India v England, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 1st day March 18, 2006

Partners hit pay dirt

Two Middlesex mates come together for England
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Owais Shah mostly, and successfully, inhabited his own little bubble © Getty Images

It is hard to know which was a greater surprise: the emphatic and vital return to form of Andrew Strauss or the debut dash of his Middlesex team-mate Owais Shah.

Certainly the news that Shah was replacing the sickly Alastair Cook was met with hanging jaws. He is England's sixth debutant in as many Tests, after only five in the previous 23. And he is part of a team boasting only 203 Test caps between them, 286 fewer than India and 57 fewer than Nasser Hussain's England side that played at Mohali four years ago.

But as for Shah's runs, well, this is becoming an English trait and it can't just be beginner's luck. Shah became the fifth successive England specialist batsman to make 50 or more on Test debut. Four of them are in this team and it is a run that stretches back to Strauss' own debut in 2004.

Strauss took to Test cricket with such assured alacrity that he was talked of as a future captain before he had barely played ten Tests. So he was due a bad trot. It is just a shame for England that it has spanned back-to-back Asian tours when injury and other absences has played such havoc with their plans. His innings today was his first score of over 50 in five Tests - and, impressively, his eighth hundred in 24 Tests.

Good openers are traditionally good leavers of the ball and Strauss was right on the money. He was beaten once or twice, of course, but his self-discipline was exemplary. He still scored most of his runs in his favoured area, square on the off-side but he refused many temptation to play a cross-batted shot. The seamers offered him the option often enough but, like a disciplined dieter passing on dessert, he politely declined. He said it was a conscious decision "to be more patient, to try not to dominate too much, to judge which shots to play and which not to play." Maybe there's more to it than that. His wife Ruth and baby son Samuel witnessed his milestone and Strauss reckons his wife has seen seven of his eight hundreds.

He also mentored Shah intelligently and compassionately. No wonder Shah got cramp in his hands. If he'd gripped the bat any tighter he'd have burned through the rubber grip and given himself splinters. He was either so pumped up or nervous or both that he couldn't stand still for more than a few seconds.

He tugged his shirt, fiddled with his pads and came down the wicket to the first ball he received from Harbhajan Singh. The spinner's body language was spectacular. As Shah retreated to his crease, Harbhajan stood and he stared, more in disbelief than anything. "Excuse me, this is a Test match. I'm Harbhajan Singh, you may have heard of me, I've got 200-odd Test wickets. And you are?" seemed to be the gist of the silent conversation.

Shah cut the next ball for four. So he was for real. Strauss came the length of the track to punch gloves with the debutant. When Shah tried a couple of ill-advised pulls later on, Strauss was back again. Calm down, son. Not that Shah was receptive to Strauss' advice. "With Owais, I've come to expect the unexpected," said Strauss. "He gets into his own little bubble - I didn't take it personally. It was good fun, though, because it's been a while since we've batted together."

It's funny how things shape up. Shah was one of English cricket's chosen ones. He made his first-class debut in 1996 as a 17-year-old schoolboy and toured Australia with England A later that year.

Strauss was a late developer and didn't play first-class cricket until two years after Shah. But, while Shah struggled for the next step, Strauss took every hurdle in his stride. He was made Middlesex captain at very short notice in 2002 upon the retirement of Angus Fraser and then made the most of an injury to Michael Vaughan at Lord's in 2004 against New Zealand for his Test debut.

Shah has captained Middlesex too, in place of Strauss as it happens, but his tenure ended abruptly without his reputation enhanced.

But here they were, thrown together by circumstance, the first pair of Middlesex specialist batsmen to bat together for England since Mike Gatting and Mike Brearley in 1981.

In their different ways they had both points to prove and, in their different ways, they made them.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer