Shah: Return of a prodigious talent

Stephen Fay hears a winter in Oz has transformed England's new boy
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The selectors had a choice between Mark Ramprakash and Owais Shah when Graham Thorpe injured a calf muscle and the England one-day squad required one more batsman. Both are on fine form. But Ramprakash has had plenty of chances. Shah can bat all right, the unanswered question is whether he really believes he can bat. When David Graveney announced on Friday night that it would be Shah it was a surprise ­ a pleasant one, because great promise had been preferred to experience. The selectors had gambled.

The buzz began on Friday afternoon when Shah and his Middlesex colleagues were playing a charity game in the leafy north-west London suburbs. A check was made on Shah's fitness and his form. The look of him gave the answer to his fitness. Shah is an athletic figure: over 6ft tall with shoulders filled out by regular work in the gym.

Shah himself had nothing to say about the prospect of promotion. He is polite but adamant. He prefers not to speak to reporters. "It's more shyness than anything. He just wants to get on with his cricket," says Angus Fraser, his Middlesex captain. Confidence must be a factor too. "He's not as moody as Ramps or Nasser. He's a quiet sort who is content in his own little world with his own small group of friends."

Fraser and John Emburey, his Middlesex coach, have watched Shah blossom this year. He was a teenaged prodigy who became the greatest underachiever in English cricket. The revival began in Australia. Justin Langer, Middlesex's captain last summer, was disturbed to see that the team's young talents were failing to mature. He offered to arrange for half-a- dozen of them to travel to Perth last winter, to practise, to train and to play. When Shah arrived in Perth, at the age of 22, it was the first time he had lived away from home. According to captain and coach, he came back a more mature person.

"He seemed more certain, more aware of what he really wanted, where he wanted to be and what he was trying to do," says Fraser. In the jargon, he was more focused. Emburey saw the impact of four hours a week of one-to-one work at the bowling machine with Wayne Andrews, the experienced coach of the University of Western Australia team, for whom Shah played. "All of a sudden you could see the bat coming straight through and the ball going down the wicket. Being of Asian origin [Shah was born in Karachi] he is a wristy person who prefers to open the face and play square or backward of square."

Last year Shah batted at No 5, coming in after Ramprakash and Langer. He must have felt like a walking anti-climax. Before this season began, Fraser asked Shah where he would like to bat; No 3, he replied. "That solved my problems. He was going to take on the role that Ramps had played."

There was early evidence of new resolve during a gradually accumulated 50 against Worc-estershire. Another against Gloucestershire helped Middlesex to a gratifying victory in a run-chase. The first real flourish was at Durham. His first-innings 190 was his highest score, beating the 140 he had made four seasons ago when he was a teenager, although Emburey declares that Shah's 88 off 89 balls in the second innings was even better.

Shrewd shot selection defines the new Shah. "Last year there were a few times when he tried to pull balls that weren't there for the pull. I think he's got a lot more patience," says Fraser.

Shah beat his record when Middlesex played Derbyshire at Southgate. His 203 contained 32 fours ­ 30 of them along the ground according to Emburey, who describes the innings as "imperious".

This is the Second Division of the Championship and the pitches have been kind to batsmen so far this summer, but Shah has seized his opportunity. With 760 runs in all first-class games, he is the seasons's top run-scorer and averages 75 in the Championship.

The mystery is why it has taken so long. As a boy, Shah was made captain of the under-19s when the policy was to choose the best player. In his first Championship season he got two centuries, four half-centuries and averaged 39.20. The next season the average fell to 27.63. Last season he failed to score a century and averaged 24.45. "Though awarded his county cap, Owais Shah was a bitter disappointment," recorded Wisden.

Expectations put a lot of pressure on Shah, but Emburey finds fault with the management. "At the end of the day you have to look at the people who worked with him. When you've got someone with a talent like his, he has got to play," he says.

But Shah was dropped from the Championship team last summer. "I think he struggled with Gatt," says Fraser.

Mike Gatting was Middlesex coach for two years. He was experienced and he knew what he wanted. He believed that the batsman's place was in the nets. But Shah does not like nets. He prefers the predictability of the bowling machine. (Unlike bowlers, bowling machines are not trying to get batsmen out.) Shah was accused of not caring, but Fraser observes the opposite: "You can tell if you watch cricketers ­ you can see what they're like in the dressing room ­ and when Owais is out, he's hurt."

The Fraser-Emburey reg-ime is more permissive than Gatting's. "I think we've created an environment where he can express himself. There's no pressure on him," says Emburey. Fraser adds: "He seems happy. He's enjoying himself. I think he feels he can be himself."

The selectors' gamble is a bold one. But they gambled before with Marcus Trescothick. Shah is no less talented. The question is whether he is as tough.