It never gets old does it? Throwing someone who would ordinarily be barely out of school into a pit populated by men, gnarled, cynical, seen-it-all men, hardened men who know defeat as a deep wound and triumph as fleeting sensation, and see how they go. What's the worst that can happen right? They'll flounder and be gone, not knowing then what they will eventually come to know, that it was too early, or that they weren't good enough. The best, on the other hand, well that'll be some life - not just career, but a life.
No cricket nation has been quite so brazen about this as Pakistan, providers to Test cricket of ten of the 20 youngest players the format has seen. On Monday they threw Shaheen Shah Afridi into this pit, although let's be real, the Sheikh Zayed stadium, genteel and calm and empty, is hardly a pit.
The broadcasters showed a list during play of the least amount of first-class matches played by a Pakistani before Test debut and it was an instructive one. Afridi had only played three before today, and in the first he had taken, spectacularly, 8-39.
Look through the names on that table. Yasir Ali, who literally did not own a pair of cricket boots when he was picked on a wild hunch by Aamir Sohail back in 2003 when Pakistan were sweeping away the 90s generation; or Aamer Nazir, who swung the ball in so big and should've had a hat-trick on ODI debut but who still hadn't figured out his run-up; or Hasan Raza, the bottom line in the worst that does happen when they're too young.
If you expand that list to players who have appeared in four first-class matches before their Test debut, you rope in Shadab Khan and Hanif Mohammad. So two from the ten went on to become bona fide legends, one - Tauseef Ahmed - ended up with a solid career and two are just starting out. The rest - thank you for the reality check.
But the list - or at least the presence of Afridi and Shadab in it - is a misleading one. No young or inexperienced pup is thrown into anything anymore. They're nowadays gently lowered into it, readier for it than ever before. They emerge gleaming, from pathways and age-group cricket, already moving in bubbles, already familiar with their opponents who have arrived in similar manner.
It doesn't mean the same thing anymore that Afridi played just three first-class matches before this Test and Wasim Akram played three first-class matches before his debut. For starters, Afridi's already appeared in the heat of international competition 13 times, operating right at the coalface of bowling final overs defending not much. He's played in an U-19 World Cup, in an U-19 Asia Cup, in U-19 ODIs in Australia and New Zealand and he has a whole season of the PSL behind him.
He's arrived ready with standard template answers to media questions, like: "I just focus on what I can do with my bowling and not worry so much about the batsman," when he was asked today about bowling to Kane Williamson. Akram had one first-class game before his first ODI. Afridi's 18 and left-arm and quick and three first-class matches like Akram was, but they're nothing like each other even in these outlines.
You would know way more about Afridi too now, more than you would've ever known about Akram, or even Yasir Ali when he debuted. Many of you would've seen the best of Afridi's bowling long before he made his international debut.
And so it's no surprise that his debut lacked that quality of unexpectedness, of not knowing quite what you were going to get with this young kid. He bowled well because we now know he does bowl well. Even he knew he'd be okay. "No, I've been playing for three months here now, I've been playing ODIs and T20s so I didn't feel nervous. I knew how I had to bowl, how I have been bowling."
But there was still something refreshing about it because, in the Misbah-ul-Haq years, we got used to this not happening. Three teenagers debuted in Misbah's long captaincy, the last of whom - Shadab - felt like one of those gambles you make when it doesn't really matter. The Misbah years were about old, forgotten, rejected men having their day in the sunshine. When Pakistan had to rejig their attack in 2014, for example, after Saeed Ajmal's action was found to be illegal, the men they picked barely had any Tests between them, but they had hundreds of first-class matches.
And also, there is still something very coltish about Afridi. It still doesn't seem that long ago that his brother Riaz was playing the only Test he'd play and taking the only two Test wickets he'd ever take, of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara; Riaz, who now looks as if he may have eaten three Shaheens for lunch, and who doesn't feel a figure from that long ago. Shaheen was four years old at the time of that Test, and he says he knows of the Test but of course remembers nothing of it. Riaz, whose dream it has been to see Shaheen play more Tests than he did, was the first person he called on Sunday when he knew he was making his debut. 'Maintain your lines, lengths and above all, your patience', he told his kid brother.
He is so clearly just a big, gifted kid having the ride of his life, whether he's taking wickets, seeing catches dropped off his bowling, winning games or just diving around in the field. Even Sarfraz Ahmed, who berates every single one of his bowlers if they miss their length by, say, the skin of an atom, even this Sarfraz gets all gooey like a new father in his handling of Afridi, patiently talking to him, telling him it's going to be okay, don't worry about those wides. It makes sense not from calculating that Sarfraz is 13 years older than Afridi, but from understanding that Afridi hadn't turned six when Sarfraz was doing grown-up things like winning the U-19 World Cup.
And for all that we do know about him, it doesn't take the exhilaration away from his rise. It's just over a year ago that he made that first-class debut. Now here he is, bowling like he's been bowling in this side for three years, not three months. He may not feel the nerves on debut, but sometimes when he finds himself alone in a room it hits him just how much has happened in a year and how strange this all is. Ninety-nine percent of us have no idea what that might feel like.
Somebody asked him, after his first day of Test cricket, about fame. He was a fast bowler after all, and his surname was Afridi and the other Afridi (not Riaz but the other) had a huge fan following.
"I have no fan following, nobody knows me," he said, already blushing, those deep-set eyes disappearing even further into his own face. "He is Shahid bhai…"
And what about all the girls who used to call Shahid bhai, how about that kind of attention…
"Please, ask me something else," he said, blushing even more, smiling and wishing the ground would swallow him whole, looking like a kid the only time this whole day.