Owais Shah: The nearly man

He is a fixture in the England squad but has still played only two Tests. After the embarrassment of Sabina Park has his time finally come, asks Stephen Brenkley

He has become the nearly man of English cricket. For four successive tours – and a few before that – he has been carried around like a mascot. Always there, never getting a game. Perhaps the most important item of Owais Shah's kit has been the tray on which he carries out the drinks. Can't live with him, can't live without him.

Shah has begun to profess that he is past caring. But in the past few days, since that innings in Kingston which brought the England team to a nadir, he must have wrestled with a key question. If he is not to be picked after the side are bowled out for 51, displaying all the spine of a jellyfish, then when is he going to play?

Indeed, if he is not in the team for the second Test which starts in Antigua tomorrow then the management might ask themselves a question along similar lines. What, precisely, is the point of Owais Shah?

He may as well go and throw in his lot with the Indian Premier League, which last week paid $375,000 at its auction for his services. They recognised that his improvised shot making can work beautifully.

Shah's prime years as a batsman appear to have been sacrificed on the altar of the modern selectorial shibboleth of continuity. Admirable in conception, it has had the effect of making the England team a batting closed shop of which 1970s car union shop stewards can only have dreamed. And with the same rallying call if Sabina Park last Saturday is anything to go by: "One out, all out."

But it goes beyond the selectors' determination to ensure the incumbents are given every chance to fail (and fail and fail again, some might say). There is the suspicion that although they have been content to pick Shah in squads and A teams in all corners of the world they are not quite convinced that he can cut it at the top level. If they cannot bring themselves to pick him tomorrow then everybody may wonder why they are bothering.

It was rather sad to hear Shah say a few days before the first Test: "I'm actually not that frustrated any more Maybe 12 months ago I was but I'm actually past that stage now. I'm quite happy with life and not that worried about selection any more. It's more about performing in whatever game I have been given the opportunity. I don't control the selection. I'm in a happy space at the moment"

It was almost as if he had been ground down by all the years of non-selection. It was almost as if, finally, he had given up on being picked, or was frightened to dream about it any longer. He had just scored a studious hundred in England's first warm-up game on this tour.

Compare that with what he said at the beginning of last summer when, briefly, it seemed places were up for grabs. "In the last four years I would like to have thought I would get a better crack at Test cricket. I have played two Tests and I don't think I have had a fair crack. I want to look back and say 'they gave me an opportunity'. That's all I want. I do get frustrated that it hasn't worked out yet."

If he plays in Antigua tomorrow – and hints about selection are thin on the ground except that there have been no emergency call-ups for Michael Vaughan, Robert Key or anybody else to come flying to the rescue – Shah must be given a decent run which embraces this series and perhaps the whole of next summer. What is deemed appropriate for the present batting line up would have also to apply to Shah.

Lest it be forgotten, Shah was a boy wonder. He played for Middlesex when he was 16, made his first-class debut for the county at 17 (when he made 53 in his first innings) and was first picked for England A at 18. He was confidently expected to be the next big thing. It did not all go wrong so much as not go right at the appropriate times.

He had a few fallow years, when his youthful method and application were exposed. Then when the runs started to flow again, he found little support among those that mattered. If Duncan Fletcher, England's influential coach, did not exactly oppose Shah he did not exactly support him either.

Gradually, he fashioned a game for himself which worked. It is a custom built method – he is not afraid to tinker with his game – based on orthodox principles but with outrageous embellishments. But he could never quite convince a sufficient majority that this would allow him to get runs in international cricket. He made his one-day international debut in 2001 and frequently looked the part. Shah can hit the ball to areas of the field which seem invisible to other batsmen. Yet between 2003 and 2006, when he was piling up county runs, England ignored him.

It is conceivable that his singular personality did not help. He is not afraid to express an opinion, but nor is he afraid to seek one. So dedicated is he to the minutiae of batting that he will go anywhere to find out more. At times it has seemed like a quest to find the holy grail. "I'd take guidance from anybody and use it if I thought it would work," he said. "I'm always looking to improve just that one per cent here and there."

Four years ago he went to India to meet Mohammad Azharuddin, whose career had ended in disgrace because of the match-fixing scandal. But Azharuddin was a batsman of individual flair and Shah wanted to tap into that. But he also went to Australia, on the advice of Justin Langer who played for Middlesex, to work with a coach called Wayne Andrews. He is happy to chat about batting with Alan Duncan in the indoor school at Lord's, as he is with England's batting coach, Andy Flower.

When Fletcher went, it gave Shah, by now one of the most consistent performers in the Championship renewed hope. "The coach didn't perhaps like me before but it's a different coach now," he said last year. "No one really communicated with me before. Now they do."

But still there have been only two Test caps. In the strictest sense, he has never truly been selected by England in a Test match. He made his debut in India in Mumbai in early 2006 when Alastair Cook fell ill on the morning of the match. Shah, having been summoned as cover a few weeks earlier from the A tour in the West Indies, had spent much of the time with his tray. He seized the day, making a mature 88 and 38 in a famous England victory. But he had to surrender his place and had only one more chance at Lord's in 2007 when Michael Vaughan was injured. He came to the crease and you could touch his nervousness from 100 yards away. He made six and four, faced 24 balls in all and looked as though he might have been out to any of them. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he felt he had to take the chance on his home ground.

Since then, nothing save for weeks and weeks of net practice and fetching and carrying. There have been compensations. The IPL contract is one, since it follows a benefit year with Middlesex which is widely believed to have been disappointing.

He has at last and least become a fixture in England's one-day side and was one of the few successful batsmen in India late last year. It was another of those times when he thought his form might be good enough to warrant a Test summons and it was another of those times when he was doomed to be disappointed.

"I thought I had a good chance in New Zealand last year where I performed well in the practice games, maybe in India where I had a good one-day series," he said. "It's just life, you have just got to accept and live in the hope that I will get a chance one day."

The advent of Andrew Strauss, his Middlesex colleague, as England captain might possibly help Shah. He was alarmed at the prospect. "I hope it doesn't. I would much rather get picked on merit, not just because some guy has seen me play a lot and wants to do me a favour."

Shah is his own man, thoughtful, sometimes a loner, but a good team man. His brief stint as Middlesex captain did not work. He is a father now, anxious to provide for his family, still with his own ambitions. At 30, time is running out and if he is not picked for his third Test match tomorrow it might already have expired.

Owais Shah in numbers

88

Shah's first-innings score on his England debut, a 212-run win against India in Mumbai in 2006. He hit 38 in the second innings, before being run out by Sachin Tendulkar.

35 tests

England have played since Shah's debut. He has made just one further appearance, against the West Indies at Lord's in 2007. He scored 6 and 4.

34.00 runs

Shah's Test batting average.

52 ODIs

Shah has made 52 one-day appearances for England, averaging 30.66. He has scored one century, against India in 2007, and nine fifties.

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