The generation game

Naseem, Shaheen and Ollie, now, and in ten years.

Ollie Pope smiled, the way you do as you're crossing a road and you only realise you've shouldn't have when you feel the breeze from a car on your bum.  The reason was Naseem Shah's first ball in England. It was short, wide, and a bit rank. Pope didn't play and miss, he didn't even need to be involved; it was that poor of a delivery.

But it also did something otherwordly. Whacked into this shortish widish length, the ball hit the pitch and jagged like a leg break. At pace.

Naseem Shah was talked up on Sky's broadcast in a way that doesn't happen as often now. By the time most players have arrived in Tests we've seen them in T20 cricket. Jofra Archer had done a world circuit before the World Cup. So unless you were an English fan who sits up to watch Australia Pakistan in the middle of the night or hunts for replays, Naseem came to you the way cricketers used to in the old days. With hype and mystery. Ian Ward talked about him as if he'd walked into the team from another realm. Wasim Akram added the backstory, and then there was that first ball. Mostly they whispered on the speed and youth. This is the language of Pakistani pace.

With Pakistani cricketers, we understand the youth is more of an approximation. And the pace was strong, but not superhuman, he touched 90 miles an hour, never smashing it. But he has this force about him. The balls are fast, but they also have energy off the pitch and parallel movement. You don't need the speed gun or birth certificate to be excited, each bounce does that for you.

And the thing is, at the other end with a bouffant of hair that a young Ben Affleck would be proud to sport is Shaheen Afridi. The man with the name of a 90s game designer trying not to pay for Shahid Afridi's image rights. Shaheen is more well known as he quietly became the world's best powerplay bowler.  The height, left arm, pace and lateral movement is obscene. A combination of two of these would make him a good Test bowler, all four, well, you get silly thinking of what might happen.

And look who they are bowling too. Ollie Pope is an incredible talent himself. The English press were accused of overhyping him recently. (Yes, this was the first time in cricket history local media had overhyped a young player).  After South Africa, I did an analytical deconstruction of his early career for the Cricketer magazine looking ahead to the Sri Lanka series that never happened.

"Hard to know what the boy wonder's flaws are, as we've seen so few of them. Only nine players have made over 2000 runs in county cricket and averaged over 60. In those are names like Crowe, Lara and Sangakkara. Guys you don't need the first names of. Pope's not gone past 2000 yet, and chances are he'll regress to the mean as his career progresses. But it shows his talent, and how little he's played.

There are no apparent flaws in his game, but teams will try to slow him down with spin and bowling length outside off. For opposition teams - and even England - we're still discovering what Pope can do."

If you're not hyping Pope, or really any of these three, then you haven't seen enough of them. Forget their numbers, just look at what they do with each delivery. Pope walks in as England batsmen have made every pitch look apocalyptic and he on drives, pulls off the front foot and strokes through the covers like he's receiving throwdowns. Shaheen Afridi seems to have been invented by a team of wizards with input from a grizzled bowling coach and cricket analyst. Naseem Shah has the kind of energy in one ball that could replace coal.

And here they are, all at the beginning of their journey, facing each other.

Maybe none of them goes on to be great, maybe we're lucky enough if even one does, but these are the moments I love being a sports fan. Where you can see a potential matchup at the start, and you live in the present with each pull shot or inswinger. But you're also projecting, what is this like in two years, five, maybe ten. When Ollie is still smiling, but his face has been weathered by time, Naseem is no longer exciting, he's outstanding and Shaheen is still tall, and left armed, but pulls it back a yard.

Years ago I saw this in Australian Rules Football. Glen Jakovich was a square-jawed, actually, he was square-everythinged - centre half back for the West Coast Eagles in the AFL. And he was lining up against Wayne Carey, soon to be king Carey, (Nike's first major AFL player) the centre half forward. This meant that a couple of times a year these two men would play an entire game on each other.

Jakovich was my favourite player from the moment he went out on the ground, and you couldn't live in Melbourne and not be surrounded by talk of Carey. So I watched their early matchups with nerdish obsession. But I wasn't the only one.

Mick Malthouse - Jakovich's coach - went to his young star. "Hey Glen, let me tell you something, See that player out there, Wayne Carey. You're going to be playing on him for the next 10 years. He embarrassed you in front of your family, your friends. I've got a hint for you: you learn to beat him or I'll find someone else that can."

Malthouse knew that if Jakovich couldn't beat Carey, probably no one could. This was about motivation, it was in the Carey battle that Jakovich's legacy was formed. It was great he beat everyone else, but beating Carey was what he became defined by. And for ten years these two went directly at each other, they started at the same time, age degraded them at a similar point, and they won two premierships each. They were bicep to bicep for a generation.

We don't know if that will happen here. Pakistan quick bowlers arrive fast, bowl rapid, and disappear at Lightspeed. And England has a way of wearing down even their most natural batting talents. But I'm living in the what-if: because it's wonderful here.

Pope wasn't smiling on day two. He looked confused by the ball that took him. The extra bounce, made him look like a gormless baby trying to make sense of their new environment. He knew, on one level what had happened, but he wasn't sure how to process it. Naseem Shah had been too good. If we are lucky, Pope has ten years of trying to make up for it.