x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Shahzad aims to have a ball

The fast bowler says he is ready to seize his opportunity after being called up for England's trip to the UAE.

Ajmal Shahzad will not forget his first - and only - international match as a spectator. It was at Headingley in 2001. When Waqar Younis, the Pakistan fast bowler, roared in to send Marcus Trescothick, the England opener, back to the pavilion with his first ball, Shahzad was asleep.

"I'd had a late night, it was an early morning and I was excited about going to the game," laughs Shahzad, who was 15-years-old at the time. "Waqar bowled Trescothick with an in-swinging yorker and everybody went crazy. That woke me up. "The whole experience was amazing and I dreamed of people cheering me in the same way one day." Shahzad could soon get that chance, but against the country of his ancestors after a call-up for England's trip to the UAE, where they will face Pakistan in two Twenty20 internationals this weekend, and then the Test and one-day series in Bangladesh.

It was a surprise, but he is determined to evoke memories of Waqar when Pakistan tour England this summer. "That would be perfect. The ideal scenario would be to play against Pakistan at Headingley, possibly open the bowling or first change, bat seven or eight, and do well," said the paceman, now 24. "I was born and bred in England so it was never really an option to play for Pakistan. I watched them because my dad was Pakistani and they were masters 10-15 years ago with people like Waqar and [fellow new ball bowler] Wasim Akram.

"But when Darren Gough came along, Andy Caddick and Harmi [Steve Harmison], it was England." Shahzad first served notice of his potential at 18. An appearance in a one-dayer at Worcestershire made him the first Britain-born Asian to play for Yorkshire. A stress fracture put his career on hold and, frustrated, he almost quit cricket twice before last season's impressive displays propelled him into the England reckoning.

"It's been tough, I was gutted by the injury because I felt those were my best years. It just didn't happen for me after that," he said. "At 22, I decided if cricket was the way forward for me or education. I was doing a pharmacology degree and giving 50 per cent to study and 50 per cent to cricket. But when I started getting myself fit, I knew I could go far in cricket and gave up the studies. "I spoke to my dad and said I'll give 100 per cent to this because I really felt I could be as good as some of the big names. But we had the same conversation last year.

"Yorkshire offered me a year's extension and I told my dad I didn't want to sign it. For those terms I'd rather finish and go back into studying. I knew I was better than that. "Everyone said you are putting pressure on yourself in the last year of my contract. It was make or break, but I enjoyed that and thankfully it worked out well for me with a three-year deal." Shahzad is driven. As a teenager he was also a schools' champion at badminton, but gave it up for cricket after he won silver instead of gold.

"It hurt not to win. That's when the competitive side of me really came out," he says. He first started out playing street cricket in Bradford as a wannabe Shoaib Akhtar, but crafted his skills by watching Waqar and Wasim. With his batting, Shahzad has been tipped to emulate Andrew Flintoff in the all-rounder role too. "I'm not going to bowl or bat like him, but if I can change games and win games for the team like he did, then that's what it's all about.

"He won't be in Dubai when we are there, but I hope to chat with him at some stage. The only time I've spoken to him before was when I played for Yorkshire against Lancashire in my first season. "Muttiah Muralitharan [the Sri Lanka spinner] was bowling at me and I was missing every ball. Freddie said, 'what are you doing Shaz?'. "I didn't even know he knew my name and said, 'I can't pick him', and he went, 'neither can I, just swing'. I did and it went for six. I tried it again the next ball and got caught and he went 'unlucky pal'. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

"People say it's going to be pressure with England, but I've got nothing to lose on this tour. It's a chance for me to learn and impress." @Email:akhan@thenational.ae