Rise and rise of the young Asian stars

The future of Yorkshire: Glint of Goughie as Shahzad looks set for the breakthrough in county's ethnic crusade
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The Independent Online

The smile lights up the room. One of his coaches says: "It's just like Goughie's, infectious; he's always got a twinkle in his eye." In Yorkshire they hope, nay in their cautious way they suspect, that the twinkle is not all Ajmal Shahzad has in common with Darren Gough.

Shahzad is on the verge of making a special kind of history. It has been a long time in coming. By the time the season is out he could be the first Yorkshire-born Asian player to be selected for the county's first team.

The county have a dilemma. They are reluctant to rush him, but anxious not to be seen to be holding him back. For years, it has been whispered (and not so quietly) that something must be up in Yorkshire if they cannot spawn a single senior cricketer from their substantial ethnic population. The something, of course, is generally reckoned to be a denial of opportunity.

To which Steve Oldham, the admirable director of their academy, can only say: "Do you think if there was a new Malcolm Marshall or Sachin Tendulkar out there I wouldn't have pushed him forward?" Oldham is quietly but enthusiastically championing Shahzad's cause.

He is keenly aware of the public- relations goodwill that the county could engender by playing the teenager, but that is matched by the recognition that he must be good enough. Shahzad himself, full of youthful bravado, has no doubts.

"I'd like to have a go soon," he said in between innings in a match for the Yorkshire Academy last week. "It would mean more than I can say to be the first Asian player to be in the county first team. It would be such a boost to young lads in the Asian community, no doubt about that. But Yorkshire have only ever encouraged me. I've never experienced any kind of racism or doubts, only support all the way through."

Those words will be music to the county's ears. Shahzad, 18 last week, was born in Bradford. He is a bowling all-rounder who has developed the ability to reverse swing and does not believe in unnecessary defence.

He did not come to Yorkshire's attention until he was 14, after word spread of his deeds in school and club cricket. Oldham, the soundest of judges on nurturing talent, realised immediately that there was plenty of raw material to work on.

First, Shahzad was advised to lose weight if he harboured realistic ambitions of becoming a professional. That was his first test, and he did not fail. He changed his diet, shed pounds, got fitter and thus endeared himself to Oldham. There is not a spare ounce on Shahzad's frame these days.

He has acquitted himself well in Yorkshire's second team this season, but his style was embodied on a brief tour last month with an England Under-17 and Under-18 squad taking part in a tournament in Holland. He had bowled well in one match and then implored the coach, Paul Farbrace, to allow him to open the batting in the next game. Impressed by the chutzpah, Farbrace gave him the opportunity: Shahzad scored 120.

"That's the sort of thing I like to do," he said. "I like playing and practising and I want to be involved in every game. My dad has inspired me to play and he still practises with me. We'll go to nets together for throw-downs."

Shahzad is a pupil at Woodhouse Grove School in Bradford after leaving Bradford Grammar School last year. He is studying for four A-levels, and although professional cricket is his objective, he has contingency plans.

"I want to play, of course I want to play for Yorkshire, and my aim in the short term is to make the England Under-19 squad for the World Cup next year. But I intend to continue with my studies as well. Ideally, I'd like to go to one of the university centres of cricketing excellence and also train to be either a dentist or an optometrist. I don't know which yet."

Shahzad has played an abundant amount of cricket at all levels this summer. He is clearly proud of having scored six centuries for Woodhouse Grove first team - Oldham gently mocked him for this - and it tickles him that he might go from school side to county side in a couple of months.

He will appear this week in the Development of Excellence North side in their match against the South Africa Under-19 tourists. It will present him with a marvellous opportunity to press his claims for a World Cup place.

He is an easy-going boy with a pleasant, open nature. It will help him not to put too much pressure on himself in the next two or three years. He likes the idea of being a standard-bearer for his community but is not obsessed by it.

In Steve Oldham, he has a shrewd guiding hand. Oldham has had a significant influence on Gough's career and is still eagerly asked for his advice. He is better placed than most to see that Shahzad's temperament is similar. Now he has to try to ensure that he makes comparable use of his talent.