Afzaal's singular vision born of twin heritage

'I am a confident lad, and nobody is going to knock that out of me. If my confidence scares people, it scares them'
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Of the three notable performances which distinguished the gloriously sunny Saturday of The Oval Test match last summer, Usman Afzaal's debut 50 was perhaps the least momentous.

But not for him. While the headline-writers worked out how best to accommodate the name Ramprakash – who that day scored his first Test century on English soil – and the correspondents in the press box leafed through their Wisdens for some statistics to enhance their paragraph on Shane Warne's 400th Test wicket, Afzaal found it hard to keep a lid on his euphoria.

After pushing Jason Gillespie to point for the all-important single, he kissed the daveez – a strip of black cloth covering words from the Koran, given to him by his mother and tied around his right wrist. He then kissed the three lions on the side of his helmet. And with those two heartfelt gestures he acknowledged both sides of his heritage; his early childhood in Lahore and subsequent upbringing in the Pakistani community in Nottingham, and his nurturing, along with the likes of Andrew Flintoff, as an English cricketer of great promise.

I was privileged to be at The Oval that day, watching admiringly from the Surridge stand. We now meet, on an April afternoon almost as warm as that eventful afternoon in south London, in the shadow of the pavilion at Lord's, where Afzaal and his Nottinghamshire team-mates are preparing to play Middlesex in the County Championship.

For 20 minutes or so I watch him and four others in slip-catching practice, under the steely eye of their coach, Clive Rice.

The session is noisy but only Afzaal is making the noise. "Catch it!" he cries. And "yeeahh!" And "ohhhhh!" And "hahahaha!" He is a loud and lively character, too loud and lively even for the Australians, who complained last summer that Afzaal turned up at the Edgbaston Test with music blaring from his Saab convertible, in a manner unbefitting a professional cricketer about to make his Test debut.

"A bundle of crap," Afzaal says, of that particular charge. "It's true that I arrived in my car, but I didn't have the music at full blast, and I wasn't using a mobile phone, as someone said. I just came to play cricket. I'm not stupid. But I am a confident lad, and nobody is going to knock that out of me. If my confidence scares people, it scares them."

I ask him what he recalls of his Edgbaston debut? "I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be. My first ball was against [Glenn] McGrath, and I'd smacked him all round Trent Bridge in a county game. I got 150 or so, and really took him to the cleaners. But, as I passed him on my way out, he said "welcome to big boys' cricket" or some smart-arse comment like that. His first ball was a slower ball, and I played it, and we looked at each other.

"I got four or six, something like that, and then got bowled, out of the rough, by Shane Warne. I'd faced him before, in a one-day game against Hampshire. I got 97 not out."

So, 150 against McGrath, and 97 not out against Warne, but in his first Test match, nothing much to trouble the scorers. McGrath's remark about big boys' cricket, smart-arse or not, was evidently spot-on. Afzaal has more than proved himself at county level but the question is whether he can flourish in the crucible of Test cricket, that 54 notwithstanding.

It is a question that clearly exercises the England management of David Graveney and Duncan Fletcher, who took him on tour to India and New Zealand but did not play him, and have not yet given him a central contract. It is not, however, a question he asks himself.

"The way I look at it, in my last Test match, against the best team in the world – the best team ever, they say – I took them on and scored 54 in 71 or 72 balls. I showed what I can do, but now I want to say that it's nothing compared with what I can really do. Yeah, it was frustrating not playing Test cricket on the tour. I'd rather be playing than not playing. But I'd also rather be there than not be there. It was great being around some of my heroes, like Graham Thorpe."

Like Thorpe, Afzaal is a free-scoring left-handed batsman (he also bowls a bit, slow left-arm). Some observers have said that he reminds them of Saeed Anwar, but Afzaal, while by no means in denial of his Pakistani background, prefers to draw comparison with Englishmen. Although in awe of Imran Khan – "for his force of personality" – his heroes are mostly English. "David Gower most of all. I loved watching him. So elegant, so fluent. And later Thorpe."

He was born in Rawalpindi, in June 1977. "But I was brought up in Lahore. My first memories of cricket are of playing in the streets of Lahore. My father knew nothing of cricket, though. He was in the army. He preferred boxing and motor racing." When Afzaal was six, the family moved to Nottingham to be with his father's father, who had moved to England years before. Inspired by his older brother, Kamran, Afzaal took up cricket in earnest.

"I got into the county Under-11s, which felt like a good achievement, but the year after that I got dropped. A letter came, saying 'your services will not be required this year', and it felt like a kick in the stomach. I said 'right, cobblers to you guys, I'll show you'. Some kind of warrior came out in me. And I did show them. I got into the England Under-15s, and Under-17s, and Under-19s, playing with guys like Andrew Flintoff and Owais Shah and Marcus Trescothick."

He was still in his teens when he got into the Nottinghamshire first-team. "I used to bowl more in those days, and bat seven. I remember bowling for hours against Kent, and Aravinda de Silva getting 260-odd. I was bowling and bowling, and he kept hitting the ball wherever he wanted to. Every ball I bowled he would make a scoring shot, whereas in my age group they'd play and miss, or I'd bowl them. I thought: 'Right, I've got to work at this'. I've come a long, long way since then. I started as a bowler, and I've turned into an England batsman, and that entails damn hard work."

The praise that others heap on Afzaal has a good, firm foundation of praise he has already heaped on himself. And yet, for all that, he is an enormously likeable young man, not unlike Naseem Hamed in his self-assurance, but without the arrogance and the swagger.

He is quick to acknowledge, too, the help given him by others. "My biggest help have been my family. That's where I get my self-confidence from. And they are lovely to come home to. But Clive Rice has helped me change into a dominating batsman. He has helped me so much technically. Basic things, like getting my feet across early, getting into line, and to watch closely how the bowler shines the ball, so I know what it might do. Now, in the nets, I get the bowler to start with a new ball, then change to an older ball after five or six overs."

This diligence helped him to some high-scoring knocks with Nottinghamshire last summer, which prompted Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, to dial him up.

"I remember it so well. My nephew had just been born, and I was at a party for him when Mr Graveney phoned on my mobile. He said: 'You've been selected for the first Test. Congratulations. Be yourself, and go and take them on'. I froze. I remember that. I froze. And when I came off the phone I had a tear in my eye. Instead of being my nephew-being-born party it became an Usman-selected-for-England party."

Afzaal played in three of the Ashes Tests, earning himself a place on the winter tour. But in the light of the events of 11 September, not to mention increasing friction between India and Pakistan, the subcontinent was not necessarily the safest destination on earth. Like the other England players, but with perhaps more resonance, Afzaal was offered the opportunity to cry off, with no recriminations. He declined. "It wasn't a hard decision," he says.

I ask whether he is ever given a hard time by people who feel he should represent Pakistan? After all, when the Pakistani cricket team toured England last summer, they were supported by large numbers of British Asians, who were proud to fail Norman Tebbit's odious "cricket test".

"Nobody has ever suggested I shouldn't be playing for England," he says. "There is some jealousy, but that's the only negative. When I go to the local takeaway, instead of being there for two minutes, everybody wants to talk to me, they call their families over, and I'm there for half an hour. I just want to get my food and go home, but you have to be polite, and it's nice. I don't get nasty comments. It's when I don't get any comments that it usually means the guy knows who I am but is jealous, or isn't interested."

Without an England contract, Afzaal has plenty more of that damn hard work to do if he is to get back into the frame this summer. And his cause was not greatly helped by reports that came out of New Zealand, suggesting that he and James Ormond, among others, had allowed themselves to lose shape and fitness. Unsurprisingly, he denies vehemently this allegation of a lack of professionalism.

"We all worked damn, damn hard at our cricket, so I don't know where that came from. Uncle Duncan [Fletcher] said: 'Us, I didn't say any of this. Just focus on your cricket. I'm happy with what you're doing.' Anyway, I don't mind what people write. I'm a born winner."

As a born winner, then, what is his ultimate single ambition? To score a century against Australia? Against Pakistan? "I want to be the best player in England. My biggest ambition is to play in these coming Tests against Sri Lanka, to bat six and get a big hundred, 170 or 180. To show the world what Afzaal is capable of, that he is capable of ripping attacks apart, hitting it where he wants, that he can take on the world's best, look them in the eye, and say: 'Come on, you're not good enough for me'."

I leave Lord's smiling, and hoping that he has not set himself too formidable a target. He, meanwhile, has to attend a team meeting with a sports psychologist, whose job is to build confidence, although it might be wise, sometimes, to discourage it from growing too high.

Usman Afzaal: The Life and Times

Born: 9 June 1977

Birthplace: Rawalpindi, Pakistan

Full name: Usman Afzaal

County team: Nottinghamshire

Nicknames: Usy, Navjot, Ganguly

Height: 6ft

Weight : 12st 7lb

Favourite cricketers: Steve Waugh ("determination to be at the top"), Mark Ramprakash, Graham Thorpe, Saeed Anwar

Role: Left-hand bat, slow left-arm bowler

Honours: Test debut for England against Australia 2001. Led a tour of Asian youngsters from Nottinghamshire to Pakistan in the winter of 2000-01

Hobbies: "Spending time with my missus and listening to good music."

He says: "Perhaps I'm eccentric but I love England. Although Pakistan is special to me England is my home."

They say (David Graveney, the England chairman of selectors): "Whoever I've spoken to, be it other players, umpires or coaches, they have all said he's a streetfighter, he's up for a scrap."

First-class batting and fielding statistics: Matches: 105. Innings: 181. Not out: 15. Runs: 4949. Highest score: 151 not out. Average: 29.81. 100s: 7. 50s: 29. Caught: 49. St: 0.

First-class bowling statistics: Overs: 1,015.4. Maidens: 233. Runs. 3,211. Wickets: 66. Average: 48.65. Best: 4-101. Strike rate: 92.3. Economy: 3.16.

Not including current round of matches

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