Naseem Shah, the wonder of Lower Dir who conquered Sharjah – ESPNcricinfo

Naseem Shah, the wonder of Lower Dir who conquered Sharjah - ESPNcricinfo

It’s 18 o’clock over from Pakistan’s first match at the Asian Cup, and Naseem Shah already looks finished. He bowls to Ravindra Jadeja as India close in on a scrappy win. He was bowled because Pakistan need wickets, but his 19-year-old legs can barely support his body weight. He slumps to the floor almost every delivery, that expressive face contorting in agony. Oppressively empty Dubai evenings and bowling at 145 km/h obviously don’t go together.

He is helped to his feet, essentially hopping on one leg as he begins his run and then, like the flick of a mental switch, he stalks in, gathering pace as he approaches the bowling crease again. There is no pause, and yet, the moment the ball leaves his hand, his body remembers what it has been through, and the pain overcomes him again. He goes down again. Then get up and again. And he does it again and again, showing a level of mental resolve that belies his teenage years.

The opportunity is finally here – Pakistan vs Afghanistan. A city so full of migrants from both countries each of them learned to call it their second home. Significant Indian interest in the game as well, lending it an extra edge – a Pakistan win would put the continent’s giants out of the tournament.

Like it or not – and very few do – India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have seen their destinies inextricably linked together in the world of geopolitics. That, for one surreal evening in Sharjah, it also applies until cricket is an unusual case of sport imitating life. The story is delicious enough to be used as a cliché; of sport bringing people together, or, less pleasantly, chest-beating jingoism depending on how the game is going. Fortunately, at this Asian Cup, there were almost none of the latter.

The hype surrounding the game, however, seems misplaced at halftime. Pakistan keeps the batsmen of Afghanistan in check, the 129 they manage the third-lowest first-inning score every tournament. Naseem allows just 19 runs in his four overs, the most economical bowler among his teammates.

If there is such a thing as the opposite of a city, this is what Lower Dir – where Naseem is from – must be to Dubai or Sharjah. It is cool, mountainous, small-time and tribal in contrast to the desert metropolis that is the UAE. It was perhaps understandable that the father tried to dissuade his son from pursuing a professional cricket career in his early teenage years, but telling Naseem not to do something is perhaps the quickest shortcut to getting him to do it. Even when it’s a long shot. The boy wanted to take that chance, and the pain of almost certain failure was just the price he might have to pay.

The road to Pakistan’s national set-up sometimes feels less of a road and more of a maze, but the generational nature of Naseem’s raw pace and full potential was blindingly obvious. You didn’t need a road to discover him, just a pair of glasses. And so, from the day he made his superb debut, the national side had eyes for him. He took five-for in just his second first-class match. He hasn’t turned 16 yet.

But the way from there to here in the UAE there was no direct line. There were doubts, failures, moments of exaltation, and, of course, a lot of distress. The loss of his mother happened on the eve of his debut, when the 16-year-old Naseem was on the other side of the world in Australia. Such things should not happen, a child far from home playing a professional sport in the hour of his greatest grief, but Naseem does it anyway. It’s not just physical pain barriers he plays through.

It’s not that there aren’t physical pain barriers to contend with, mind. It was a multiple stress fracture of his back that saw him in the hospital more often than on the field. Talk of wrist positions and dips quietly – ominously – gave way to talk of PET scans and a recovery period. There have been problems with his shoulder as recently as this year, so any sense of his presence at the Asian Cup being an inevitability would be misleading.

But as dusk gives way to night, Sharjah, no stranger to cricketing drama, is determined not to let this occasion become a footnote in history. This game might still be seen by some as a stand-in between India and Pakistan (and haven’t Afghanistan tired of hearing that before?), but Afghanistan have fought for their place in cricket’s biggest continental cup, and they won’t let anyone else tell. their story. Fazalhaq Farooqi (3-31), Mujeeb Ur Rehman (4-0-12-0), Fareed Ahmed (3-31), Rashid Khan (2-25) and Mohammad Nabi (3-0-22-0) take the attack on, landing blow after blow until fist-drunk Pakistan almost sank to its knees. Asif Ali, apparently their last hope and the penultimate wicket, is dispatched – first with a short ball, and then some sled and flick. He doesn’t like it – Pakistan doesn’t like it, but Afghanistan doesn’t feel they owe Pakistan any favors.

Finally, the boy from Lower Dir comes in. The last obstacle to a famous Afghan victory. They agonizingly shut out each of the last two times against Pakistan, but this feels different. Because Naseem may be a boy wizard with a ball in hand, but wielding the blade, he’s a regular old Muggle.

Farooqi steams in. An hour earlier, he had dismissed Babar Azam, arguably the best batsman in the world, for a golden duck. Mohammad Nawaz, Pakistan’s hero against India, and Khushdil Shah, Hong Kong’s slayer, also proved no match. So why would Naseem, with zero career T20I runs and just 63 in all of T20 cricket, prove any match?

Eleven needed the last over. Farooqi steps in and misses the yorker. Naseem has a swing, and it connects, heading straight for a pocket of Afghan fans behind the video screen, who find their celebration collapsing into nervous anxiety. But success is not judged, and Naseem must do it again.

It’s another full toss, and Naseem has another swing. This one is not so clean, and for the briefest fraction in time, the ball soars in the air in the reach of far away, the fates of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan hanging on the path it takes on its descent. But Naseem threw his arms at it, and if those arms can support a 19-year-old bowling at 145 kmph, then there’s plenty of power. The ball continues to tease long, but when the man puts in a desperate dive, Afghanistan’s fate is sealed.

Naseem drops his bat, and, by the look on his face, his guard. Confident, he sprints towards the rushing Pakistan players and staff. With the ball, he may not finish what he is trying to do, but with a bat in his hand, he subconsciously gives himself the ultimate compliment: even he is surprised by what he has done.

As the atmosphere in the crowd turns sour and ugly, Afghanistan are on their knees, their eyes shining as they accept the bitterest of defeats. This was not meant to happen, but Naseem did it anyway.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000

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