When Shaheen Shah Afridi made his international debut two years ago in Zimbabwe, I put a boiler-plate question to him about how he slept the night before coming up against the Australians. Instead of giving the expected response from an 18-year-old, he came back a very earnest answer about having woken from a dream where he dismissed Aaron Finch then Glenn Maxwell. “My plan was to get these two players out,” he added. Sure enough, he did.
Instead of being anxious about landing the ball on the cut strip in front of a global television audience, Shaheen was focused on cutting the head off the snake. It’s that nerveless disposition, as much as his fierce speed and big bag of tricks, that makes him such a threat to England over the next few weeks. Doubly so when you consider – as Cricviz have – that only Bangladesh, Ireland and Sri Lanka perform worse than England against left-arm seam in Test cricket since 2018. And Ben Stokes, the head of this English snake? His average against southpaw slingers across a sample size now totalling 66 Test Matches is just 24.
Pakistan are set to start this contest with Mohammad Abbas – player of the series the last time these two met – setting the rhythm, but it is Shaheen who is leading the attack. That he is doing so alongside a rapid 17-year-old, Naseem Shah, only adds to the fun. Between them, they have only played 12 Tests, but in the case of the latter, last December he became the youngest man to take a Test five-for. He went one better against Bangladesh in February, just before the Covid-19 shutdown, when becoming the first 16-year-old to claim a Test hat-trick.
Little wonder the hype machine was in overdrive about the duo during the lockdown period. Of course, when it comes to fast bowling, this is a country that requires little encouragement – it has been in the DNA since Fazal Mahmood bowled England out at The Oval in 1954 to win their first Test. While other cricket boards used the break to post old highlights, Pakistan’s ran a promotion where their former greats picked who they would want to bowl with if they could go again. When discussing Naseem, Wasim Akram said he would be his pick from the current crop because of how much he reminds him of his old mucker Waqar Younis. Never shy, Shoaib Akhtar said it straight: Shaheen and Naseem are the new Wasim and Waqar. The Rawalpindi Express’ only advice: “there’s no substitute for pace.”
The Wasim calls were irresistible when watching Shaheen at last year’s one-day World Cup. Overlooked early in the tournament, by the end he was running rampant and became the youngest bowler to claim a five-wicket bag on that big stage, making it 6/31 at Lord’s. He credited the words of Pakistan’s most prolific champion as giving him the inspiration to do as he did to leave his mark on the competition. Naseem showed similar deference to Waqar after claiming his hat-trick and watching the inswinging yorker that was the second in the sequence, the comparison the right-arm pair isn’t contrived, either.
But for all the electrifying ability, it was Shaheen’s capacity to absorb the days in the dirt in Australia last November that prepare him so well for this task. There, as Australia hammered their way to 589/3, it was only Shaheen, who took 3/88 from 30 overs, who David Warner showed any respect to. Leading the wicket-takers list against Sri Lanka in conditions less favourable again to seamers reinforces this point – he’s more than razzle-dazzle. Attack leaders need to be when the going gets tough, as it always does.
Still, there are no managing these expectations and, from Pakistan management, little desire to do so. Take coach Misbah-ul-Haq who declared that Naseem could “win a Test Match on his own” during this series after taking ten wickets in two intra-squad practice matches. He continued: “Waqar Younis and me just saw him in the Gaddafi Stadium (in Lahore) and at that time he just looked like a complete bowler.”
Tweeting on Sunday, the Pakistan team account gathered their eight seamers on tour (and that doesn’t count Mohammad Amir, who is on route for the T20s – but who would rule it out?) with the caption “one formidable fast bowlers’ club!” It’s a familiar story heard many times since the days of Wasim and Waqar. But if it does come true this time, if these two young guns can make the ball talk over the coming weeks, then this will be some series.