Regarded as one of Pakistan's most promising fast-bowling talents, Naseem Shah has impressed followers of the game around the world since his international debut at the age of 16. As if confirmation of his special talent was needed, the young pacer proceeded to become the youngest fast-bowler to take a 5-wicket haul in the Test series against Sri Lanka and achieved another milestone as he became the youngest bowler to take a Test hat-trick in the series against Bangladesh.
Now looking forward to his first appearance in England, Naseem in an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, spoke about the experience of playing international cricket at a young age, what he expects to learn from the likes of Jimmy Anderson, how he and Shaheen Shah Afridi wish to emulate the on-field partnership of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and why he is looking forward to bowling to Virat Kohli in the future.
By Saj Sadiq (31st May, 2020)
PakPassion.net: The last twelve months must feel like a dream?
Naseem Shah: Definitely so and I do feel blessed that I have had the chance to play for my country at such a young age. It’s already been a roller-coaster ride with good days, bad days and some very sad times, but that is all part of life. At times I have to pinch myself and remind myself that I am already playing cricket for Pakistan. I really do feel very lucky and privileged to have been given the opportunities, the support and love I have had from some wonderful people around me.
PakPassion.net: Your journey to cricket was not straight forward was it. I believe there was some opposition from your family members?
Naseem Shah: Nothing in life comes easy. I come from a very humble background and my parents always taught me that hard work pays off and when you stop working hard, that’s when things go wrong. There were no cricket grounds near where I lived, and to pass the time I just played tape-ball cricket against the older guys who lived near me. But I was cricket-mad and couldn’t get cricket out of my mind at any time. Even in school during classes, I would be day-dreaming about bowling, thinking about bowling fast, thinking when is this lesson going to end, so that I can get out of here and go and play cricket. There was nobody in my family who played cricket or understood the game, so it was very difficult to convince my family that I wanted to pursue a career in cricket and that it was the right thing to do. My parents would deter me from playing cricket and would implore me to study and forget about a career in cricket, but I didn’t listen to them and I was determined that I was going to follow my dream of playing cricket professionally.
After much debate and convincing my family, I eventually came to Lahore and faced some tough days, some very difficult times where I thought my dream was going to be shattered and I would go home embarrassed and defeated. There were quite a few occasions where I thought my parents were right and my dream of playing cricket professionally was not going to happen. But I never lost heart, I never gave up, I kept going and eventually, my dream came true. Even at such a young age, I have learnt that you should never forget those difficult days, those tough times as they are the ones that will stand you in good stead for the future.
PakPassion.net: Did you ever think that you would be playing cricket for your country at such a young age?
Naseem Shah: I never thought for a minute that I would be proudly wearing the shirt of my country at such an early stage of my career. I have always had faith in my ability and feel that hard work always pays off in any aspect of your life. But having said that, I never thought I would be playing for Pakistan so quickly. But then I have always believed that whatever happens, happens for the best and the Almighty has been very kind to me.
PakPassion.net: Some feel that you are not quite ready for the demands of international cricket and need to play more domestic cricket?
Naseem Shah: I believe that if you are good enough, you are old enough. The biggest challenge for me is not about my bowling skills, rather it’s about getting my fitness levels up to the demands of international cricket. You can play Under-16, Under-19 or club cricket or even domestic cricket, but the demands of international cricket are on a totally different level and that is something I am learning quickly. I am improving my fitness levels all of the time and this is an aspect of my game that I need to make rapid strides in and not take lightly at all.
PakPassion.net: What’s the best thing about bowling fast?
Naseem Shah: Only a fast-bowler can understand the mindset of another fast-bowler. The thought-process of a fast-bowler is totally different from a batsman and I think we are an unpredictable but interesting group of people. Fast-bowlers are a unique bunch of people and they understand each other so well and what motivates us and what we dislike. Fast-bowlers know about the trials and tribulations and challenges of bowling fast and how tough it is. On those days when your rhythm is right, your body feels good, your run-up is smooth and the ball is just coming out nicely, you are on top of the world, there is no better feeling and the batting team had better watch out. I always wanted to be a fast-bowler and even in my school days, I loved to scare batsmen by bowling fast. I feel good when I see fear in the batsmen’s eyes, it motivates me to bowl even faster.
PakPassion.net: Your body is obviously still growing and you are getting stronger. Do you feel that at some point in the future you could bowl even quicker?
Naseem Shah: Absolutely, why not. But at the moment the priority is to improve my levels of fitness, stay fit and then I am sure I can look at cranking up the pace at some point. I’ve been given some specific training plans and I have been working hard on those during this break in cricket. I know I need to work on maintaining my line and length and adding consistency to my bowling and that will come with experience. But let’s be honest, whilst line and length are important, any fast-bowler will tell you that they get great enjoyment out of seeing the stumps flying and the batsmen ducking and looking uncomfortable against pace.
PakPassion.net: Over the years, Pakistani bowlers have shown great promise only to disappear into the wilderness of domestic cricket. Are you confident that you are here for the long run?
Naseem Shah: It’s impossible for me to predict what will happen in the future. But I can control what is in my hands and that is to work hard, stay focussed on cricket, improve my fitness, learn from the people around me, stay humble and committed and get stronger. The rest is in the hands of the Almighty. The hope is to stay clear of injuries, but that is not always in your control. If I can stay injury-free, then I am determined to have a long and successful cricket career.
PakPassion.net: Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis formed a formidable partnership for Pakistan for many years. Already some are talking about your partnership with Shaheen Shah Afridi as one that could be as fruitful as the 2 Ws?
Naseem Shah: Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were legends, and we are just at the start of our respective careers, so it’s too early to start thinking of Shaheen and me as a bowling partnership that could be as good as them. The most important thing that Shaheen and I can learn from Wasim and Waqar is the amount of hard work they put in throughout their careers. Everyone keeps telling me that they weren’t just great bowlers, but also very hard-working and committed cricketers and that is something that Shaheen and I can take from them. I have also heard how Wasim and Waqar were great competitors and wanted to outdo each other on the field. Shaheen and I are like that too, we have a competitive edge and want to get more wickets than each other, which is a good thing for the team. It’s a friendly rivalry on the field and one that I hope will serve Pakistan for many years.
PakPassion.net: You were injured early in your career, was that a concern and what did you learn from that serious injury?
Naseem Shah: As I say, you learn more from the tough times, than the good times. I also learnt about how people soon forget about you in tough times, and how it’s better to have people around you who are there for the good and bad times and not just the good times. I lost nearly a year through that injury, it was horrible and one of the main learning points from it was to ensure that I am more careful with my body when bowling, instead of trying to bowl too fast every day. I also had to learn about patience as I was too keen to come back and play again, without ensuring that I was fully fit before making a comeback. For any cricketer to have to take a break from cricket due to injury is tough to take, especially one at the start of his career and it was a harsh lesson for me.
PakPassion.net: How tough was the tour of Australia?
Naseem Shah: I went there with high hopes and I was on cloud nine when I was selected, but events did not turn out the way I wanted them to. I had some clear goals in my mind for that tour, but things went wrong for a number of reasons. It was a tough time for me in terms of cricket and events outside of cricket. I was struggling to sleep and had to take sleeping tablets. My mother had dreamt of seeing me play for Pakistan, but she never saw that happen, which was tragic. I learnt a lot about cricket and about life on that tour and whilst it was very difficult, I tried to stay positive and will no doubt take forward what I learnt from the tour of Australia.
PakPassion.net: How useful is it to have someone like Waqar Younis around you. Someone, who like you was a tearaway fast-bowler and like you someone who suffered from injuries early in his career?
Naseem Shah: He’s a legend, a hero to many of us. He knows what the requirements are to succeed as a fast-bowler as he is someone who performed at the highest level and is highly respected around the world. He played all over the world, against the best players and when he shares his experiences it’s valuable advice for young bowlers like me. He is not just a coach, but a friend too, and his relationship with the bowlers is one where we feel that we can talk to him about anything and that is really important. I feel that I work best with a coach who doesn’t just talk to me about the technical aspects of cricket, but also about his experiences, his strengths, his mistakes and his weaknesses as a former player.
PakPassion.net: There are a number of former players like Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar speaking very highly of you. Does that create additional pressure?
Naseem Shah: No, it doesn’t create additional pressure; in fact, I get really happy when these great bowlers mention me and praise me. When I hear or read their positive comments about me, I want to try even harder and prove to everyone that what they are saying is correct and not let them down. I’m not someone who gets big-headed or arrogant when I receive praise or compliments. In fact, it acts as an incentive and a motivation to improve further so that I can receive more compliments from them in the future.
PakPassion.net: You’ve already broken a record, that of being the youngest bowler to take an international hat-trick. How did that feel and how special was that moment?
Naseem Shah: It was incredible. The best thing about it was that it was in my home country and in front of my countrymen at Rawalpindi. I know Pakistan has been starved of international cricket for many years and in a way, I hope it was a special moment for fans who were at the ground. I wasn’t too happy with the way I had bowled in the first innings in that Test match against Bangladesh, and I wanted to make amends for it in the second innings and that hat-trick definitely made me feel better. I just hope it’s the first of many records I can break during my career, but above all, it meant that I had helped Pakistan towards victory.
PakPassion.net: You are of course yet to play against India and Virat Kohli. That must be something you are looking forward to?
Naseem Shah: Yes definitely. India versus Pakistan is always special and I have already been told that players can become heroes and villains in those matches. They are special matches as they happen so rarely and yes, I am looking forward to playing against India whenever that opportunity arises. I hope that I can bowl well against India when that chance comes by and won’t let our fans down. As for Virat Kohli, I respect him but don’t fear him. It’s always a challenge to bowl to the best, but that’s where you have to raise your game. I look forward to playing against Virat Kohli and India whenever that chance comes.