Zero to hero: How Shah fired England to new highs
A liability against Australia, a match-winner in South Africa – Stephen Brenkley speaks to the comeback king who blasted his side into the Champions Trophy semi-finals
Tuesday 29 September 2009
To explain England's bizarre exhibitions of the one-day arts, their captain Andrew Strauss often compares them to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is an easy, inexact shorthand, but it means that England can be useless one day and magnificent the next.
Mr Hyde, who had been overstaying his welcome and appeared resistant to desperate blandishments to shove off, has for the time being left. Dr Jekyll is in town. Owais Shah perfectly symbolises this dichotomy. In his case choose any antonymic extreme you fancy: chalk, cheese, lager, beer, day, night, beautiful, ugly.
For weeks leading up the Champions Trophy, Shah had not only been dreadful, he had been a menace. Not only was he out of form but he was getting out in soppy ways like prodding to mid-off. And not only that but his running between the wickets was so ill-judged that neither he nor his partners were safe.
Nor was that all. In an incident which seemed to embody his state he tackled his batsman colleague Joe Denly in a warm-up up kickabout, injuring the newcomer's knee and putting him out of action. It was a mess and England matched it.
They were crushed in the NatWest Series against Australia and Shah grew steadily worse. They came to the Champions Trophy in equal disarray. England had no hope whatever of progress and Shah was playing for his career. Indeed if regulations had allowed the team to change the squad last week it would have been terminated. But the only way players can be replaced is if they are injured. Shah was not – but it might have occurred to the selectors to give him a gentle push down the stairs.
On Sunday night before a fiercely partisan home crowd, Shah played one of the best of all innings for England in one-day cricket. It was breathtaking in conception and execution. There were six sixes in his 98 and the innings lasted only 89 balls. No bowler could settle because Shah would not let them settle.
England, astonishingly, are through to the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy. Had they been eliminated, as was confidently expected, by losing games to the much vaunted Sri Lanka and South Africa instead of winning them it would have been easy to dismiss the tournament as an excessive event few wanted and fewer cared about. Now it has attained the exalted status of mini-World Cup.
Shah was his disarmingly engaging self yesterday. Others might see his career as one of absurd peaks and troughs, but not Shah. "I never doubt myself," he said. "Never have done, never will. If I doubt myself there is no point me going out there to play.
"With the experience I've had playing for Middlesex for years and years, I have to use that and keep in mind what I have achieved and what I can achieve. It was a tough series against Australia and I guess most of us were in danger of losing our places because of the way it went."
Watching Shah when he is out of form is a peculiar form of sporting torture. He looks jittery and tense, as though he knows he is a man walking to his doom. He always moves alarmingly in the crease tapping his feet nervously like a man awaiting the arrival of his first born but in periods when the runs have dried up the movement seems more frequent and nervous, the shoulders more hunched. But this is not the man he sees. His highs and lows are no higher and no lower than anybody else's.
"I'm not a perfect cricketer mate," he said. "I'm a human being, I make mistakes. And then I do something good as well, that's just part and parcel of playing cricket. As for having bigger highs and lows, maybe in your view, not in mine. I can drop a catch, so can anyone else. It's just one of those things. I'm more fidgety rather than nervy. It's just something I do. My state of mind is always positive every time I walk out to bat, whether it's for Middlesex, whether it's in a club game I might play once a year for Ealing, or for England. I always bat the same way, I am just fidgety, it might come across as nervy but that's life."
It was Nasser Hussain, the best of all England captains and a man with immense understanding of cricket and cricketers, who said of Shah that while he might hit the ball in unusual areas his mind was in unusual areas as well. It is this perhaps that affects Shah's confidence and his form, and who knows affects the team as well.
Before the first match of the series against Australia, Shah tackled Denly, putting him out for three matches. Denly was in agony at the time and it was possible to fear the worst. Shah conceded yesterday how badly he felt. "It didn't affect me when I walked out to bat but definitely I was worried," he said. "You'll probably find this hard to believe, but I actually struggled to sleep that night because I was very concerned about causing him serious harm, especially a guy who's about to make his international debut.
"I rang the physio to check how he was doing. I just hoped it wasn't serious and obviously it wasn't because he's playing. But I did struggle a little bit with it, but not necessarily when I walked out to play."
He does, of course. It was there in his movement during the NatWest series as his natural game proved elusive. As it had in the Caribbean last winter when he was given a chance in the Test team and blew it spectacularly. On batting pitches to die for he froze. He suffered cramp, ran badly and might have ended his Test chances for good.
His one-day career seemed to be going the same way. But he seems unable, even reluctant to explain it, even as Strauss struggles to pin down England's fluctuations. It is probable that England came here feeling they had nothing to lose because everybody expected them to lose.
Shah's restoration began against Sri Lanka. Yet when he was on two he hit a drive in the air over mid-off. A foot lower and he would have been out as he was in similar fashion against Australia at Trent Bridge. "Things start going your way, it just goes like that. The game of cricket is such that you do need a tiny bit of luck," he said.
But sometimes he does not help himself. His calling and judgement of runs is so poor as to wonder if he is looking. He puts the recent difficulties – England suffered seven run-outs against Australia and he was involved in too many of them – down to one of those things.
"It was really really bad against Australia," he conceded. "But I think it's just one of those things where when you're low on confidence, and a bit tentative, things like that happen. But we've had some shockers really, you can't get away from it, that's life."
That's life for Shah. Even last night when he had played so heroically he dropped a sitter off Graeme Smith when he was on 81. Smith went on to make another 60 and might have taken the game away from England. Shah, given a shot at redemption eventually caught him off a skier. He was relaxed and charming yesterday. So are England: from nowhere, for no reason, for the moment Jekyll, cheese, beer, day and beautiful have arrived.
Final four: Likely line-ups
*Friday (Centurion): Winner Grp A v R-up Grp B [Likely to be Pakistan v New Zealand/Sri Lanka]
*Saturday (Jo'burg): Winner Grp B v R-up Grp A [England v India/Aust]
*Final: Monday 5 Oct (Centurion)
Sparkling Shah Owais factfile
n OWAIS ALAM SHAH
Born 22 October 1978, Karachi, Pakistan
Height 6ft 1in
Bowling Right-arm off break
n Club CAREER
n 1996-date Middlesex
n 2009-date Delhi Daredevils
n INTERNATIONAL CAREER
n Six Tests for England
Debut v India (Mumbai), 18-22 March 2006
Runs 269 Highest score 88
Ave 26.90 100s 0 50s 2 4s 35 6s 3
n 68 One Day Internationals
Debut v Australia (Bristol), 10 June 2001
Batting: Runs 1,831 HS 107*
Ave 31.56 100s 1 50s 12 4s 144 6s 26
Bowling: Balls 173 Wickets 7 BBI 3/15 Ave 24.71
n Scored 88 and 38 on his Test debut in Mumbai in 2006, helping England to a 212-run win over India
n Shah hit his sole ODI century against India in September 2007 at The Oval in a two-run defeat
......... James Mariner
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