Is Shafayat the answer to England's prayers?

Teenage talent provides much-needed hope as Asian cavaliers lead the way. Stephen Brenkley meets him

As if it is not possible to have too much of a good thing, an England team embark on Tuesday for a cricket tour of Australia. This time, it is the Under-19s who will leave a winter of fireside and poorly lit indoor nets to enter the lions' den.

As if it is not possible to have too much of a good thing, an England team embark on Tuesday for a cricket tour of Australia. This time, it is the Under-19s who will leave a winter of fireside and poorly lit indoor nets to enter the lions' den.

They travel in hope rather than expectation (which is what all sportsmen do who come here) and by the middle of February it is probable that the team song will not be a variation on "Happy Days Are Here Again".

The boy who will lead the teenage crusade is Bilal Shafayat, a prodigy from Nottingham. If he can survive the next six weeks, he can probably anticipate sooner rather than later the long international career for which he has long planned.

Shafayat had a bat thrust into his hand at the age of eight, partly because the game was in his heritage, partly because there was a council scheme. "My dad is very keen on the game and he took my brother and me along to keep us off the streets," he said.

He has a healthy regard for his own abilities, which he must try to ensure he does not overstate too soon. But to make it in the big league you need to have something else besides technique. Last summer, when Shafayat was breaking records for the Under-19s and firmly establishing himself in the Nottinghamshire middle order, he was being given some verbal stick by the opposition in one game and scratched around for a half-century. When he was dismissed, he passed the ring of fielders and said: "Thanks for the net, boys."

Shafayat is part of the Asian diaspora who are likely to form a significant proportion of England's cricket team in the future (and indeed, he himself is a smart tip already as a potential captain). The squad bound for Australia includesa Muslim, a Hindu and a Sikh.

As an example of multi-cultural Britain it takes some beating. It is noticeable that the players simply do not notice it. In the Under-9 to Under-19 age-group squads in the 38 English counties, 9.2 per cent had an Asian background in 2001. The proportion of players in county cricket is seven per cent.

Shafayat admits still to an affinity with Pakistan, but there is absolutely no confusion about his allegiance. "The way I was brought up makes Pakistan very important. It's always been stressed how important your background and roots are. I go back every year. But it's not as luxurious a country as England is, you appreciate what you've got.

"Many people have asked me who I want to play cricket for, but I was born and brought up in England. It is my country and nothing would make me happier than playing cricket for it. I've never had a problem, though some people may feel they've been looked at in a different way."

He is a player in the classic Asian mould, with strong wrists and an attacking instinct. Last summer, he became the first player to make a double hundred and a hundred in the same Under-19 Test. He completed the season back at Nottingham by making his maiden first-class hundred. The county were 30 for 3 when he went in.

It is impossible for him to talk about cricket without mentioning the name of Andrew Jackman, the West Indian bowler who has been his mentor. Jackman noticed something in the junior Shafayat on that first council scheme and enlisted him for his Nottingham team, the West Indies Cavaliers.

The West Indies Cavaliers now have a huge number of Asian players. Shafayat still sees Jackman. "I model myself on him a way, maybe even idolise him. He's the man I talk to about cricket. When I used to keep wicket he was standing in the slips and we'd talk and I'd learn about captaincy."

Shafayat's ambition, as he quite freely makes clear, is to be the best batsman in the world. "It's something I said and I'll stick by it. I will never be satisfied with whatever I do. Being the England Under-19 captain is obviously a great privilege for now but you never know what's going to happen in the next couple of years, limited-overs internationals or maybe even Test cricket."

The manager of the Under-19 squad, Graham Saville, thinks Shafayat has it in him to be a model captain. "He's now in a line of Asians to captain England sides: Nasser Hussain, of course, and Owais Shah, who led a team in the Under-19 World Cup. But he's the first to lead a tour and I've been really pleased with the way he has led the team meetings and so on. If he continues like this we have a potential senior captain on our hands."

Shafayat's religion, like his roots, is a crucial aspect of his life. He is a devout Muslim. That, he insists, has never been a problem for him in a country where alcohol is an integral part of the recreational game. "I don't drink and I've never been tempted, even though it's around me all the time. I'm quite happy with my oranges and Tizers."

In accordance with those religious beliefs he finds time to pray five times a day. This is a problem only when he has to wake in the middle of the night and is sharing a room with a team-mate. It may also be a slightly difficult proposition in Australia. Five times a day might not be nearly enough to give his team a prayer.

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