Maturing Mahmood eyes England recall
Despite an inglorious winter, the majority of England's Test side to take on West Indies and, later, Australia is decided. However, at least two places remain up for grabs and one of them is a fast-bowling slot which Lancashire quick Sajid Mahmood has his eye on.
Mahmood has tasted international cricket, playing eight Tests and 25 ODIs between 2004 and 2007. He was recruited by Duncan Fletcher as part of a wider search for fast bowlers capable of breaking the 90mph mark and maintaining the intimidatory levels reached during the 2005 Ashes series. History, though, suggests promotion came too early, leaving Mahmood to rebuild his career at first-class level.
His last appearance came as England crashed out of the 2007 World Cup with a thumping defeat to South Africa in Barbados. It was a tournament that encapsulated everything that was frustrating about him. Certainly, he was quick enough to trouble top batsmen, but at the highest level his lack of consistency was exposed.
Two years have passed since Mahmood returned the disastrous figures of 0-49 from 4.2 overs against the South Africans at the Kensington Oval. The experience could well have proved an insurmountable disappointment, but he has instead used it as motivation to return to international cricket a more complete bowler.
"I have had time out to reflect on what I wanted to improve on to be able to get back into that side," he said. "I have been working on that really hard. Last season I was pretty consistent compared to the four or five years before.
"I think that my game is moving forward. I have had a tour out to New Zealand [with the England Lions], and I thought that I showed improvements there as well. I think I have improved mentally and physically in my game and I am ready to play for England again. That is my main ambition, to get back into that England shirt as quickly as possible."
Mahmood is already one step closer to achieving that objective after earning a spot in the 30-man preliminary squad for the ICC World Twenty20. The call-up could see him relaunch his England career in the shortest format, but it is the Test arena to which he looks best suited - a format more forgiving on those who are occasionally wayward in the pursuit of wickets.
He displayed great promise during the Headingley Test of 2006, in which he claimed 4 for 22 against a Pakistan batting line-up clearly troubled by his express pace. But he was overlooked for the opening two Tests of the Ashes in Australia and his confidence took a battering when he was eventually recalled with the series all but lost.
Recent events have prompted some observers, not least Fletcher, to opine that Mahmood could have a role to play in England's Test side. England's struggle to claim 20 wickets in the Caribbean, albeit on some flat wickets, highlighted the need for an sharper edge, particularly if Steve Harmison fails to find form. There aren't many bowlers in county cricket capable of hitting 90mph and Mahmood, who has never wanted for pace, has done what he needed to do after being dropped.
"When I first went in for England, I was a little bit young, I had not really played too much cricket," he said. "I realised why I was left out, because of my consistency, and I have gone back and worked really hard at that.
"Hopefully you will see more improvements this season. It was an accuracy thing. My pace has never really been a problem, but I have just been working on accuracy and getting the ball in pretty good areas."
There is a certain irony that the man now helping hone his skills at county level is Peter Moores. Fletcher's successor never felt Mahmood was ready for another England chance, but has been impressed with the paceman since joining Lancashire as coach.
"Saj is going through a really positive process. A bit like Ryan Sidebottom, he played early and then went back to county cricket where you hone your skills," Moores said. "When I was England coach there was a lot of feedback from people like Fred [Andrew Flintoff] and Jimmy [James Anderson] about how he was developing.
"In the nets this week he's had really good rhythm to the crease and he's just got to keep progressing. He's a young man who is getting ready and next time he gets a chance he'll be able to grab it with both hands."
Mahmood has enjoyed working with Moores even though his new coach overlooked him during his tenure with the national team. "I knew why I was left out of the side, I have tried to put that right," he said. "He is a really good coach, and I have nothing against for that [leaving him out].
"I don't think that I am too far away. All I need to do now is have a really good start with Lancashire. I need to take a lot of wickets, and I don't think that I am too far away. My pace is there and the consistency is getting better all the time. I am a lot more streetwise both mentally and physically.
"I think everyone will see a slightly different me, someone who can hit an area consistently. I have been working pretty hard on it, and I will be pretty disappointed if I can't do it this year."
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo