Even when he took 7 for 70 in the second Test against Sri Lanka, he had to share the limelight.
Noman has had to do duties that no one else will, and he’s done them without complaint and with little appreciation in return.
Like that least favorite child parents simply don’t talk about unless they’re in the running for a Nobel Prize, followers of Pakistan cricket don’t really bring up Noman Ali much. He’s a spinner, for one—a left-armer at that. 36 years old, with a hairline to make him pass for 46 and a personality as magnetic as the wooden stumps at each end. He’s not even one of those dazzling tail-enders who entertain at the crease, and he’s so lacking in the rub of the green that so many Pakistan cricketers enjoy that he found a way to run himself out as a nightwatchman in the previous Test. Oh, and he doesn’t spin the ball very much. He may stand on the line all day and not have to sign a single autograph. If you were to create an unsexy cricketer in a lab, you’d start with Noman and then tone it down.
There’s always a reason not to talk about Noman, and Naseem Shah delivered one on Thursday. Naseem is the polar opposite of Noman. He’s a fast bowler with youthful good looks, pace to compete with the best, conventional and reverse swing with scary control, and a hairline that ranks high among Pakistan’s fast bowlers. He has his entire career ahead of him, yet there are no indications that he is even close to being the best version of himself. He’ll grow into his body, build muscle, and gain both experience and confidence. His adoration, boyband-like, will blossom into a legion.
But Noman possesses something that many flashier, more brilliant cricketers do not: he recognizes both his role and his limitations. He was only called up two years ago because Pakistan needed an extra spinner against South Africa, and he stayed in the side when Yasir Shah faded and Abrar Ahmed wasn’t ready. It’s a tough moment in Pakistan for red-ball spin-bowling talent, and Noman knows that when you’re that desperate, anything will do. Even the drip, drip, drip of a dripping faucet.
Noman has had to do duties that no one else will, and he’s done them without complaint and with little appreciation in return. Only three Tests earlier, while New Zealand knocked Pakistan out of the game in 195 boring overs, Noman bowled 63. In 2022, he bowled 48 for little benefit against Australia on a flat pitch in Karachi. When he has taken wickets, he has been easily eclipsed—on debut by Hasan Ali, in Zimbabwe by Shaheen Afridi, and against Australia by an ICC pitch rating.
Pakistan had a beautiful Test match, but they weren’t taking wickets, and who could foresee the weather in Colombo on day five? Pakistan had already lost a lot of time to rain and had arguably dragged their feet in declaring, while Sri Lanka had created a solid framework with their openers. Of course, Naseem, Shaheen, and Abrar had all been tried first, but when each returned empty-handed, Babar Azam tossed the ball to Nauman with as much anticipation as he could conjure quietly.
Few could blame Nishan Madushka for losing to the first ball, which was due in equal measure to the quality of the delivery and the improbability of the source. Noman instantly found his radar, drifting it in, landing it in the middle, and getting just enough grip to beat the outside edge while still clipping the outer half of the off stump. It wasn’t simply effective; it was also, whisper it quietly, seductive.
Perhaps Noman has been doing this all along and we haven’t noticed, and that says as much about us as it does about him. Because few will remember that ball or the six others that helped open the game and guarantee Pakistan didn’t have to gamble with the rain gods. Naseem, on the other hand, was bowling a stint for the ages while going wicketless. He bowled four maiden overs in a row shortly after lunch, managing to be both an attacker and a container at the same time, even as Noman scooped up wickets at the other end. For much of his career, the spinner has held things up for the faster bowlers, but in an odd reversal, the star actor was returning the favor to his supporting cast.
Even so, as Noman picked up his fifth, sixth, and seventh wickets and rumors of 10 began to circulate, the spotlight continued to shift away from him. Because Naseem was bowling a spell whose value could not be quantified. The drama reached a climax in the 62nd over. By this point, Naseem had mastered the art of reversing the ball, which takes a lifetime to perfect. He beat the bat three times, and Hawkeye demonstrated that the ball was reversing too much. As Naseem buried his face in the Colombo soil, the technology effectively told him that he was simply too brilliant to get that wicket.
But, as spectacular as Noman’s involvement had been, it had come to an end. Naseem has rarely been left waiting for what he wants, and normal service was resumed as the fast bowling prince of Pakistan took center stage. Noman had cleared the way for a shot at the tail, removing the charming Ramesh Mendis, who’d somehow escaped Naseem’s overthrow. It took the 20-year-old six deliveries to complete the final three.
Even as Noman led the crew away, the cameras captured what everyone wanted to see. An extended shot of Naseem, who is surrounded by his teammates, who are laughing, joking, and playing with his hair. The lad who got three wickets deserved more, but no one would deny the man who got seven even a single one. Slow left-arm spin may not be flashy, but stats of 7 for 70 are irresistible. Only one foreign cricketer has ever performed better in an innings in Sri Lanka.
And, as Noman may be too modest to admit, that is even more unusual than a Nobel Prize.
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