England unearth a passion player

Afzaal adds attitude to the middle order – and earns a nod of approval from the great Sir Viv
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The Independent Online

When Usman Afzaal reached his maiden Test fifty he romped down the pitch, leaping high and repeatedly thrusting his bat into the air. It was a scene of unconfined joy and observers could only speculate about the possible scenes for his first hundred, which must surely involve several triple somersaults followed by a hug for everyone in the crowd. Should he ever hit the winning runs to regain the Ashes expect fireworks and a moonshot.

It was a spontaneous and gleeful moment but in the context of matters – England being thrashed, the Ashes long gone and it was but fifty – it might also have been slightly outrageous. And two balls later he was out, hooking Glenn McGrath down long-leg's throat. As he went off you wondered if there were any purveyors of the three-card trick around the boundary rope who could also take advantage.

"It was an achievement and any achievement for me wearing the three lions means the world to me," said Afzaal. "It's the way I play it, positive and confident. My first ball that day was pitched into the rough outside off stump and I slapped it through extra cover for four. It doesn't mean I try to hit every ball for four but I try to take the attack to the bowling, let them worry about their game instead of me just thinking about mine." As for contrition about the hook which followed the mid-wicket party, not a bit. "I felt the shot was on. Ask me in three years time how many times the hook has got me out."

Afzaal was selected last week for the England party to tour India and New Zealand this winter. That innings probably clinched the place. His ability to bowl left-arm spin – he took a wicket with his third ball in Test cricket in the same match – will not come amiss on the subcontinent either. Should he ever take a middle name, merely perhaps for the old-fashioned purposes of a second initial on the scorecards, Confidence would have a chance of selection. Usman Confidence Afzaal. He is dedicated to the pursuit of confidence, he sprinkles it – the word, the attitude, the body language – throughout his conversation. That and positive, the one springing from the other. "I've always been a positive person and now I'm positive in every aspect," he said. "I'm a confident person, I'm a passionate person. I get up hard and work hard at my game."

If this confidence is put carefully in place to conceal any shortcomings he is not letting them show. Afzaal's analysis of his three Test matches against Australia does not allow room for failure or weakness, or at least he did not dwell on them. For instance, when he was bowled by a huge leg-break – which was an off-break to Afzaal as a left-handed batsman – on his debut he said he merely thought it was a good ball and would have to do better next time. And he added immediately: "And did you see what I did in my third Test when he was bowling into the rough and I just hit the ball for four?"

Afzaal's 52 in the first innings of the Fifth Test against Australia, his third match for England, was an eye-catching onslaught. After the first-ball four he took on Warne and for a little while got the better of the great man. It was scintillating while it lasted and although you got the constant impression that it could end at any moment, that there were defensive frailties crying out to be exposed, it was untypically aggressive English batting. It exuded confidence. He has an average under 30 but the selectors may, just, have hit on something.

Afzaal, because it is his nature, would not allow room for weaknesses in his game, or at least would not discuss them. "Ask my coach at Nottinghamshire, Clive Rice, about my back-foot play and he'll say I cream it, ask him about the front foot and he'll say I cream it. I work on my defence and attack all the time."

The previous day, last Thursday, Afzaal had played in a benefit match for Darren Gough and was excited about it. Viv Richards had singled him out, "the great Viv Richards" as Afzaal rightly called him. "He came up to me and it was fantastic. He said 'I've been watching you play, you're a confident boy, you remind me of myself'. That nearly brought a tear to my eye." And so it should have done. Afzaal is not Richards, of course, but his strokeplay is uninhibited and it is intriguing that Richards spotted something of himself there. All this confidence, which is not at all unendearing in a young English cricketer – though Afzaal is 24 – is accompanied by a charming humility.

Without the semblance of mickey-taking or cockiness, he said: "It's not the best of Afzaal yet. I'm just grateful to the England selectors, to Mr Fletcher and Mr Hussain for giving me the opportunity to be part of the squad for the five Test matches. They kept me in for the series and Mr Fletcher was fantastic to me. he just told me to be myself." Mr Hussain is Nasser, England's captain, and Mr Fletcher is Duncan, England coach, one of whose great strengths is to tell his charges to be themselves.

They made it easy for Afzaal to fit into the England dressing-room. So did others. "Mr Hussain and Mr Stewy are the two funniest people I have ever met. I get in the dressing-room and I just listen to them and I'm in stitches. They're very funny, especially Stewy, and I go back to the hotel room after the game with a sore jaw." Stewart, top wicketkeeper-batsman, leading funny man. You never thought you'd live to hear that one.

Afzaal was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and emigrated at six. He has scant memories of his native land and while he is a devout Muslim who prays five times a day he has no doubts about where his allegiance lies. "I've had several offers to play first-class cricket in Pakistan and people say I bat like Saeed Anwar. I enjoy watching him play but when people ask me about my cricket heroes I tell them Ian Botham and David Gower. They played positively for England. I used to watch Gower bat and he'd get out just before tea."

He was reluctant to comment on young Asians whose allegiance is still to Pakistan. "What they do is their problem. I know where my heart lies. That's why I'm playing for England, otherwise I'd be playing for Pakistan. I see myself as Usman Afzaal, human being, but I know there are youngsters who'll look up to me. There are role models." He is in this for the long haul, though he would not be the first player whose initial gratitude to the England selectors was to give way to other feelings, like bitterness and loathing. There is no room for self-doubt. "If I had doubts I wouldn't get up in the morning. I don't see myself as over-confident. If I said I was going to be a Manchester United striker or the next David Beckham that would be over-confidence." Never mind the selectors, if Viv Richards thinks this boy has something then he may have something.

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