All our lives we’ve heard from experts, commentators, pundits, game legends and anyone who can talk even a bit of cricket that “there is no shortage of talent in Pakistan”.
This land is supposedly a hotbed where raw but precocious talent is mass produced at an annual basis — and at a production rate higher than we can handle. The assembly line has been working overtime the last few years, with its newest offering being Naseem Shah.
Shah joins Mohammad Hasnain, Musa Khan and Shaheen Afridi but unlike two from this quartet, he has not looked out of place at international level and seems ready to hang with the best.
So a teenage pacer with a wise-beyond-years approach to the game is playing and picking up wickets for Pakistan. Where have we heard this before?
The similarities are there for all to see. Like in the late 2000s, when Mohammad Amir burst onto the scene, Pakistan once again has a serious fast bowling talent whose ceiling is as high as anyone’s ever been.
But the two are as different as they are same. Shah bowls with his right arm, Amir was a southpaw; Shah is powerfully built, Amir was slender; Shah’s strength at this stage — apart from his decent pace — is his ability to hit the right areas (which Musa and Hasnain can’t). He can’t make the ball dance yet, Amir could.
The sum totals of their respective styles would not be far off from each other’s though. Where Amir was in 2010, Shah stands almost a decade later, with the world at his feet. Someone discovered in the 20s doesn’t stand a realistic chance to aim for the highest echelons of fast bowling but Shah, at the age of 16, can do whatever he wants to and go wherever his talents take him.
Which takes us back to the analogy at the start of this article: what good is an assembly line that produces so much of a product that shines brightly at first but doesn’t last long?
Amir, as good as he was, lost the prime years of his career and fizzled out, before turning into the role player he is now. He’s not the only one. For every Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis who made it and had full careers, Pakistan also had plenty of Amirs, Mohammad Asifs, Fazl-e-Akbars, Mohammad Zahids, Shabbir Ahmeds and Tabish Khans whose careers either did not begin, pan out or last the full course.
If it wasn’t career-ending injuries or illegally bent bowling arms, it was bookies and selectors who kept Pakistan’s talent from blossoming into world class options.
The young Shaheen Afridi’s name made the rounds on social media a few weeks ago for reasons which had nothing to do with his performance. It shows that Pakistan’s talent, despite all of Pakistan Cricket Board’s efforts, remains vulnerable to threats — both from inside and outside.
The Afridi and Shah-led pace battery is undoubtedly talented but undoubtedly too young and naive to be left unmonitored. Like the board invested in Babar Azam, it’s time that it also nurtures its nascent pace options with care, or these stars would shine but only as flashes in the pan and not up on the skies.