It was two years ago against South Africa in Barbados that Sajid Mahmood's England career appeared to reach the point of no return. With England's future in the World Cup at stake, the Lancastrian delivered four overs and two balls that cost 49 painful runs. England exited the competition and Mahmood was dispatched back to Old Trafford, the Duncan Fletcher hunch selection that failed to pay off.
It is in South Africa that Mahmood has now been given an unexpected chance to start over. Sometime over the course of the next week the 27-year-old will wear England colours again, and if he can make a quick impression in one of the three warm up games – the first is against the Eagles on Friday – then a place in the limited-over series (two Twenty20s and seven one-days) will be within his grasp. "I'm ready now," said Mahmood in Bloemfontein yesterday. "I've matured a lot as a bowler and as a person."
During his tenure as England coach, Fletcher was never afraid to pick out players he believed had something beyond obvious abilities with bat and ball – Marcus Trescothick provides the prime example. In Mahmood's case it was a basic element of raw pace, always a favourite Fletcher ingredient for his seamers. But it was the rawness that became most apparent over the three years he was in and out of the England team, a spell that included three Tests in Australia.
When Peter Moores replaced Fletcher there followed a switch of emphasis for the seam attack. Out went Mahmood and in came the likes of Ryan Sidebottom, slower but canny and consistent. But Mahmood – partly under the guidance of Moores in his new role as Lancashire's coach following his England dismissal – has gone back to the country circuit and done the hard yards, as the Australians like to put it. He took 24 wickets in 16 one-day games for Lancashire last season; not spectacular, but solid and, most importantly, reliable.
"I wasn't consistent enough and now I've gone back, worked on those things and I think I'm ready now," said Mahmood, who finds himself cast as the eldest of England's seamers. "When I first started, I thought the game was quite simple. All I wanted to do was try bowling quick and I thought I'd just get wickets. I worried too much about pace and that's where the waywardness and inconsistency came into things. Now it's a lot more about trying to hit an area and being more rhythmical. Playing this game, you're bowling against some world-class batsmen. There's quite a few 90 mile per hour bowlers around and batsmen are now used to that.
"So you're going to have something different as well. You've got to be able to swing it or nip it around or be hitting an area on a consistent basis, putting the batters under pressure hoping they make a mistake. I've now learned over the last couple of years that it's not all about pace, you've got to do something else."