A decade ago, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir lit up an overcast English summer, heirs apparent to some of the most exhilarating fast-bowling pairings you could think of. They bowled Australia out for 88, beating for the first time in 15 years an opponent they didn't know how to beat, before turning their focus to England, against whom Amir was Player of the Series despite Pakistan losing it 3-1, and despite - well, you know what. They combined for 53 wickets across six Tests over that delirious English summer. They were 27 and 18, and they were the future.
Shaheen Afridi and Naseem Shah will have watched those two run riot, either at the time or in the years since. They were ten and seven at the time, watching their heroes flourish in the country Pakistan's bowlers have found to be the most fertile breeding ground for their skills. A place where, among other things, a mixture of colonial grievance, stylistic conflict and simmering mutual resentment have combined to birth some of the most celebrated moments in Pakistan's history.
Blue-eyed Fazal Mahmood on a crackling transistor radio would begin it all with a 12-wicket haul at The Oval in 1954, setting benchmarks for Pakistan's quicks. Many failed to live up to that standard, but it wasn't a coincidence that plenty who went on to earn immortality could trace it back to an England tour. Open-chested Imran Khan, who tormented David Gower on English pitches and Ian Botham in English courthouses, learned the basics of his trade entirely in the English university and county system. A bit of guidance from Sarfraz Nawaz didn't hurt, and it was Nawaz's discovery of reverse swing that took cricket from the back pages to being a matter for the English courts in the first place. Wasim Akram enjoyed the privilege of having both Khan's ear and his backing on his first English tour in 1987, where he would finish below only his mentor on the wickets chart as Pakistan won a series there for the first time.
Five years on, Akram had accumulated half a decade of English county experience and he teamed up with Waqar Younis to clean up again, the pair combining for 43 England wickets in another series victory. They would go on to become a byword for the ideal fast-bowling partnership, and after several false dawns, years of Umar Gul hopefulness and Mohammad Sami hopelessness, it appeared Amir and Asif were finally the next logical step in that cycle. Their performance in 2010 would be an inspiration, and then, crushingly, provide a cautionary tale. In other words, it would be a welcome to Pakistan cricket.
It might have been hard to believe then, but those depressing days of the spot-fixing scandal would eventually lead to where Naseem and Afridi stand now. Afridi is yet to hit 21, and will lead an attack once spearheaded by the names above it who it still feels sacrilegious to compare him to. Seventeen-year-old Naseem likely lies in wait as first-change. They might not have got their opportunities quite so soon, especially if Amir had not retired from Test cricket so prematurely, or even if Asif, lost to the game forever, had gone on to fulfil the promise their talent foreshadowed.
England, make no mistake, is where these young men's destinies lie, where their careers, should Pakistan's history be any guide, will be forged. For all the acrimony, for all the accusations, both true and libellous, that Pakistan have felt aggrieved by, England has been perhaps the most generously rewarding place in the world for its most prized skill: fast bowling. It has turned anonymous chancers into household names, extended exposure to players who might otherwise have been severely underrated, and since the late 1960s, offered lucrative county contracts to players who financial pragmatism might have otherwise forced out of the game. It may have been a bully, but it has also been benefactor.
Even with cricket's freshly aligned priorities, the shifts of power from the English and Australian antipodes to the subcontinent, the value of excelling in England is higher for Pakistan than it has arguably ever been. Deprived of cricket's most reliable cash cow - bilateral cricket against India - and locked out of the IPL, proving oneself in England remains a Pakistani cricketer's one big chance to be heard beyond their echo chamber, and a chance at earning a fraction of the income contemporaries around the world have the luxury of taking for granted.
Pakistan's fast bowling has struggled on tours of Australia, and to a lesser extent, South Africa, and that does little for their value in the eyes of those who might hand them a lucrative T20 contract. The country's fast bowlers average just over 40 in Australia, almost five runs worse than anywhere else they have played. That number is an indifferent 34 in South Africa. In England, it stands at 30.28, which means they have been more successful there than in any other country away, except Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and New Zealand.
The divide between performances in England and in Australia has widened into a chasm in the past decade, with Pakistan's quicks managing a wicket every 27.89 runs in England, the best of anywhere they have played more than five Test matches. In eight Tests down under, meanwhile, the price of each wicket has been 47.05 runs, over 11 more than second worst. (Their third-worst record is in South Africa, with a wicket every 34.18 runs.)
As the wickets have come, county contracts have followed. Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Abbas and Faheem Ashraf have all had the chance to hone their skills in the County Championship, and those are just the fast bowlers. Azhar Ali and Babar Azam were drafted in for Somerset, and several others have played in the T20 Blast.
Selective historical and statistical precedent may suggest fate holds something special in store for Naseem and Afridi. Their selection in the side and the elevated responsibility they look set to be given despite their youth isn't a gimmick, it is a reflection of the status in which Pakistan cricket holds them. You could almost see Afridi transition from boy to man on a brutally unforgiving tour of Australia last year, where, forced into being the team's leader, he ended up being the only one to maintain the standards Pakistan had hoped of their fast bowling contingent, finishing with five wickets at 36.80 even as Australia amassed record-breaking totals.
Naseem, who would play just the first of those two Tests, would experience the worst either cricket or life had to offer, making his debut the day after the death of his mother 11,000 km away, and dismissing David Warner for his first Test wicket, only for it to be called a no-ball (he would not be deprived, however, making Warner his first Test wicket later). He would follow that up with a blitz of a home summer, becoming the youngest fast bowler to take a Test five-for, against Sri Lanka in Karachi, and the youngest to take a hat-trick, against Bangladesh in Rawalpindi a few months later.
So, should they excel in England, let no one who only pays attention to cricket when it's played in a handful of nations tell you they were a bolt from the blue. With the coronavirus pandemic and the crowd-free venues in which the series will be played, the setting is such as never quite seen before in England. But if Afridi and Naseem manage to summon up the spirit of legends gone by, there will be many in Pakistan rejoicing at the return of something they have always recognised. "We've seen this happen before," they might wistfully whisper to ten- and seven-year old kids who finally realise those tales were true after all.