Cricket: Shah ushers in the `wannabat' generation

Iain Fletcher hears that a passion for panache drives England's leading young stylist
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The Independent Online
OWAIS SHAH is a curious blend. At 19, he is tall and lean - rather than gangling - and when he walks his head moves frantically, almost as if his neck is made of rubber, while the swinging of his arms suggests that a puppeteer is in control of his actions.

His speech is a bit of west London "street" and a bit of American hip- hop and he has attitude - that quality which the MTV generation seem to covet. But Shah avoids the traps that ensnare so many of his age - the attitude is controlled and natural. Something else he has naturally is an ability to play cricket and this is why he is such a mixture: it is difficult to equate the economy of his movement at the crease and the grace of his strokes with the fidgety pinball that he becomes away from the game.

A carbon-copy of Mark Ramprakash in his stance, he displays a range of stroke and an aptitude that belie his age, but the comparisons with his county captain are obvious. Both are sons of immigrants and announced spectacular talent to the world when they should have been fretting over their A levels; Ramprakash famously playing a match- winning innings in the NatWest final while Shah displayed calm in the midst of an Australian verbal storm on an A tour two years ago. "Ya know the sledging meant nothing to me, nothing at all, it's just the way the Aussies are, innit," he said with a laugh last week. "Anyway, we kept winning and everything's always enjoyable when you're winning."

This winter must have been serious fun for him, then, considering he captained the Under- 19s to victory in the youth World Cup in South Africa before joining the A tour in Sri Lanka."You're learning all the time and that's the fun of it. I love cricket, always have done, it's so simple really. I wanna bat and I wanna score runs." That all? "No. I wanna do it in style." There should be no problems there, because Shah's batting epitomises the word.

The first reaction to many of his strokes is not the sharp intake of breath that usually accompanies a hard-hit shot but more a gentle sigh of appreciation, an acknowledgement of something rare and beautiful.

His talent was spotted at an early age, and but for a relocation of his father's job with Saudi Arabian Airlines, Shah could already have played Test cricket for his native Pakistan.

Born in Karachi, he moved to England at the age of seven, but his love of cricket was already instilled, a love that had blossomed on the streets outside his home.

"Karachi didn't really have the facilities so there was a bunch of about 10 of us who used to play on the street," he said. "Javed Miandad was my hero then but when I came to England I liked Viv [Richards]. Ya know, even though I played a bit of football at college, since Karachi I've always wanted to play cricket."

For parents whose livelihood came from getting heads in the sky, they have done a remarkable job in keeping his feet on the ground, a process helped by his treatment at Middlesex. After his A levels last year he steadily crept up the order to No 4 and he responded by averaging 43 in the Championship and scoring his first century. Such faith has been rewarded this season with undefeated innings of 64 and 88 in the Championship and Sunday League, proving that Shah is rapidly developing into a pivotal member of the side. Not that he ever considered himself anything else. After all, Mike Gatting is not tolerant of faint hearts. "I don't think they treat me any different," he said, "I'm picked and expected to score runs just like the others, my age don't come into it."

Such an attitude might create pressure but Shah doesn't feel so. "I don't put any pressure on myself, so no one else can," he explained. "It's true I wanna play for England but I don't care when and I don't keep track of what other players are doing. I just wanna score runs because I enjoy it, then if I'm good enough I'll go further."

As he might, with his education, for he is studying business administration part time at the University of Westminster. It is a process that could take seven years, but anyone who has seen him bat will know that Owais Shah has time on his side.