Countdown to the First Test: East meets West

Owais Shah was born into a Pakistani family but has always dreamt of playing for England. In a remarkably frank interview, he talks to Angus Fraser about the career-changing advice he received from an alleged match-fixer, the family strife he has finally overcome and his hopes of scoring runs against Sri Lanka
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The Independent Online

Current cricketers are not meant to consort with alleged match-fixers but Owais Shah has always been his own man.

Such independence has, at times, made him difficult to coach. At Middlesex, the county he has played for since emerging as a 17-year-old prodigy, his desire to take counsel from coaches not employed by the club upset John Emburey, the head coach. And his reluctance to follow every other England batsman and adopt Duncan Fletcher's fabled forward press when playing spin probably cost him many international caps. As we now know, Fletcher, the former England coach, did not warm to people he could not control.

But it was Shah's desire to improve his game and become a serious international cricketer that sent him to Hyderabad during the winter of 2003-04, where he sought advice from Mohammad Azharuddin, the former Indian captain allegedly at the heart of match-fixing.

Shah, who had by then been discarded by Fletcher's England after 15 one-day appearances, would not have worried about Azharuddin's reputation. He is married with a five-week-old daughter, Maya, but at 29 there is still a youthful innocence to him. Indeed, few modern players in England have been misunderstood more than Shah and seeing Azharuddin would have appeared a totally natural thing for him to do.

The visit was worthwhile. Shah believes it is the reason why he is in Sri Lanka today, pushing for a place in the side for next Saturday's first Test in Kandy. However, there are other factors that helped to transform Shah from a young underachiever with talent to a man fulfilling his potential. He rarely talked about his home life during the seven summers I spent with him at Middlesex, but there was a personal battle he won that had a significant effect on his career too, and it happened around the same time as his trip to India.

"I had scored eight or nine hundred runs the previous summer but it was not enough," Shah says. "To play for England I needed to work out how to become a 1,700-a-season man. Anyway, my dad has a friend who is an Indian chap who is a friend of Azharrudin, and he looked at my game and said, 'Why don't you go and have a word with him?' I thought. 'Why not?' Azha certainly wasn't the worst player in the world."

Indeed, he was not. During my career Azharrudin was the second best batsman I bowled at. Brian Lara was the best, but Azharrudin played shots that would take even Lara's breath away. In the Lord's Test of 1990, the Test in which Graham Gooch scored 333, Azharuddin scored an 83-ball hundred. It was one of the finest innings I have ever seen. Balls bowled at off-stump were flicked effortlessly through square-leg for four and anything wider was lashed through backward point. On that day he was impossible to bowl at.

"Azha would pick me up every day and take me to nets," Shah says. "I would watch him bat for an hour and he would explain what he was trying to do and why he would hit the ball here or there. I would then have a bat for an hour and he would work with me. He only changed my grip and my stance. He said that my stance was open and made me go more sideways on. And rather than hold the bat normally he suggested I try to put my right hand more round the back of the handle. He said it would give me more power in my strokes."

Shah then rose from his seat, grabbed one of the Kookaburra bats leaning against his bedroom wall and proceeded to show me exactly what Azharuddin had advised, playing several shots that would have resulted in the ball going to any corner of the room.

"With the new grip he then got me to hit the ball here there and everywhere, proving that it didn't restrict my stroke play," Shah says. "I saw a result straight away so I thought, 'Why not go for it?' I needed to score 1,500 runs because nobody takes notice of 1,000 runs. That is what you are supposed to do. It's about scoring fifteen to sixteen hundred runs, that's what gets you playing here. The next season I scored 1,300 runs at an average of 53 and the season after that I got 1,728 at 66. It made a hell of a difference."

It is not only Shah's coaches who have found him difficult to control. Shah's father, Jamshed, is a huge cricket fan and a regular visitor to Lord's. He has had a huge influence on Shah's career but he, too, has been privy to his independent streak. Shah Jnr met Jemma, his wife, at school when he was 17 and, understandably, the prospect of an English girl entering a traditional Pakistani family created issues.

"My involvement with Jemma was an issue because I come from a Pakistani family and through the generations the family has married people from Pakistan," he said. "Then all of a sudden, bang, I am introducing a foreigner in to our family. It was a big thing but my mum and dad were quite open about it. There was the religious factor too and how this English person would affect the lad that they had brought up with Eastern values.

"I think mostly they were worried, as all parents would be. But it has helped. I have always felt that I have been a little bit older than my age and eventually I took on the responsibility of saying to my family that this was what I wanted to do. I knew what I was doing and followed through with it. Mum and dad came round to it and have supported me since.

"During the years it was quite tough and at times it was hard to concentrate on my cricket. Coming through it has given me the confidence that when you back something and really, really believe in something you can do it. I think it has helped me with my cricket and I can draw strength from it. Now, no matter how untraditional it may look, if I believe in something then I will go for it. I have always been like that."

Shah's shyness and privacy have meant that many people have formed opinions of what he is like based on appearance. Yes, he can at times appear a bit cocky and flash, carrying an almost carefree attitude towards his cricket. But those who share that opinion have never shared a dressing room with him. They have never seen the disappointment etched on his face when he is out, or the tireless work he puts in away from matches.

I ask him whether he feels he has been misunderstood. "Yes, massively," he replies. "We have just done these tests with Stephen Bull, the team psychologist, and at the end of the test he will tell you what your personality is. Following the test you were categorised as a beaver, someone who likes structure in his life, an owl, who is a deep thinker, or a fox, which is a carefree, relaxed sort of character.

"In the meeting you also found out what people perceive you as. I said to Stephen: 'I bet you everyone thinks I'm a fox or an owl,' and they did, but the tests showed that I was a beaver. It sounds boring but I like time-keeping, a structure – this is your on time, this is your off time. I like clear-cut stuff."

When Shah first appeared at Middlesex, like Mark Ramprakash, he was an elegant, natural and untouched talent. He had flair and it was easy to see why he was rated so highly. He possessed all the shots in the book, and he played them with panache. Fast bowling, spin, niggardly medium pace, the big stage: nothing seemed to faze him.

Unlike Ramprakash though, who seems to have had spells when he has become obsessed with technique and playing perfect shots, Shah couldn't care less what he looked like, and his strokeplay, though cheeky and innovative, is now far less appealing to the eye than when he was 20. It came as no surprise then to learn that Javed Miandad, one of the ugliest yet most prolific batsmen cricket has produced, was and is his hero.

"I suppose I am a naturally Asian player with a Western mentality," he says. "I don't think of myself as an Asian batsman even though I am wristy and score through the leg side a lot. I try to be really correct as well. I don't think it is a bad thing having a balance between the two as long as you come out with a product that allows you to be consistent."

Consistency is a word Shah uses a lot when talking about his cricket and it was the one thing that was absent when he was young. "When I was 18 or 19 I was not looking to be consistent," he says. "I liked to have style and flair. I wanted to go out and enjoy myself, play my natural game. If I got runs I got runs, if I didn't never mind there was always tomorrow. But when I came into the Middlesex set up full-time it hit me, bang, I needed to become consistent. And at the time I did not have the thinking to do that.

"I realised that I could not just go out and play, I had to work out how I could become consistent and it took me some time to work out how I could do that. I decided that if I had to sacrifice flair and become unorthodox, then I would do it. Hence the reasons why I have changed my grip and my stance. I couldn't really care what I looked like as long as I was consistently scoring runs.

"I like to work things out myself but I would only tinker if I could see improvement. If I feel I am hitting the ball better, then it might possibly be right. I'm not one of those who just says: 'Well, this is the way I do it.'

"I have spoken to [Sachin] Tendulkar and Ramps [Ramprakash] and they say they are always tinkering with their game. Tendulkar said that he may stand square-on one day and score a hundred but that doesn't mean he will do the same the following morning. He changed because he felt that that was right for him that day. For someone as good as Tendulkar to say that – it showed me there was nothing wrong with trying something and then reassessing it.

"For me the game is all about getting runs, not looking pretty. Paul Weekes [a former Middlesex colleague] used to say it is all about Teletext and he is right. When people look at Teletext they don't care or know how you got your runs, they just know that you got them."

Shah's views on technique did not coincide with those of Fletcher and he believes that his decision to reject the advice of the England coach cost him his England place. "I felt under pressure to try it and put it in my game because it was seen as something you had to do to play for England," Shah says. "I did try it but it didn't feel right to me. I did not have a game that struggled against spin so I thought, 'Why tinker with something I'm happy with?' If the name of the game is scoring runs and I can get runs against spin, why do I need to have a forward press?

"I feel that the fact that I did not go for it was possibly held against me. I didn't get picked so you think there may have been something there. Obviously, I wasn't his cup of tea. I couldn't have been. I had a reasonable start to my Test career, did well in my one Test, and then waited a year and a half to play in my second one. There were times when I never thought I'd play for England again, let alone Test cricket. Earlier this year for instance, during the World Cup. Even though England were not doing well, I did not think I would play because I did not think Fletcher would resign."

That chance came when Peter Moores was named England coach. Moores believes in county cricket far more than Fletcher and he has picked those who have performed consistently in the domestic game – Shah, Matthew Prior and Ryan Sidebottom – ahead of bright, young but unproven talent.

Shah was selected for the first Test of the summer at Lord's when Michael Vaughan withdrew because of injury, but he blew it. On his debut, against India in Mumbai 15 months earlier, Shah had been imperious scoring 88 and 38. Yet at Lord's he looked a nervous wreck.

"I was disappointed with the way I performed against the West Indies," Shah says. "I let myself down there. I don't think I was nervous, I was tentative, I was so desperate to do well. I had never before gone into a game feeling that I really want to do well here. I had never before had that mental attitude. I wanted to show everyone that that the India Test wasn't a one-off. I think that is why I got myself in to that mindset. Before and since I have always felt that I was good enough and said to myself, 'Right, just go out and play'. And then if I do well, great."

Vaughan returned and Shah was dropped, but Moores and the selectors showed faith in him, picking the right-hander for the one-dayers that followed. The loyalty was rewarded. Shah scored a brilliant hundred against India and has since become an integral part of the limited-over side.

Remembering the moment with a huge smile on his face, Shah says: "It was probably the best ... well, the most satisfying innings I have ever played because I did everything that I had wanted to do. I knew that I was capable of doing it because I had done it for Middlesex and I felt I just needed the chance to do it for England.

"I want to play both forms of the game for England. A lot depends on whether you get a go and I would love to get a go, a decent run in Test cricket, three or four Test matches, the chance to show I have got something. I don't dream about playing 100 Test matches. I don't dream about scoring big hundreds for England. I just want to be part of the team and be a consistent scorer. If that means I just get sixties, seventies or forties, so be it. I just want to contribute."

Shah's England record and averages

June 2001 Makes ODI debut against Australia aged 22. Scores 28 not out from 24 balls. Plays four more ODIs, scoring 62, 10, 3 and 1.

2001-2002 Selected for winter ODI tour to Zimbabwe and New Zealand. Plays four times, scoring 0, 7, 0* (*not out) and 57

September 2002 Overlooked until Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka. Plays twice, scoring 25 and 34, as England fail to make semi-finals.

2002-2003 Selected for winter tour to Australia. Plays four matches against hosts and Sri Lanka, scoring 2, 7, 8 and 39.

2005 Tops County Championship averages, scoring 1,728 runs at 66.46 and selected for 'A' tour to the Caribbean.

2005-2006 Replaces injured Michael Vaughan in India. Makes debut in third Test v India in Mumbai in March 2006. Scores 88 and 38.

2007 Selected for first Test v West Indies at Lord's. Scores 6 and 4. Scores 42, 45, 51, 19, 8, 15 and 107* in ODIs against West Indies and India. Plays all five England matches at Twenty20 World Championship.

2007-2008 Selected for Sri Lanka tour and plays five ODIs, scoring 7, 82, 19, 9 and 4.

Averages: Test 136 at 34.00; ODI 702 runs at 26.00; Twenty20 165 at 27.50

Shah on...

Azharuddin: 'He would pick me up every day and take me to the nets. I saw a result straight away'

Marriage: 'I come from a Pakistani family and all of sudden, bang, I am introducing a foreigner. It was a big thing. There was the religious factor too'

Style: 'I suppose I am a naturally Asian player with a Western mentality'

Technique: 'For me, the game is all about getting runs, not looking pretty'

Fletcher: 'Obviously, I wasn't his cup of tea. I couldn't have been'