Meet Naseem Shah, Abdul Qadir's 17-year-old pace bowling protege

Nick Hoult
·5-min read
Pakistan's Naseem Shah (C) delivers a ball next to Sri Lanka's Dilruwan Perera (L) as Pakistan's Shaheen Shah Afridi (R) looks on during the third day of the first Test cricket match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium - AAMIR QURESHI / AFP
Pakistan's Naseem Shah (C) delivers a ball next to Sri Lanka's Dilruwan Perera (L) as Pakistan's Shaheen Shah Afridi (R) looks on during the third day of the first Test cricket match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium - AAMIR QURESHI / AFP

Naseem Shah was a three-month-old babe in arms when James Anderson made his Test debut in 2003. 

On Wednesday morning they will both be at Emirates Old Trafford observing a minute’s silence for the victims of Covid-19 because the first Test against England is the latest step on the road for Naseem, the Pakistan teenage sensation tipped to emulate Anderson and become his country’s highest Test wicket-taker.

Nobody made those bold predictions about Anderson when he played his first Test at Lord’s 17 years ago. Then Sir Ian Botham’s 383 Test wickets looked insurmountable, now it has been surpassed and left in the distant past by Anderson and Stuart Broad.

For Naseem his target appears just as far away as it did for Anderson all those years ago. He needs another 402 wickets to go past Wasim Akram, but at 17, with the world at his feet and blessed with a pure action that Michael Vaughan compares to Fred Trueman’s, then Naseem can fulfil predictions.

His pace is comparable with Jofra Archer but he has more skills with the ability to bowl inswing and outswing. He spent lockdown in Pakistan practising with the Dukes ball to prepare for England, a sign of an inquisitive mind, and is now working in England under the coaching eye of Waqar Younis. After just four Tests he has 13 wickets at 26, one five-wicket haul and a hat-trick. All this before reaching the legal driving age in Pakistan.

He grew up with the tape ball, and did not bowl with a proper cricket ball until he attended trials in the Lower Dir district in Pakistan’s remote northwestern province, impressing so much that an uncle took him to Lahore at 13 to enrol at the Abdul Qadir cricket academy.

Qadir, the great Pakistan leg-spinner, passed away suddenly last year but his son, Sulaman, coached the child Naseem and remembers a naturally skilful bowler with an ability to learn quickly. To move to a city an eight hour drive away from your immediate family, who have little interest in cricket, and chase a dream takes some courage for a 13-year-old. 

“The day I saw him. I was pretty sure that he had it. I was sure he could be a very good bowler in the future,” Sulaman told Telegraph Sport. “He is mentally very tough because when he came to Lahore he was very young and he was struggling with things and he grew up very quickly and he survived in difficult times.”

Naseem faced the pressure of having to prove himself to a family skeptical that cricket could be a full-time career. It did not take long. He was selected for Lahore Under-16s aged 13 and the Pakistan Under-16s aged 14. “Then parents realised that he has a talent,” says Sulaman. After national age group recognition, he was then paid to play for regional teams, a sign that others were investing in his talent.  “And then the burden goes off and after that he settled and now he's doing well,” adds Sulaman.

He was featured on a Pakistan television talent show impressing judge Andy Roberts but by then was already carving out a reputation. He did not need a leg up on television. His talent had already been spotted and he was picked to go on tour to Australia having played only six first-class games.

Naseem shook up Australia on Test debut last year, hitting Usman Khawaja and dismissing Marcus Harris with a quick bouncer. The footage went viral on Youtube (below) and a star was born. He followed it by becoming the youngest bowler to take five wickets in a Test innings. He bettered that by becoming the youngest to take a Test hat-trick in February, six days before his 17th birthday.

Ten years ago Pakistan arrived in England with another teenage sensation, Mohammad Amir. His tour ended in arrest and scandal but before then he was outstanding with the ball, becoming man of the series. 

Amir’s five year ban meant he never reached the heights predicted and he no longer plays Test cricket. Naseem is growing up in a much stronger environment with Misbah-ul-Haq, who rebuilt the pride in Pakistan cricket after the spot-fixing scandal, as head coach and father figure. 

It was Misbah who broke to Naseem the news of his mother’s death while he was on his first tour to Australia in November. He was unable to travel home in time for her funeral but kept his composure to make his Test debut.

He recently said he wants to learn from watching Anderson bowl over the next month and to chat swing bowling with the great master, biobubble rules permitting.

There have been inevitable questions over his age. But Sulaman dismisses them saying he has a birth certificate, a national identity card and bone tests have been carried out to prove his exact age. He talks like an old fast bowler already, warning England not to take him lightly because he is young enough to be Anderson’s son.

“If they treat me like a small kid, it will be their big loss,” he said before leaving for England. “Age doesn’t matter, it’s my bowling that matters – so they need to take me seriously.”

Sulaman will be watching on television from his home in Lahore. He has no doubts about Naseem’s potential.

“He knows how to bowl inswing and outswing. If a person knows that at his age, you know they can be great. I would say he will be the highest wicket-taker for Pakistan. He knows how to train. He knows how to prepare and he knows how to handle his body after some injuries when younger. He has everything.”

Abdul Qadir was a tenacious competitor. It is no surprise the advice that Naseem remembers to this day from Sulaman's father. “He told him ‘never forget your aggression while bowling’. He put so much energy into his bowling and fast bowling is all about aggression isn't it?” England are about to find out.