Mike Holmans October 21, 2010

Owais Shah: the limits of talent

Middlesex are no longer prepared to pay top money to someone who does not display a whole-hearted commitment to excellence

It was a surprise when Middlesex announced that they were releasing Owais Shah at the end of the season.

A few days later I went to Lord's for my last sight of him as a Middlesex player, and he obliged with a typical Shah innings. Coming in with the team behind the rate in the chase, he put his foot on the accelerator and knocked some powerful boundaries to bring home a rare victory in the CB40, leading the teams off with 56 not out to his name. It was the sort of innings he has played many times for Middlesex as well as several times for England.

There was naturally much muttering from members to the effect that they couldn't understand why the county were getting rid of the side's best batsman, who had served the club loyally for eighteen years, never let the club down, etc. It turned out that the sticking point had been money, not form or performance – at least, not specifically. But when a club is prepared to offer a contract and the player thinks the money is insufficient there is a difference of opinion about how valuable the player is, which has to be a comment on form, performance or both.

Broadly speaking, I'm with the club on this. My admiration for Shah has been pretty limited for some years now.

I was very enthusiastic about the young Shah: in his late teens and early twenties, he looked to be a richly-talented player with a very bright future, quite likely as the mainstay of England's middle order for several years. But Shah has since become an object lesson in how far talent alone can take you – quite a long way, in fact – but also how much further you have to go to become a top-class player.

The big difference between the talented youngster and the accomplished senior professional is that the senior man makes far fewer mistakes. Over time, he has worked on his game and come up with methods of not getting out by making adjustments to his technique and solidifying his defence as well as developing his attacking strategies along with the actual shots. But in Shah's case, I can see very little evidence that much of that development has happened. He still looks like a richly-talented youngster with a bright future – except that he is now 32 and that future is largely behind him.

He never had much polishing to do on his attacking shots; he emerged from his teens almost fully-formed as a stroke-maker – which was why we were all so excited by him – but his shot selection has always been a little shaky. He has often got out playing the wrong shot from the wrong position, which is the sort of incident one is supposed to learn from so as not to do it again.

One can often get away with losing one's wicket stupidly in one-day cricket because it can just look like getting on with it and playing unselfishly, but in multi-day cricket it is rarely forgivable; because there seemed to be little progress on the eradication of such errors, I became increasingly disenchanted with Shah. I hoped that I was wrong after his sprightly 88 on Test debut against India, but it was not to be.

Relatively few players reach the heights that Shah has, despite constantly working on their games because they do not possess Shah's talent. Shah is by no means a failure, but yet I remain disappointed that he has not made more of his gifts. Which leaves me asking myself what right I have to criticise him for what he isn't rather than gladly appreciating what he is.

I have some inchoate thoughts about it being undesirable to have a player around a dressing room who manages to be a leading player despite setting a poor example to the up-and-coming players who then get the idea that they don't have to work hard on their games, but that is a matter for the captain and team management. Which brings us back to where we began: Middlesex are no longer prepared to pay top money to someone who does not display a whole-hearted commitment to excellence. In today's game, talent alone no longer suffices.