DUBAI: Teenage pace sensation Shaheen Shah Afridi had taken off before the third edition of the HBL Pakistan Super League, having taken eight wickets on his first-class debut in 2017.
He could have made an impression in the Bangladesh Premier League that same year when he was recommended by the National Cricket Academy head coach Mushtaq Ahmed, but his flight was cut short by a call for the 2018 ICC Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand.
But, Shaheen’s real flight was at the PSL 3 when he got wings to fly high and higher.
It was not that he was an unknown player when Lahore Qalandars signed him. He had registered the best figures (8-39) by a Pakistan bowler on first-class debut. The cricket world took notice of the 1.98-metre tall bowler who could hit the 90 miles per hour mark with the ball. Within 15 months, he was being compared to Australia’s pace spearhead Mitchell Starc and legendary Pakistan paceman Wasim Akram.
His rise to the national side began at home in Landi Kotal, where his elder brother Riaz, who played one Test for Pakistan in 2004, gave him his first bowling lessons.
“I was very surprised to see an eight-year-old Shaheen wearing my pads, gloves and helmet, and wanting me to take him to the ground,” Riaz recalls. “Our father always had that dream that one day Shaheen takes Shahid Afridi’s wicket. It came about in last year’s PSL.”
It came in the match against Karachi Kings, but in respect of his more illustrious victim, Shaheen did not celebrate the prized wicket.
His real moment, though, came in the game against Multan Sultans. Came as sixth bowler, Shaheen wrecked Multan’s formidable batting with figures of 3.4-1-4-5, which derailed the batting side from 97-2 to 114 all out. His victims included the experienced Shoaib Malik, Ross Whiteley, Saif Badar, Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan.
“It was a dream start for me,” Shaheen says. “From my first-class debut to the five wickets in the PSL, I worked really hard and it was the reward of my hard work, advice of my elder brother and prayers of my parents.”
Shaheen was lucky that the Wasim Akram was at hand to guide him in the Multan Sultan staff. Wasim was full of praise for the youngster.
“Shaheen is a real asset,” Wasim said then. “I was impressed with his hard work and the ability to swing the ball. I am sure this boy will go places provided he keeps working hard and maintain fitness.”
That PSL performance capped his meteoric rise with a Twenty20 debut the very next month and then the ODI debut, followed by a Test cap in the third match against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi — all last year.
“I always had belief in my ability and in my hard work although I didn’t expect my chance will come in Tests so early. I think PSL opened the door for me. When I took that five-wicket haul, Mickey Arthur was really impressed and he brought me in the training sessions of Pakistan team before the West Indies Twenty20 series,” Shaheen remarks. “My brother was my role model who taught me how to bowl and how to approach cricket with a positive frame of mind. “I owe my success to him.”
Riaz also taught his brother a few shots to the extent that he is considered a handy hard-hitting all-rounder.
Since his impressive first-class debut, Shaheen has continued to attract attention, finishing with 12 wickets at the Under-19 World Cup last year and then grabbing a five-wicket haul in a PSL match.
Shaheen graduated to Pakistan colours in the home Twenty20 series against the West Indies in March, but real success came against New Zealand in the one-day series in which he claimed back-to-back four-wicket hauls and finished as man-of-the-series.
Arthur, who was also head coach of South Africa and Australia before joining Pakistan, likened him to Australia left-arm quick Starc.
“Shaheen is massively talented,” Arthur said last year. “I think he is going to be a very good bowler and I think he is a guy we need to get into our emerging systems, so that we can work really hard with him. If we can put a couple of years into him, he is going to be very exceptional.
“I had the privilege of seeing Starc when he was very young and there is a very close resemblance between the two of them. Shaheen just needs the right guidance and training and he’s going to be a star.”
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2019