Kabir the first of a new generation

Worcestershire's young all-rounder from Kashmir has a big role for England, says Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

When Kabir Ali's dad saw his son for the first time he stroked a cricket ball gently across the new-born's forehead. Something must have rubbed off.

Last Thursday, some 22 and a half years later, Kabir was selected in England's one-day squad for this summer. If he does not nail down a place in the preferred team at the start, the likelihood is that his natural away-swing will be given an outing before the NatWest Series is done.

The intention is that by the time of the next World Cup, Kabir will be a seasoned international approaching his peak. England are rebuilding, and he is one of six uncapped players in the party of 15. It seems as though they mean it this time.

But Kabir also represents part of a new- look England in another way, as an Englishman with an Asian background, a member of a team who will increasingly reflect a multicultural society. Asian cricketers have played for England before - it began with Ranjitsinhji and has been continued by the present Test captain, Nasser Hussain - but there is a feeling that Kabir is in the vanguard of a definite shift. His Worcestershire colleague Vikram Solanki, who was born in India, has been recalled. England have been given an abundant natural resource which will one day help them to regain the Ashes.

Kabir's grandfather emigrated to England from Kashmir, the disputed territory between Pakistan and India. Kabir, like his father, was born in Birmingham, but spent his formative years back in Kashmir. He returned to this country when he was 12. "I've always wanted to play cricket for England," he said in a Black Country accent which should become familiar. "There have never been any problems. I don't drink alcohol because I'm a Muslim, but I can go to the bar and buy drinks for my pals. My parents have been very good."

Kabir was married in March but still lives at the family home in Birmingham. He has vague plans to buy his own house somewhere on the city outskirts, but it is a close unit. "I owe a lot to my dad," he said. "He came everywhere with me when I was playing cricket as a boy, took me to places and missed work because of it when we didn't have very much at all. I couldn't have done this without him."

So dedicated was Shabir Ali to his son's career progress that he installed a net and a bowling machine in the back garden at home. It was impossible for Kabir not to play cricket.

He has a clear sense of his own worth. He is not flash exactly, but he knows how to project himself. The Kabir Ali website introduces its subject as a professional cricketer and male model. It contains as many images of Kabir looking cool in designer gear as it does images of him in cricket flannels. Before he married, Kabir was named as one of the 50 most eligible bachelors in Asian Women and Brides. He used to sport plenty of jangly jewellery, but has reduced it lately.

None of this part of Kabir's personality should detract from his serious, dedicated approach to the game. By his own admission, there have been occasions when he needed "a kick up the backside" but to reach this point he has had to overcome two injuries, either of which might have ended his career. A double stress fracture of the lower back forced him to alter his action, so that it is more chest- on, or face constant pain while bowling.

No sooner had he started on that than he broke the collarbone on his bowling arm while fielding. Together, the injuries put him out for a year. "I never lost my will, and I continued to stay fit," he said. "A lot of people around helped too, and I knew that if I could just get a run without injuries I could produce results."

The injury-free season was granted in 2002, and the upshot was as he suspected. The website tells us in dissolving, movie-style opening credits that he was PCA Young Player of the Year, Worcestershire's Player of the Season and the third leading wicket-taker in the country.

Kabir spent the winter at the National Academy in Adelaide, and was briefly called into the injury-stricken England squad. He played against Australia A, and while he did not make the immediate impression that James Anderson did, he did enough for the name to stick.

His start to this season has been steady and intermittently spectacular: he took the last two wickets when the scores were level between Worcestershire and Zimbabwe to ensure a tied match, and played a career-best innings of 84 not out.

"It's important now that I stay fit so I can keep bowling," he said. "I did get tired towards the end of last summer, because it was as long as I'd ever played. I want to try and get another half-yard of pace from somewhere. That will make a big difference to getting out top batsmen, but I can swing it away, which I think you've probably got to do."

Not surprisingly, for one who was introduced to a ball as soon as it was humanly possible, Kabir showed early promise once he started playing. He went through all age-group representative sides at Warwickshire, but eventually was signed by their neighbours.

Kabir's cousin, the batsman Kadeer Ali, also plays for Worcestershire. Their mothers are sisters and their fathers are twins. That side of the family is equally cricket-daft. Kadeer's brother, Moeen Munir, is on Warwickshire's books.

"There has never been any question of where my loyalties in cricket lay," Kabir said. "I know there was support for Pakistan from English Asians a couple of years ago, but in the part of Birmingham I come from we all support England. It's the natural thing to do.

"To tell you the truth, as my background is Kashmir, I wouldn't know whether that is India or Pakistan. The number of Asians playing for counties has grown, and most have got some players with Asian backgrounds playing."

Kabir Ali was destined to be a cricketer from the age of four hours. When he takes the field for England for the first time he will feel that he has fulfilled his father's dream.