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Cricket news - Destined to play for Pakistan, is Shaheen Afridi

The vertical flick of the wrist, coupled with a high-arm action, helps the two-meter-tall bowler to generate even more height.

It was the start of the 2017 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan's premier first-class tournament, when Shaheen Afridi became Pakistan's latest social media sensation. Then just 17, Shaheen ripped through Rawalpindi's batting line-up with his left-arm seam bowling to take 8 for 39 - the best figures for a Pakistani bowler on first-class debut.

A video of his exploits for Khan Research Laboratories soon went viral, in which some batsmen looked foolish as they chased the ball that moved away, and others failed to defend those which reversed into them. What was particularly astonishing was how this new kid used both sides of the stumps to generate angles of his liking.

"Very quickly he started to bowl around the wicket," says Mudassar Nazar, the PCB's Director of Academies. "He picked it up very quickly, and now we see him switch over when he has to reverse the ball and bring it back into the right-handed batsmen. Not a lot of bowlers can do that at such an early age. He was not only able to do that but control the ball and do things with it which I wanted him to do."

Hailing from Khyber Agency in FATA, Shaheen's story is typically Pakistani. He was identified through a talent hunt program and was brought into the Pakistan set-up in 2015. He was quick to impress the national selectors in a high performance camp for top under-16 performers and was put on the plane to Australia for an under-16 tour. Though he couldn't make a mark there, picking up only four wickets in six games, his impressive run for FATA's under-16 team got him elevated to Pakistan's under-19 team. On its tour of Sri Lanka, Shaheen got five wickets in three matches.

He stretched that form at home which saw him pick up the most wickets for Khyber Agency at an inter-district under-19 tournament. He topped the table again, this time at inter-regional level for FATA with 21 wickets at an average of just 12.48.

These feats were anticipated by those who were familiar with him. "I saw him in the nets of the Pakistan under-16 team and straight away I saw the potential," says Nazar. "His run-up had rhythm. He could move the ball and because of his height he was getting the bounce which no other bowler could. He looked different. He looked destined to play for Pakistan.

"There are players whom you can identify at the age of 16 and say they have a bright future and he was one of them. That's when I started to take interest in him and spend more time with him than any other guy in that age-group."

But, the fact that he was rushed into the formal set-up without much school or club cricket behind him had its consequences. "Because of his rise being so sudden, he hadn't really played any club or school cricket, which strengthens your legs and nurtures your body," says Nazar. "So, due to the lack of it, he would tire very, very quickly. And, the ball wouldn't do what he wanted it to do. Wasim Akram also went through that. He had a terrible time. He would bowl a very fiery spell but that would be four-five overs.

"Shaheen [as compared to Wasim] has more tricks up his sleeves because of the time he has spent with various coaches at different levels. Where Wasim had burst on the scene and gone straight into the Pakistan team, Shaheen has had formal training before that which Wasim didn't."

Being aware of his strengths, Shaheen uses his height tactically by hitting the hard lengths to keep the batsmen on their toes, regardless of the surface he is playing on. The vertical flick of the wrist, coupled with a high-arm action, helps the two-meter-tall bowler to generate even more height.

He turned many heads, including Rahul Dravid's, during Pakistan Under-19's World Cup campaign in New Zealand last year as he was the highest wicket-taker in the tournament for his side with 12 wickets in five matches at an average of 14.58.

The legendary batsman and coach of India's Under-19 and 'A' team was full of praise for Shaheen, and had a chat with him after India beat Pakistan in the semifinal. Nadeem Khan, the team manager of Pakistan Under-19 on that tour, would later reveal: "Rahul Dravid came to me after the match and said Shaheen has all it takes to be a future star and become a real asset to the national side."

Few expected the prophecy to be fulfilled so soon. A little more than two months later, Shaheen was donning Pakistan colours in a T20I contest against the West Indies in Karachi. By September he was making his ODI debut in the Asia Cup as a replacement for Mohammad Amir. In December he was wearing whites in a Test series against New Zealand.

"Last year I played the Under-19 World Cup and in one year I've played all three formats for Pakistan. I've been surprised to play so much cricket for Pakistan in 12 months," Shaheen said as he cherished his inclusion in the preliminary squad for the 2019 World Cup before the Pakistan team departed for the UK.

Since their Champions Trophy triumph in the June 2017, Pakistan's pace bowling has lacked that bite which is often associated with the country. The lackluster performances by the pacers are said to be due to the dearth of pace and the deteriorating standards of the domestic structure, which are not conducive for the development of fast bowlers.

With the seniors experiencing a decline in form, Pakistan have looked towards the lanky pacer to fill the vacuum. And the 19-year-old with his searing pace and ability to move the ball has obliged. His glorious rise to the top at such a tender age has served as a testimony to the fact that the country's rich fast-bowling culture, which it has flaunted for decades, continues to thrive.

Having a Test cricketer as an elder brother was helpful, something Shaheen also speaks about. He was just four years old when Riaz Afridi played his solitary Test for Pakistan in 2004. After watching his success with tape-ball, his brother advised him to take up hard-ball cricket. Shaheen would go on to become the first player born after the turn of millennium to represent Pakistan's senior team.

Overall pacers since Shaheen's debut (September 21, 2018)

Since his ODI debut, only five more pacers have taken more wickets than his 24 in 13 innings. Amongst the top six bowlers in that list, which includes names like Trent Boult, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Kagiso Rabada, his strike rate of 26.7 is the second best behind Lockie Ferguson's.

Amongst his countrymen, regardless of bowling types, he stands way ahead statistics-wise since his ODI debut, when he took two for 38 in 10 overs - but could have had a five-for if his teammates had not put down three catches off his bowling.

By taking 4 for 38 in the second ODI against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi - his second consecutive four-fer - he played a crucial role in leveling the three-match series. Two days later he brightened the chances of his side securing a series win when he struck on the fourth ball as New Zealand chased 279, before rain washed the match out.

He would again be the best bowler from Pakistan in their series against South Africa a month later, with six wickets at 23.16 in four matches. But it was his astonishing outing against New Zealand in the UAE that announced in essence what Shaheen is capable of. After all, nine wickets in three matches at only 11 runs apiece on placid surfaces is no mean feat.

Pakistan bowlers since Shaheen's debut (September 21, 2018)

That Shaheen has a penchant for picking up early wickets is a good omen for Pakistan then. "I try and bowl batsmen out in the first Powerplay," he said, "and always look for wickets whenever I get the ball. I learned a lot from the South Africa tour where the wickets were very good, and we'll see similar wickets in England, too.Pakistan's bowling was clubbed all over the park in the five-match series against England. That they failed to strike in the first powerplay was the primary reason behind all the battering. CricViz, during the fourth ODI at Nottingham, revealed that Pakistan had the second worst strike rate of 86.5 in the first powerplay this year.

"Most of the time in ODI cricket, conditions are prepared for batting. So I'll try to bowl wicket to wicket. I think I will find swing, because conditions in England are such that the ball does swing."

While it took Shaheen a couple of matches to find his feet in England - he conceded 163 runs for one wicket in his first 20 overs - he returned to his strengths in the fourth one-dayer and took 4 for 82 in yet another run-fest. First he removed James Vince and Eoin Morgan with short-pitched deliveries, then he rattled David Willey's stumps late on with a scorching 90mph yorker.

"Shaheen can use the angles as the summer goes along," Nazar said hours before that match. "If the warm weather persists, the reverse-swing will come. Probably, it won't swing that much. But, when it does, he will start to create angles which will see him become very useful for the Pakistan team.

"There's a lack of yorkers in his game right now because the ball is not reversing. With that, there's lack of confidence as well because he has conceded 80-odd runs in two games. This does play on your mind. Because, when you are running in, the last thing you want to think is whether it is going to happen or not.

"And, of course, he is a young man and doesn't have many performances to fall back on. These are some mental battles you have to fight your whole life. But, I am sure he will come through. He only needs one good spell."

***All stats until May 20, 2019

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