Face for 2009: Bilal Shafayat

Wessels opens the door to fulfilment for a restless talent
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The Independent Online

Bilal Shafayat began his fifth season in county cricket last Wednesday, yet he will not celebrate his 21st birthday until 10 July. This suggests strongly that he was a child prodigy, and his own opinion of himself seemed to take that for granted.

Bilal Shafayat began his fifth season in county cricket last Wednesday, yet he will not celebrate his 21st birthday until 10 July. This suggests strongly that he was a child prodigy, and his own opinion of himself seemed to take that for granted.

A double hundred for England Under-19s against India at Northampton in 2002 was considered stunning. It was his second century in the match, a feat managed by only one other England Under-19 player - Mark Ramprakash.

Two winters ago, Shafayat declared that he would become the best player in the world. He sticks to that: "I don't say things if I don't mean them. I can assure you of that," he says.

He has far to go, but there is still plenty of time. Last autumn he decided to leave Nottingham, where he was born and grew up, and Trent Bridge, where he had first made a mark in 2001. Wisden's 2002 Almanack reported: "His compact technique and wristy on-side flicks should become part of the Trent Bridge scene." He never became mighty, but he had fallen. As he says himself: "When I was 16 I played in five games and got half-centuries. Last year I was 19 and I played in one." He transferred his affections to Northamptonshire, and last week scored 59 on his debut, as an opening bat.

He left Trent Bridge because he realised that if he is going to become half as good as he hopes to be, he needs regular first-team cricket. "I thought it would be a very difficult decision, but I didn't take much persuading. I wanted to play first-class so badly. I am so desperate to play." Usman Afzaal, who defected from Nottinghamshire last year, steered him towards North-ampton, and Kepler Wessels lured him into port.

When I arrived at the county ground early and mentioned to Northamptonshire players already there that we were to meet at 9am, they laughed. Shafayat arrived 25 minutes late, five minutes before Wessels wanted them for training. He is small, with deep brown eyes, lighter skin and short black hair. Since there was no time for pleasantries, he was asked to explain last year's bad season.

But Shafayat does not do failure. "Do you think that was a bad season?" Evidently. "I'm not sure it was a bad season. Every year has been a learning year." First impression: Shafayat's remarkable self-belief appears to be intact.

And what did he learn? "I think it was about being patient, not being rushed and getting ahead of myself, and remembering that I am 19 or 20. Things may not be so sweet as they were in Under-19 cricket, and I had to be really tough with myself, like making the decision to come here. This is the right place."

Apparently, Nottinghamshire were anxious not to lose him and offered a three-year contract. But leaving was made easier by the realisation that there were more batsmen in the squad at Trent Bridge than there were places, and competition would be no less hard this season.

"You feel that, when you get a game, you must score a hundred, because, if you're not performing, you're not playing. It's as simple as that. Overseas players coming in with Kolpaks and all that stuff. You must be on form. It's a challenge, really."

Wessels assured Shafayat that there was a spot at No 5 or as an opener. That was a challenge too. Expert diagnoses detect a weakness against short-pitched bowling, though that has not deterred him from opening. "It's something I did fancy. It could tighten my game up, or I could get exposed, but if I want an international career there are certain things I have to get in place."

He prepared for this season by spending the winter in Karachi. He signed up for the Pakistan National Bank team - he was the only non-international player. He thinks Wessels will suit him too: "He keeps things simple. He doesn't mess around. He's to the point." Shafayat lives five minutes from the county ground with a few other players. For the first time in his life he has moved out of the family home, but he says he has adjusted easily.

There is nothing to do except train in the gym, practise in the indoor nets and play cricket. He welcomes that. And his goals? He will be happy if he averages around 50 this season: "If you're going to set goals, you should be able to achieve them." Second impression: Shafayat's head is not always in the clouds.

But his ambition is still fierce. Ask him about playing for England in 2009 (the ECB's target date for world domination) and the optimism shines through: "Things happen quickly in cricket. I could end up playing next year or five years later. Who knows?"

His Under-19 coach, Graham Saville, identified him as a potential England captain. But he has found the transition to first-class, never mind Test, cricket a grim affair.

He may turn out to have been all talk, but the lingering impression is that if a cocky nature and the appearance of cast-iron self-belief can propel a talented man into Test cricket, it would be an error to write off Bilal Shafayat.