Shahzad the understudy ready to take centre stage
The Yorkshire fast bowler is set for his Test debut against Bangladesh thanks to hard graft as squad player
England seem almost certain to unveil their 650th Test cricketer tomorrow. Considering the justified reputation for continuity of selection it is perhaps surprising that Ajmal Shahzad would be the fifth new cap this year, the ninth since March last year.
The qualification about his inclusion in the team to face Bangladesh in the second Test at Old Trafford is necessary. England guard the identity of their sides for any forthcoming international with a vigilance which makes the security outside Fort Knox look sloppy.
Shahzad, a 24-year-old Yorkshireman, seems to be in pole position, having been chosen in the squad of 12 for the opening Test at Lord's. With Tim Bresnan having dropped out with a stress fracture, he is therefore next in line. But Ryan Sidebottom has been added to the squad and it would not be surprising if his experience was thought desirable in a seam bowling attack which already contains Steve Finn, veteran of all of three Test matches.
Coach Andy Flower will not take unnecessary risks and is, in any case, a huge supporter of Sidebottom, a big-hearted cricketer whose left arm trajectory causes different problems for batsman. But if not now, it will be soon for Shahzad.
Flower and everybody else could probably see that he had the right stuff on a winter morning in Pretoria last December. England's touring party had gone to the university ground for a training camp ahead of the first Test and there joined the players who were in South Africa with the so-called Performance Squad.
The middle practise that ensued was immediately instructive. Shahzad, extracting decent lift from a length, looked a slippy customer, dismissing the England captain, Andrew Strauss, and forcing batsman Jonathan Trott to skip about the crease like a morris dancer, in clear discomfort.
Subsequently, he was called up for the Bangladesh tour where he spent most of the time as 12th man.
"It was a bit of a surprise," he said yesterday about his winter selection as England gathered at Old Trafford. "I had not been on the England circuit at all apart from going to South Africa with the performance programme, so it was a big hit for me and I really enjoyed it there. It was difficult conditions, you had to wake up and think it is not all swing and seam on bouncy wickets, you had to put hard graft in there and work on other areas of your game. I learned a lot from being there, and I have a stronger shoulder from carrying the drinks."
As those comments suggest, he also has a sense of humour. Shahzad, born in Huddersfield, was sent to Woodhouse Grove School in Bradford. It took some time for cricket to sneak ahead of his studies and even then it only just won the day.
Shahzad already has one claim to fame as the first British-born Asian to play cricket for Yorkshire, no mean feat since the county appeared not to notice the talent and passion in their midst for decades. He played a one-day match in 2004, made his maiden Championship appearance in 2006 and had his best season in 2009 when he took 40 wickets at 34 runs each.
"Education was the route for me," he said. "I was quite a bright lad – I still am quite a bright lad – I had a couple of years at university but then my cricket took off. Before that I used to play badminton for Yorkshire and England Under 17 but that gave me a bad back and it was a toss up between badminton and cricket. My dad, Mohammed, loved cricket and kind of pushed me towards that. I was a hefty lad when I was younger too, I was a big unit at 15 I probably weighted 14-15 stone so I have had to work hard to get where I am."
Briefly, he studied pharmacology at Bradford University but found cricket interfering. He then did almost two years of a sports coaching course in Leeds before, finally, cricket claimed him. Crucially, his father, an accountant, supported his decision.
Nine of the last 17 players to make debuts for England, going back to 2006, have been fast bowlers. Three of them have won only one cap, all but one fewer than 10 so far. Whether he plays tomorrow, Shahzad has the feel of a player who might stay awhile.
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