war of kinds with the uncertainty looming over the Test series against Bangladesh. The Under-19 head coach Ijaz Ahmed wanted clarity as soon as possible.
“I don’t mind if they play him against Bangladesh in Tests, but if the series isn’t happening, then I would very much want Naseem in the squad for the World Cup. He is important not just because he played Test cricket, but he was always the first-choice bowler for us in the World Cup. He was named in the squad and even the PCB chairman had given a clearance on his name. Having him in the squad will give our squad a major boost and the hype having him around us will give other boys a motivation,” was what Ahmed had said.
But soon after, Shah was withdrawn from the Under-19 World Cup squad. The reason cited was that it gives another youngster an opportunity to shine on the big stage and Shah had already established himself on the international stage. And he proved everyone involved in the decision-making right.
The Peshawar-born fast bowler was included in the side for the Rawalpindi Test against Bangladesh as the third fast bowler and he didn’t disappoint. After picking up just one wicket in the first innings, Shah came back strongly in the second innings and made headlines. In the third session of the third day, the Bangladesh pair of Najmul Hossain Shanto and Mominul Haque strung together a good partnership as the visitors looked to wipe off the 212-run deficit.
Just as one thought, they’d go only two-down to stumps, Shah who had already scalped Saif Hasan and gave Pakistan the first breakthrough of the second innings produced a fine hat-trick to turn the tide. He first trapped Shanto in front and it needed a review for Pakistan to get the breakthrough but then the next two came in a hurry. He had night-watchman Taijul Islam plumb in front before having Mahmudullah caught at first slip.
Shah became just the fourth Pakistani bowler to take a Test hat-trick but the youngest-ever bowler in the history of the game to do it. The Peshawar fast bowler who will turn 17 next week stole the headlines. Not in an Under-19 World Cup game but in Test cricket.
Don’t look at the age, look at the potential and the performance. Naseem Shah has the potential and has already performed at the highest level and he has shown that he belongs in the league of international cricketers.