Ajmal's now the right shape to get nice shape on ball

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The Independent Online

He may be England's next big thing, but it is the fact Ajmal Shahzad is not as big as he used to be that has put the Yorkshireman at the forefront of selectors' minds, with a place on this winter's Ashes tour the low-calorie carrot now dangling in front of him.

Shahzad, who had a mixed day against Bangladesh in the one-day international yesterday, picking up 3 for 41 with the ball but having a shocker in the field and then being bowled for just 5 after an ungainly heave, actually made his first-class debut more than six years ago. It was he, not Adil Rashid, who made history by becoming the first British-born Asian-origin player to turn out for Yorkshire, which is an indication that his progress to date has been far from straightforward.

"I've learned a lot about bowling in that time, but probably the biggest thing for me in terms of hard work has been fitness," Shahzad admits. "When I first came into the Yorkshire side I was bowling quite a good pace, but I was quite a bulky lad. Looking back, that was probably – no, definitely – one of the reasons I picked up injuries [including a stress fracture in his back].

"You need to be in shape to bowl fast and, as well as losing some weight, eating properly, I've done a lot of work on my strength, my musculature, with the help of the Yorkshire fitness and conditioning coach, the physios there, and the bowling coach, Steve Oldham.

"It also helped that the [England] selectors got me involved with the performance programme in South Africa at the end of last year. Once I saw that door open I thought, 'right, now is definitely the time to put the foot down and try to impress'. The key is to keep working hard on my game, my fitness, and stay injury free."

Shahzad made a favourable impression when he made his Test debut against Bangladesh last month, and the 24-year-old from Bradford believes his time with the England Lions recently was also well spent.

"It felt good, like it was important, not like a second prize or something," he said. "I've been around the main squad for a while, and after playing against Bangladesh I definitely want to [play Tests] again, but I know there are some great bowlers to get past.

"Bangladesh was a bit of a teaser in a way. It just made me want more, which isn't going to be easy but that's a great motivation to keep working hard, because bear in mind six months ago I was still working to break through with Yorkshire, trying to get myself in a position to make a consistent impression for my county."

Suggestions that Graham Onions' injuries are more serious than had been thought, and that he has effectively been written out of England's Ashes plans, are denied by the ECB, but his continuing absence means the unfortunate Durham seamer appears increasingly unlikely to make the trip.

As his selection yesterday confirms, Shahzad is in pole position to replace him. Skiddier than Onions, though not yet as consistently accurate, he swings the new ball in both directions, and as befits one who enjoys trawling YouTube for clips of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis running through opposition batting line-ups, he is becoming increasingly proficient at reverse-swinging the old ball.

"Of course I'd love to be part of [the Ashes squad], but it's a long time until November and you learn not to look beyond – well, beyond the next match really. But the way I feel now, in terms of fitness and what I can do as a bowler, I'm just loving my cricket. I'm buzzing."

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