Sajid Mahmood: Still on the outside, looking in
He knows why England left him out but he's a better, more mature bowler now – and ready for a recall
It was clear early in Sajid Mahmood's career that he was a fast bowler capable of wreaking damage with a cricket ball. Bowling in the Lancashire nets in May 2003, a raw 21-year-old with only a handful of first-team matches, he struck Andrew Flintoff such a blow to the shoulder that the England all-rounder had still not recovered two weeks later and had to miss that summer's opening Test. It was not the way in which Mahmood had hoped to make an impression with the national selectors, but at least it meant they knew his name.
Six years on, if he can wreak some damage of a more appropriate kind on a cricket field in Worcester this week, there is a chance yet that he might line up alongside Flintoff as England attempt to regain the Ashes, and underline his conviction that a two-and-a-half-year exile since winning the last of his eight Test caps has been worthwhile.
Mahmood failed to make the cut when England chose 16 players to attend a pre-Ashes training camp but has been selected for the England Lions side to face the Australians at New Road from Wednesday. Given that Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan, who were named in the pre-Ashes squad, also play, along with Steve Harmison, there is a strong sense that the pace-bowling contenders for the senior England team are on trial. It is a challenge that Mahmood is eager to take on. "It is a big game for me and I want to prove something there, bowl well and take some wickets," he said. "I think I'm good enough to play for England and I'm confident I will play again in the very near future."
He has tasted success at Worcester already this season, taking what was then a career-best 6 for 75 as Lancashire registered a six-wicket win in the Championship at New Road in May, finishing with 10 wickets in a match for the first time in his career. He improved his personal best to 6 for 30 at Chester-le-Street earlier this month. These performances, he believes, are the payback for the work he has put in pounding the county circuit. "Coaches have now seen that players who have had a taste of international cricket, then gone back to county cricket and worked on their game, have done a lot better when they have come back. It was like that with Ryan Sidebottom and hopefully it will be the same for me."
Yet Mahmood's story differs from that of the Yorkshireman, who made a wicketless debut against Pakistan in 2001, then dropped off the Test radar for six years. Mahmood made a much more impressive start, marking his Test debut against Sri Lanka in May 2006 by taking a wicket with his 12th ball and two more by the end of his fourth over.
There were more high spots, including an eight-over spell yielding 4 for 22 as England defeated Pakistan – his father's homeland – in that year's Headingley Test. But, in common with quite a few others, he had a miserable 2006-07 Ashes tour, a series that for him reached its nadir right at the end, hammered for six by Matthew Hayden in what turned out to be the penultimate ball of a 5-0 whitewash.
In Mahmood's mind, that was the point at which re-evaluation and self-betterment began. "It was tough," he said. "Playing away from home, in front of hostile crowds, and with all the pressures of being in a big series, maybe at that time I was not up to scratch. But the experience helped me quite a lot in learning where I needed to be as an international cricketer and where my game was.
"Now I've had a couple of years playing county cricket, I've had time to reflect on why I was left out of the England side and worked on things I needed to work on. I think I'm ready now. I've matured as a bowler and as an all-round cricketer and it has shown in the way I have played this season."
Ironically, he has drawn much advice and encouragement from Peter Moores, the Lancashire coach, whose two years in charge of the national team coincided with Mahmood's exclusion. Injuries cost him his place initially, after the 2007 World Cup but by the time he had recovered, Moores had given Sidebottom his second coming, Stuart Broad had emerged and Mahmood had slipped back in the pecking order.
"Actually, I really enjoy working with Peter," he said. "He has so much energy, so many different ideas on how to improve your game. All the boys have enjoyed working with him, even the experienced lads."
It is at Moores' suggestion that Mahmood has set about making the subtle changes to his bowling style which he believes are helping him to take more wickets. Rather than rely simply on pace – and at 6ft 4in, with a powerful upper body, pace is his natural attribute – he has been encouraged to bowl fuller, giving the ball time to swing.
"Peter said that generally I need to be a bit fuller than my natural length. He has shown me a lot of statistics on the more successful bowlers in international cricket and they all bowl a fuller delivery. It is tough to change. I'm naturally a hit-the-deck bowler. I've been bowling back of a length for about 10 years, watching the ball carry through to the keeper and looking pretty, and you get into a comfort zone.
"But sometimes you have to realise that to improve your game you have to change things and it really depends on how dedicated you are and how much you want to achieve. I've only started doing it this year and it is difficult to do it consistently but I'm getting better, my rhythm is good and I'm hitting that length more regularly.
"I'm starting to move the ball a lot more now than I used to, I'm starting to swing it and seam it a lot more. Even when I've taken wickets on bouncy pitches it has tended to be with the fuller deliveries."
Moores himself has been impressed with his progress. "What has happened to Saj is that he is maturing," he said. "Top-class cricketers need time to work on their game and Saj is getting to that point when he is starting to understand himself, starting to understand how he gets his wickets and it is good to see."
Next in line: England's fab four pace reserves
Graham Onions (Durham)
By some distance this season's leading wicket-taker in domestic cricket, with 51 first-class victims, Onions made an instant impression in Test cricket, marking his debut against West Indies at Lord's by taking 5 for 38, four of those wickets in the space of seven balls. At the front of the rank among the pace contenders and may even edge ahead of Ryan Sidebottom.
Sajid Mahmood (Lancashire)
A Duncan Fletcher favourite, Mahmood has made 35 appearances for England in Tests, ODIs and Twenty20 but has been dogged by inconsistency. Overshadowed by Chris Woakes for the Lions against West Indies in May but has impressed for Lancashire. An eye-catching game for the Lions at Worcester could put him in late contention.
Tim Bresnan (Yorkshire)
A surprise selection for the West Indies series, the 24-year-old all-rounder bowled only seven – wicketless – overs on his Test debut at Lord's in May but made a good impression in the final innings of the Second Test at the Riverside, swing and seam movement earning him figures of 3 for 45. Named in England's pre-Ashes training squad.
Steve Harmison (Durham)
Still a contracted England player, still feared by Australians who recall the first day of the 2005 Ashes series (Ricky Ponting still bears a physical scar), but he never really recovered from his first ball of the 2006-07 rematch, the wide to second slip. Not in the pre-Ashes 16 but a possible wild-card pick if he knocks over some Aussies in Worcester.
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