Finding the answer to a Lord's prayer

MAN IN THE MIDDLE Aftab Habib (Leicestershire)
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The Independent Online
Ability is all well and good but a sportsman's progress is governed by other factors, too; such as being in the right place at the right time.

Or the converse, for that matter. A brilliant double hundred against Worcestershire last month identified in Leicestershire's 24-year-old Aftab Habib a cricketer of rich potential. It also proved that whatever held him back in five fruitless years with Middlesex, where he made one first- class appearance, it cannot have been lack of talent.

"Although I was scoring runs in the second eleven there was a lot of competition in the first team," he said. "And, with the likes of Gatting, Ramprakash, Carr and Brown around, I never really got a look-in.

"Perhaps I should have left sooner. Perhaps I made the wrong choice in the first place. When I was 17, I had to decide between Middlesex and Somerset and the idea of going to Lord's was very exciting at the time. But that's life. Now that I am here I feel it has all worked out well."

Reading-born Habib's decision to join Middlesex after his schooling at Millfield and Taunton Schools disappointed Somerset. But Jack Birkenshaw, the former Somerset coach now manager at Grace Road, kept the name in his notebook.

Once Habib decided he had to leave Lord's, Birkenshaw gave him a trial in Leicestershire seconds and then elevation to senior cricket, which he seized with both hands. Remarkably, the lack of opportunity at Lord's had done nothing to sap either his spirit or his self-expression and an unbeaten 174 against Oxford University at The Parks underlined his potential. In September, he was offered a two-year contract.

"I was disappointed by the way things went at Middlesex but I always believed I could be good enough if I was given a chance," he said.

Last weekend, a stylish 90 against the Indians at Grace Road brought a moment to savour when Mohammad Azharuddin, the tourists' captain, offered a word of congratulation.

"He said he had enjoyed my innings and liked the way I played," Habib said. "The following day he spoke to my father and said it had been the best innings played against the tourists so far. He said to my father that he should pray for me every day, which meant a lot coming from a fellow Moslem."