Last Friday, Ajmal Shahzad was appointed MCC Young Cricketers’ head coach, just days after smiling as Mark Wood’s pure pace helped England to victory in the third Test against West Indies. Former journeyman quick Shahzad tells ESPNcricinfo about hitting his stride in his one and only Test, life on the fringes of the England team and his quest to help emerging players avoid mistakes.
It was fitting in a series dripping in nostalgia that the decisive spell in last week’s final Test at St Lucia had us reaching for the history books.
The first two Tests of England’s Caribbean tour were marked by the usual reminiscence about West Indies greats past. Was Shimron Hetmyer the easiest batsman on the eye since Lara? This seam attack the best since Holding, Marshall, Croft and Garner?
But in the third Test it was England’s turn, as Mark Wood ran through the hosts’ middle order either side of tea on the second day. Scyld Berry, the doyen of the travelling press pack, declared Wood’s 19-ball spell before tea the fastest he had seen by an England bowler; others thought Flintoff at Lord’s, Harmison in Jamaica, or Devon Malcolm at the Oval must have run him close.
Such is the way of the world that the statisticians soon put paid to the wistfulness; CricViz revealed that with an average speed of 88.88mph, Wood’s was the quickest spell by an England seamer since 2010, when Ajmal Shahzad clocked 88.98mph in his first and only Test.
“Those numbers put a smile on my face!” Shahzad laughs. “Ultimately, I played one Test, and sometimes I feel I was unfortunate not to play more. In that one game, it turns out that I bowled two of the six or seven fastest spells in a long time [15 years] by an Englishman – it’s really nice to know, but I do wonder what could have been if I’d stayed injury-free, if my workloads had been monitored a bit more.”
While that Test – an innings win against Bangladesh, remembered best for Tamim Iqbal‘s quickfire 108 – might have faded from English cricket’s collective memory, the memories remain vivid for Shahzad.
“I was nervous in my first spell,” he recalls, “and it didn’t go so well. Tamim put all of us – me, Finny, Jimmy – to the sword a bit, came hard at us. It was an eye-opener: I thought ‘Test cricket? I’m not sure if I’m ready for this’. And then I remember bowling him a yorker and flattening him, and thought ‘ok, I might be able to get through this’.
“In the second innings, I was a bit more relaxed and we had the ball moving sideways a bit more. I remember just charging in – there was a point when I was walking back to my mark, I looked to my left, where they’d put in some temporary seating, and I thought my heart might pop out my chest. I remember thinking ‘this is great, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.'”
Shahzad’s spell was less dramatic than Wood’s burst – he took 1 for 18 across seven second-innings overs – but few who saw it would dare question the accuracy of the speed gun that rated it so highly.
I wanted to bowl as fast as I could and if it meant that my shoulder was going to pop out, I thought ‘there’s no better place to pop your shoulder’. My thought process is a bit different to most
“Matty Prior was telling me how hard I was hitting his gloves,” Shahzad says, “so afterwards I went in and spoke to the stats guys, and asked them how quick it was. The numbers guy said my quickest ball was 96.1, and I thought ‘hang on, that’s not so bad’.
“In that game, I wanted to bowl as fast as I possibly could, and if it meant that my shoulder was going to pop out, I thought ‘so be it, there’s no better place to pop your shoulder’. My thought process is just a bit different to most.
“As a young kid, I looked at Goughy, Shoaib, Waqar, Wasim, all the greats, and thought even if I’ll never be as good as them, I just want to bowl quick. People tune in to watch proper fast bowlers go about their business. They want to see some stares, some banter, some competition. People are still watching clips of Allan Donald bowling to Mike Atherton on YouTube – that’s what people want to watch, the passion, the emotion.”
It is a reflection on England’s depth in that era that Shahzad never got another look in. His debut came due to Tim Bresnan’s injury and with Stuart Broad rested, and despite going on the 2010-11 Ashes tour, he soon fell to the back of a queue featuring those two, James Anderson, Steve Finn and Chris Tremlett.
“You’ve got to have another three really good seamers giving you control to have a tearaway in your side – it is a bit of a luxury. You’ve got to let him express himself, and say if he goes for 40 in five overs, that isn’t the end of the world – you’ve picked him because he might take five wickets in a short burst on his day.
“England have been a bit reluctant over the years, and tend to go for a four-man attack who all offer you lots of control. It’s about finding that balance; ultimately, that route probably worked for them in the bigger picture, with the number one ranking and all that success.”
Dropped from the ODI squad after the 2011 World Cup – in which he hit a last-over six in the breathless tie against India, but struggled with the ball – Shahzad went down a “tricky road” following his England days. He became something of a journeyman, with spells at Lancashire, Notts, Sussex and Leicestershire after leaving Yorkshire, and found himself without a county at the end of 2017.
“I probably came out of the game a bit prematurely,” he reflects. “I’m only 33. I was a bit of a traveller – I’ve been up and down the country playing with different counties, and it’s been a tricky road.
“When I left Yorkshire, it became tougher. I always wanted to be tearaway fast bowler, but in some team set-ups, I was looked at as a senior guy who could offer control and skill. Of course, you start to develop that, but it wasn’t a role I really wanted.
Shahzad’s enthusiasm and passion for the game – and for fast bowling in particular – are there for all to see, and it was no surprise that he wanted to keep working in cricket after his release. On Friday, he was announced as the MCC Young Cricketers’ new head coach, and it is hard to imagine a more eager candidate for the role.
“Coaching seemed like the best option for me. I don’t only want to help people aged 10 coming through, but also guys who are about to play county cricket, play for the Lions. I know how it feels when everyone’s tapping you on the bum after a fantastic spell, or in a bit of a dark place where you bowl three rubbish overs and you don’t know who to turn to.
“These days, there are more young players in the system who are subject to social media, to people’s opinions on Twitter, so you need to make individuals as strong, as robust as possible. At 20 or 21, like Sam Curran, you can get the nod for England. I had a rollercoaster of a career, felt all the highs, felt all the lows. I know what people have been through. And if I can help people make fewer mistakes on their journey, then I’ll be helping the English game.”
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