Amir Khan and Sajid Mahmood: Romantic journey inspires family of top-flight talent
England's rising stars of boxing and cricket are first cousins whose grandfather left Rawalpindi to seek a new life in Britain. The source of their talent may be a mystery but its development is not: it is the result of discipline, hard work and parental encouragement
Saturday 29 July 2006
Old Trafford Cricket Ground is no more than 15 miles from the modest 1970s terraced house in the Halliwell district of Bolton which 24-year-old Sajid Mahmood shares with his parents and younger brother. But in a way his journey to Old Trafford - where he is currently playing Test cricket for England against Pakistan, the land of his forefathers - began not in Halliwell but in Rawalpindi, long before he was born.
The story began in 1968, with Sajid's grandfather, Lall Khan, who had just been discharged from the Pakistani army. And it is not just Sajid's journey that began there, but also that of his first cousin, the scintillating lightweight boxer Amir Khan. When Lall emigrated to England in search of a better life for himself and his family, he can scarcely have expected that two grandsons, yet unborn, would represent his adopted homeland as élite sportsmen.
After all, Lall was a keen runner but not at any kind of representative level. And his sons, the fathers of Sajid and Amir, played a bit of cricket without setting the world alight. So here I am, on a muggy evening more evocative of Rawalpindi than Bolton, sitting in the front room of the Mahmood family home wondering how it came to pass that this ordinary immigrant family with no heritage of sporting excellence has produced a Test cricketer and an Olympic silver medal-winning boxer (and probable future world champion).
Leading me to the answer, I hope, are Sajid Mahmood and Amir Khan themselves, and their respective fathers, Shahid Mahmood and Shajaad Khan (in Pakistan, sons do not necessarily share their father's surnames, which explains why the brothers have different names). It was not hard to find the house, the only one in the terrace with a glittering collection of expensive cars parked outside. The Independent's photographer, Simon Wilkinson, then took some pictures of the four men outdoors, a session notable for Sajid's anxiety that there might be spiders in the tree Simon asked him to lean on.
He's as tough as nails on the cricket field but don't show him the incy-winciest of spiders.
We all had a good laugh about this but now we are indoors, and a formality settles over the room, which I try to puncture by asking how good Sajid is at boxing, and what Amir's cricket is like? Sajid rewards me with a smile. "My boxing ain't that clever. I sparred with him when I was younger, but that put me off."
"I used to play cricket at school," says Amir, "but I don't think I've got the patience for it. But we played cricket together on the street, in fact we still do."
"He's a slogger and a bit of a slinger," Sajid says.
Amir laughs. "I always want to bat first and when I'm out I want to go home. Because once Saj is in you can never get him out."
"I need the practice, that's why," his older cousin says. There are five years between them but their easy banter reveals their closeness. Each is immensely proud of the other's achievements, although it is Sajid who has taken more of a back seat, while the promoter Frank Warren navigates Amir's route to a world title. "I told my mates before the  Olympics that my cousin's going and I bet he brings a medal back, and they're like, 'All right, what's his name?' I say, 'Amir Khan' and they say, 'Oh, right'. Then two weeks later he's a household name."
This week, however, it is Amir who watches with pride, as Sajid Mahmood of Lancashire plays Test cricket at his home ground of Old Trafford for the first time, and against Pakistan of all teams. Any Pakistani supporters giving Sajid a hard time yesterday for bowling for England would have been well advised to look around them first for a handsome, jug-eared lad with famous fists.
"I think it's brilliant," says Amir, "that two British Pakistani boys are representing the country. And from the same family. It's brilliant."
Physically, there is no particular evidence that they are related. They're a good-looking pair, but Sajid is tall and broad, built like a classic fast bowler, while Amir is short and wiry. "We both have upper body strength," says Amir, "but we use different muscles. My strength and speed comes more from my legs and back. Unlike Saj, I don't use my shoulders much. The similarity is more that we have both always had the total support of our parents and we're equally dedicated.
"We both spend a lot of time at the gym. The difference is that Saj can't go any higher, because he's already playing for England, whereas I can still become world champion. The other thing is that we're both religious. I don't drink alcohol and Saj doesn't. I pray, fast and stuff, and go to the mosque. That helps you focus, and keeps your discipline."
Are they also propelled, I wonder, by the Pakistani work ethic? Their grandfather spent years working long shifts at Wolstenholme's Bronze Powder factory to improve the family circumstances, and even though his grandsons didn't know him (Sajid was just a year old when Lall died in 1983), do they perhaps feel his patriarchal legacy?
"It's partly that," says Shahid, Sajid's father. "But it's also that my father insisted on me doing something I didn't want to do. He said that engineering was the thing of the future, so I must get into engineering. I didn't want to, but I got the qualifications and I was in it for 10 years.
"Eventually I joined the police force, which is what I'd always wanted to do.
"I'm still a policeman now. So when me and my brother had sons of our own, we wanted to give them every chance to do what they wanted to do. It's all right saying that young Pakistani boys should get an education and be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer, but not all of them can do that. Amir wanted to box, Saj wanted to play cricket, and we supported them all the way."
"That's right," adds Shajaad. "With these lads, whatever they wanted we were more than happy to help them achieve it. I took Amir to Halliwell Boxing Club when he was eight years old, but my parents didn't treat me that way. They thought playing cricket was a waste of time. They just wanted me to study."
So it was a reaction to Lall's well-meaning but misplaced paternalism that helped Sajid and Amir scale the heights. Yet the old man is remembered with nothing but love and respect, and Shajaad proudly shows me a photograph of him with his four children (the fifth, Tahir wasn't yet born) taken in 1970 at the beginning of the family's new life in England. When they moved to Halliwell in 1973, he adds, they were only the second Asian family in the street. Now the area is predominantly Asian. Yet they have never experienced racism, so virulent elsewhere in the North-west. Never.
"My father knew he'd done the best thing for us by coming here," says Shahid. "I wish he was here now to see what his grandkids have achieved. He liked cricket, as all Pakistanis do, but he really loved boxing. I remember him staying up to watch Muhammad Ali's fights in the middle of the night even though he had to go to work at 6am, and now there are millions staying up to watch Amir's fights."
Lall's widow, Iqbal Begum, died just before Amir's exploits in Athens. She never liked him boxing, even when he was winning, but both she and Lall would be proud of their grandsons for the way in which they have stuck firmly to the tenets of Islam. Happily, the teetotalism they must embrace as Muslims also fits in with their careers as sportsmen.
I ask whether they have ever tried alcohol? "No, I don't like the smell," says Sajid.
"There's no point," Amir adds. "I know how rough my mates feel the next day. I say, 'Why do you do it, then?' and they say, 'Never again'. Then they're back on it that night."
There are, of course, plenty of boxers and cricketers who are not averse to a pint or several. "Yeah, like Ricky Hatton," says Amir. "And in cricket you've got Freddie Flintoff."
The room rocks with laughter. "It's a good job you didn't say that, Saj," says Shajaad.
"Flintoff and Hatton are similar," says Amir, "but when it gets down to it they're both great at what they do. Everyone has to unwind, but I do it by not training, really. My body gets used to being put under pressure, to being on a diet, so it's relaxing not doing that for a while. I don't need booze to do it."
I ask Sajid what he thinks when he sees, on the streets of Bolton, teenage girls in a state of complete leglessness?
"If I see that, there is no doubt in my mind that they'll do it again, and I'm just glad I'll never be in that state. It makes me feel good, in a way.
"You think, 'Is that how you want your friends to see you?' What would they think of themselves if they saw a video of it when they were sober?"
But might he not have felt alienated had his breakthrough into the England cricket team come last summer instead of this, had he been drinking orange juice on the memorable Ashes victory parade through London?
He smiles. He's too canny to be lured into condemnation of his new team-mates. "They deserved a drink. And there's got to be someone to tell them what they were doing."
I change the subject. Why is it that British Pakistanis, as they categorise themselves, have risen to the top in boxing and cricket but not yet in football?
"I don't know," Amir says. "I see a lot of talent but it just needs a breakthrough. I've a lot of mates who are good footballers but they say they'll never get in the team because they're Asian. That's a bad mentality.
"If I'd have thought that, or if Saj had ... if you want to achieve summut, it's achievable."
"It all boils down to how much support you've got behind you," adds Shahid. "Saj started playing cricket with an Indian club when he was very young, but they told me there that I should get him into a bigger club, where he could make more progress. That's what I did. Parents should listen to advice like that, but a lot of Asian parents won't, because they want to keep control."
"That's right," says Shajaad. "I used to take Amir's younger brother Haroon to play football on Saturday mornings, often in the pouring rain. I was the only Asian guy there, but I'd see white kids with both parents there. If Asian kids had the same support as English kids they'd succeed."
Later, as Shajaad drives me back to my hotel, he tells me that he has a useful young Asian footballer on the books of his sports management agency. He ran a breaker's yard for years but set up the agency to oversee Amir's career. "If he was looked after by someone else, commercially, they would want him to endorse all sorts of products so that they could make money. But we don't look at it that way. We look at whatever's best for his image rather than the money side."
Back in the Mahmood front room, I'd asked the two dads whether they would have mixed emotions when Sajid charged in to bowl at Pakistan's batsmen at Old Trafford. After all, there was a time when both would cheerfully have failed Norman Tebbit's despicable "cricket test": Sajid was brought up to support Pakistan, but switched allegiance to England in his early teens.
"We come out winning whichever side wins," said Shahid, with a broad grin. "Saj is representing England, and this is our country, but we never forget our roots. It's a no-lose situation."
And if Saj wasn't in the team, who would they be rooting for? "A good game," said Shajaad, and chuckled delightedly at his evasiveness.
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