Shahzad seeks consistency to forge England career
Ajmal Shahzad accepts that this season's battle for England fast-bowling places will be as tough as it has been for years, but believes he showed enough glimpses of his talent and tenacity during a long winter odyssey to keep himself firmly in the selector's thoughts ahead of the Sri Lanka series in May.
Shahzad was a key squad member throughout England's Ashes and World Cup campaigns. Although he did not play in the Tests in Australia, he pressed hard for selection throughout, and subsequently featured in seven of England's 14 ODIs, before a hamstring injury led to his omission for the team's crucial World Cup victory over West Indies. Surrey's Jade Dernbach replaced him in the 15-man party as the team went on to be beaten by ten wickets in the quarter-finals by Sri Lanka.
At the moment of victory in Chennai, after England had grafted their way back into the contest to beat West Indies by 18 runs and secure their progression to the last eight, Shahzad's face was a picture of mixed emotions, as he rose in the dressing room to celebrate with his team-mates, all the while knowing that he was heading for the next plane home.
"I was absolutely gutted," he told ESPNcricinfo during adidas's launch of the new England ODI kit. "I was so happy to be picked for England, so the disappointing thing for me was when I did get my chance, I got a little niggle. And I don't know if it was the pressure of the situation or the nervous anxiety, or whatever, but it's really disappointing, because that is the time I wanted to impress and show what I can do. I hope I've shown a little of what I'm capable of doing, but I feel as if there's plenty more to show, and if I ever get given the chance again, I want to stay injury free, fingers crossed."
He is on the mend now, with a return to action anticipated for Yorkshire's CB40 match against the Netherlands on Sunday, but Shahzad's the first to admit he has some ground to make up. The trio of quick bowlers who finished the Ashes campaign - James Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan - are set to be joined in the selection mix by Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, who has started the season impressively with Middlesex, while the likes of Warwickshire's Chris Woakes and the fit-again Graham Onions have also made strong cases in the early weeks of the season.
"It's going to be very difficult," he conceded. "There are plenty bowlers vying for spots - not only guys in the set-up, but people in the county circuit who want to put their name in the hat. Then it's up to the selectors to pick me or not pick me. But the selectors know what I can do. I want to go back [to Yorkshire] and help the boys out, show that I've got all the skill levels, show a good level of consistency, and show I'm a very competent batsman as well. If I get a few runs as well, you never know."
Even though he may be required to bide his time for a recall, there's little doubt that Shahzad made some important strides in his career this winter. By his own admission, he needs to work on his consistency, both in terms of fitness and performance, but taken in isolation, there were few better illustrations of his talent that the three wicket-taking deliveries he produced in England's shock defeat to Bangladesh at Chittagong.
Three off-stump snorters to Raqibul Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim and Naeem Islam resulted in two bowleds and a caught-behind, as Shahzad's ability to reverse-swing the old ball paid spectacular dividends before Bangladesh's tailenders regrouped to secure a thrilling two-wicket win. "At the time, they were probably three of the best balls I've bowled," he said. "They'd have got the best batsmen out on their day in any place in the world.
"That's what I'm capable of doing. I've got a natural inswinger, and when the ball's reversing I get it to go away, and it becomes a very difficult delivery to play, and it showed that," he added. "Looking back in hindsight, I wished I had a few more overs to bowl to get the boys a few more wickets, because it was disappointing to lose that game and make it difficult for ourselves in the quarter-finals, but it was nice to show what I was capable of doing."
Shahzad's other telling blow of the winter came with the bat, when he strode to the crease at No. 11 in the tense closing stages of England's epic showdown with India in Bangalore, and helped to salvage a tie by belting his first ball of the tournament, from Munaf Patel, over long-on for six. The blow transformed England's target, from 11 from four balls to five from three, and it was left to Graeme Swann to level the scores with the last shot of the match.
"Swanny said you can have a ball to have a look, then we need to do something," Shahzad recalled." But for me, walking out, I said to myself, these are the moments when heroes are made, if you want to show people what you're capable of doing, this is your chance.
"I'd watched Munaf bowl for a little bit before that, and I knew he was either going to bowl me a yorker or a legcutter slower-ball, so I'd got myself ready for that, and knowing that mid-on and mid-off were quite wide, I thought right, just hit it dead straight and as hard as possible, and I know I've got the power to back that up, so I can do this. He happened to miss his length and I happened to hit it, pleasantly!"
Since England's return home, much has been made of the gruelling nature of their five-month itinerary, but as a man who still had to clock up the air-miles even though he wasn't a regular member of the starting XI, Shahzad insisted that the team had never been under any illusions about the magnitude of the task.
"It was a little bit tough, but bearing in mind we knew what was in store for us, we planned for that and got ours mind focussed around it," he said. "There were probably too many one-dayers, you might say, with a World Cup straight after, but the lads knew what was in store. Our 15-man squad got bigger and bigger as it went along, and we had a bit of a rotation system as well, so the management managed it as best they could.
"Looking back on it, we did what we wanted to do, and we came back with the Ashes. We wanted to win the World Cup as well, but that was always going to be difficult in the subcontinent against subcontinent teams who are very good at one-day cricket. And right now I feel a part of the squad, although I don't yet feel I've established myself, which I want to do and need to do for a prosperous career for England."
Ajmal Shahzad was launching the new One Day International England Cricket Kit, supplied by England kit sponsor adidas, at the JJB Sports Store in Enfield yesterday. Purchase your ODI shirt in-store at any JJB or online at jjbsports.com
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo