Sajid Mahmood: Moment a man lived out all the dreams of his childhood
The newest recruit to England's strike force will never forget his spectacular debut. Stephen Brenkley hears how it still thrills
Sunday 21 May 2006
Four days after the first Test match of the summer and the cloud has not yet been discovered on which Sajid Mahmood is residing. "It's all I've ever wanted," he said. "Unbelievable. To play for my country in a Test match at Lord's. I'm in a dream." He repeated something along these lines four or five times, partly from wonderment, partly to convince himself that it all happened. "Sensational," he said two or three times. "Fantastic," he interspersed. So it was.
Injuries and an eye on the future persuaded the selectors to include Mahmood in the team for his debut. They might have had the odd flickers of doubt, but these were erased by the pace he had to offer. Mentioning pace to cricket selectors often elicits the sort of reaction that saying "Thar's gold in them thar hills" does from a prospector.
In nine balls last Friday evening, Mahmood gave them and England their reward. With the crowd behind him, he bowled extremely quickly (above 92mph), extremely full, and had the ball reverse swinging extremely late. The combination was briefly altogether too much for Sri Lanka.
Mahmood had Kumar Sangakkara driving at one going across him, which was probably on him quicker than he realised. Thilan Samaraweera and Chamara Kapugedera were undone by full, late swing, both palpably leg before. "As soon as I got that first wicket, I thought, 'you've just taken a wicket at Lord's'. I didn't know what to do. I just wanted to run off."
This salvo, leaving the tourists at 85 for 6, was not quite sustained. As Sri Lanka's rearguard action went on, and on, and on, Mahmood found himself in the field longer than he had ever been, bowling 35 overs in Sri Lanka's second innings, 12 more than he had done before. But match figures of 5 for 168 still represented a triumph.
He was born in Bolton of Pakistani parents, his dad from Peshawar, his mum from Islamabad. Cricket was always a fundamental part of his upbringing. He and his mates played in the streets as kids. One of the participants was his cousin, the boxer, Olympic silver medallist and potential world champion Amir Khan (their fathers are brothers). "I didn't box, he used to try to whack the ball." Sajid's dad played in the Bolton League and Sajid followed him. He wanted to be a cricketer, but it was probably in the sense that a lot of 10-year-old boys want to. They desire without having much hope.
"I was at college one day when I was 17. The lecture was about 10 minutes in, it might have been biology, and I realised that I couldn't do this any more, this is truly boring. I thought to myself that I can't study here any more so I've got to make it at cricket. Basically from there I started to take cricket a lot more seriously. I got a job as a supermarket shelf stacker and as I couldn't drive still, my dad took me everywhere." Sajid might have got his biggest break when he declared to his parents that studying was not for him. Shahid and Femida were keen on their second son going to university but he told them it would be a waste of money. They listened. If playing cricket was what he wanted to do, they were prepared to give him every chance.
It all happened pretty quickly for him after that. Most cricketers who play for England these days are spotted early on and nurtured. Around Bolton, Mahmood had a reputation, but it did not filter as far as Old Trafford for long enough.
Initial trials at Lancashire had not worked out entirely fav-ourably. But one of those chosen for the squad of Under-17s got injured. Sajid received a call at home offering him a game without any promises of future selection. He took it, grabbed a few wickets, scored a few runs and stayed on.
"I guess if that guy hadn't got injured I wouldn't be here talking to you now." Lancashire had not especially missed a trick. Mahmood had not yet developed the facet of his bowling that sets him apart from the rest. He was not much more than medium pace, worthy but not eye-catching.
"The pace clicked in, all of a sudden. Sometime in 2002 I thought I could put a bit more effort in and it came out all right. I did a lot of work at Lancashire with Mike Watkinson on my action and after five first-class matches I got picked for the Academy." He was far from the finished article - still isn't - but the raw material was in place.
After 111 first-class overs in those five matches he was selected for the National Academy. They have kept picking him and in successive winters in India, Sri Lanka and West Indies he has prospered. Still, the gap between Mahmood and Test status could perhaps be measured by the fact that he was not deemed good enough to play in Lancashire's Championship side for much of last summer.
If this said something about Lancashire's seam bowling reserves - the old sweats Glen Chapple and Dominic Cork and the young thruster back on county duty, Jimmy Anderson - it spoke some more of Mahmood's tendency to profligacy. He has yet to get five wickets in an innings in the County Championship and averages 35 runs a wicket. But this past winter was another watershed, a college lecture moment if you like.
"I could already reverse swing after going to India with the Academy," he said. "The pitches were pretty flat and you had to try something. Troy Cooley came out for a week, told me what it consisted of, I tried it in the nets and it seemed to work. But this winter, I thought really hard about my game. It might not have been quite make-or-break but I knew there were youngsters coming up, so I really concentrated on improving my game, using the crease, using variations. I felt I came back as a much more mature bowler. I felt ready."
Mahmood still lives at home with his parents in Bolton, a place he has no intention of leaving. "London's much too busy." His Islamic faith is important to him - his parents have just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca - though he confessed a little sheepishly that he can be a little lax in his approach to praying.
He does not drink alcohol - "fortunately, I just don't like the smell" - and neither that nor race generally have ever been issues for him. His father is a policeman in Bolton, these days restricted to office duties after an accident in riot training left him with a severely damaged eye.
"But he knows how to socialise, how to talk to people. He has been a huge influence on me. He and my mum were both at Lord's and they were so proud of me playing for the country."
Mahmood has things to work on as a bowler. He must become fitter to improve his stamina and ensure that his action holds up during a long match. The action itself might be improved. If he can get his arm higher and his wrist more solidly behind the ball, he might be able to adjust his length occasionally and achieve more bounce.
"I have done a lot of work on my action. It's still slingy, which means that the ball tends to skid on. But my front arm is better, higher and pulling through. If it's not, the ball can basically go anywhere and I suppose it looked like that in the Test match at times late on. I don't think I'll lose reverse swing but I do need to get some conventional away swing regularly, otherwise good players will know what's coming and pick me off."
Like the rest of England's current crop of pace bowlers, there does not seem to be much devil in him. They can express disappointment but they let the speed do the talking. Every time you looked at him at Lord's, Mahmood seemed to be enjoying himself. It was surprising therefore to hear that he has often been told that he looks earnest to the point of being miserable.
"I was really enjoying it. It was such a fantastic place to play and the England team was like a close-knit family. When I went into the dressing room I didn't know where to put my bag in case I was taking someone else's place. But it wasn't like that. Everybody was welcoming, even those with so many caps who might have come up and just said 'hiya' and walked away. They all had time to speak to me."
From here an international career might beckon. With doubts over the future of Simon Jones, a place might open up. If Jones gets back, the workload of fast bowlers may necessitate some form of rotation. Mahmood insisted that he was thinking only of "the here and now".
But a little bit of him has thought of the series which cannot but help occupy attention, the Ashes this winter. "Yes, I've thought about how much I want to be there but I can't afford to dwell on it."
He said again that he still could not believe it. "My dad's opened a restaurant in Bolton. If I wasn't a cricketer, I'd be slicing kebabs or flipping over hamburgers." Instead, he should be slicing and flipping Test batsmen.
Life & Times: All aboard the Bolton Express
NAME: Sajid Iqbal Mahmood.
BORN: 21 December 1981, Bolton.
VITAL STATS: 6ft 4in, 12st 7lb.
STYLE: Right-arm fast bowler.
TEAMS: Lancashire, Napier (New Zealand), England A, England.
COUNTY CAREER: Debut 2002; 34 first-class matches, 95 wickets, average 30.48, best bowling 5-37; 63 one-day matches, 94 wkts, avge 24.39, BB 4-37.
INTERNATIONAL CAREER: ODI debut v New Zealand, Bristol, July 2004; 4 matches, 4 wkts, avge 55.00, BB 3-37. Test debut v Sri Lanka, Lord's, May 2006; 1 match, 5 wkts, avge 33.60, BB 3-50.
HIGHLIGHTS: National Academy 2003-04, '04-05, '05-06; England A to India '03-04, Sri Lanka '04-05, West Indies '05-06.
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