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May 23, 2006
Sajid Mahmood has come a long way in a short space of time. While England were beating Australia by a nail-biting two runs in the second Test at Edgbaston last year, he was taking 6 for 56 for Lancashire 2nds against Gloucestershire.
But come the start of Thursday's second Test against Sri Lanka at Edgbaston the 24-year-old Mahmood is set to be a member of England's pace attack after starring on his debut at Lord's, where he burst on the scene with three wickets in nine balls.
"It just came out pretty well for me that day," Mahmood said of his initial burst. "But by the end of the fifth day my opinion [of Test cricket] changed. It was tough." It proved to be a gruelling initiation as Sri Lanka batted for 199 overs to save the opening match of the three-Test series.
Test cricket seemed a long way off for Mahmood last season, as he spent most of his time in the reserves. He played only six matches for Lancashire in the County Championship, taking 11 wickets at 31.90 apiece. "Last season, I wasn't playing much first-team cricket," he admitted, "and it made me realise you've got to work that much harder.
"We've got a pretty strong attack up there [at Lancashire], with Dominic Cork, Glen Chapple and James Anderson, so it was pretty hard to keep your spot. But over the winter I was a lot more focused and it paid off. I worked hard at my game at the Academy and then went on the A tour of the West Indies. I had a pretty decent tour and then went to India for the one-day series."
Injuries to England's spearhead, Steve Harmison (shin), and their reverse-swing specialist, Simon Jones (knee), have given Mahmood and the marginally more experienced Liam Plunkett a chance to impress on home soil. Not that Mahmood is under any illusions about his place in the pecking order.
"If Harmison or Jones both get fit, I'll be straight out of the side," he acknowledged. "I'm giving 120 percent, so is Liam no doubt. If one or the other comes back, it's down to the selectors who gets picked."
Mahmood's modesty may be a shock to those who believe macho fast bowlers should conform to stereotype, but he had a lesson in the dangers of over-confidence when his cousin, the Olympic boxer Amir Khan, got hit when dropping his hands on the way to a points win over Hungary's Laszlo Komjathi in Belfast last weekend.
Mahmood, a Lancashire team-mate of his current England captain Andrew Flintoff, stressed he derived most of his sporting inspiration from within cricket rather than his famous relative.
"We tend not to have serious conversations," he said. "I have done a bit of padwork with him but not recently. Right now, I want to be like Harmison or Jones. The way they bowled in the Ashes last year, especially, was sensational. If I can get anywhere near that, I'll be happy."
But ahead of November's Ashes showdown in Australia, Plunkett said his role model was a proud wearer of the baggy green, rather than English blue, cap. "Glenn McGrath, he's the ideal bowler. He runs in, hits the pitch hard and does everything right."