May 17, 2012

A tale of two Yorkshiremen

Jonny Bairstow and Ajmal Shahzad: two players at crucial stages in their careers

For very different reasons, Yorkshire are presently playing Hampshire without two of their cricketers, two of the most promising in the land, two of their own. One, Jonny Bairstow, has handled those wretched slings and arrows with remarkable courage; the other, Ajmal Shahzad, is still working it out.

The son-of-a-famous-father tag is challenging enough but to be the son of one so larger than life, who then so inexplicably and tragically ended that life of his own volition is quite an examination. The day David "Bluey" Bairstow moved on was amongst the very darkest, even to those of us on the outside. To those close, or of the same blood, words will never suffice.

I first saw Jonny bat when he was 13 years of age, at Sir Michael Parkinson's once annual fundraiser for Bray Cricket Club. Surrounded by celebrity and preceded at the wicket by myriad Test and first-class cricketers, he hustled his way to 30-odd. He was splendidly self confident - cocky in that uniquely Yorkshire way. You'd have put your mortgage on him going the distance. He had every shot in the book, ran between the wickets as if it was an athletics meeting, and farmed the strike for the last couple of overs to ensure we made 300. I repeat, 13 years old! There was a clarity about the boy. If he was to be something himself, he might not dwell on the pain of his father. That clarity is still there, along with an arresting charm. So is the sparkling talent that might on occasions frustrate but will more often reward. This is no Jonny-come-lately, it is the real deal. Bairstow's debut at Lord's today is comic-strip stuff.

Wind back the clock to England's World Cup match with India in Bangalore last year. Four balls to go, 11 to win. Shahzad, the first Yorkshire-born Asian to proudly play for county and country, was on strike to Munaf Patel. He hit that third ball of the over into the Karnartaka CC club house, a blow that allowed England a tied match. We already knew he could bowl, and the shot proved a bit of ticker and a hint of the unusual. "Ajmal Shahzad (Yorkshire and England)" seemed likely to stick, if that was what he wanted.

Now we cannot be so sure. An exciting England career is on the back burner because Shahzad fell out of love with Yorkshire. He forgot that every cricketer has to work within the framework of the team. Some teams cut more slack than others; it is usually the captain's call. Shazhad took them all on - captain, coach, director of cricket, chairman - and I suppose we must say he lost. He will say he is better off where he is, at Lancashire, on loan. Harder pitches, softer love. Pray he is right, because it will be a terrible waste if ego overcomes good sense.

At first glance it appeared that Yorkshire had made a hash of it. How hard can it be to get a cricketer on side? Harder than you might think actually, particularly fast bowlers, who give so much of body and mind while smart arses loiter at slip and drop catches. Shahzad wants to bowl fast, a worthy ambition. He has the heart for it and perhaps the ability, though lively is more likely. But he is expensive - salary and figures - and has not taken the wickets that would justify the cost. That's the bottom line, wickets. He has a free spirit and wants to exploit it with machismo. You are only young once. Lancashire must feel they can work with this, and no one, not even amongst Tykes, would begrudge Peter Moores and Glenn Chapple making a success of it.

All for one is fine but one for all is finer. Shahzad can bowl as fast as he likes, can unleash all the hell he has the strength for, but he must get batsmen out!

Of course, any captain-coach combination knows that quick bowlers are gold, but there is a discipline required to become a truly excellent cricketer that goes beyond commitment. It is the discipline of performance, the understanding of team. All for one is fine but one for all is finer. Shahzad can bowl as fast as he likes, can unleash all the hell he has the strength for, but he must get batsmen out!

Going back a bit, both Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall used some of their Hampshire days to experiment. Roberts could reverse-swing the ball but it wasn't called that then, just swing. He would fiddle about - tinkering, improving. Marshall taught himself the inswinger in county cricket, and I used to fuss that it would cost him the outswinger. In the end he nailed them both and became the best alive. Neither man compromised the team. They had their off days but rarely through indiscipline - mainly through over-work come to think of it.

The clue that Yorkshire might not have made a hash of it came with the appointment of Jason Gillespie as first XI coach. For one thing, it is a whole lot easier looking in from the outside. For another, Gillespie was one of a kind - a fiery quick who learned there was another way to skin the cat. But beyond this was Gillespie's pedigree. For almost a decade he had been part of exceptional Australian teams, sharing a changing room with the great players of the age. From Warne to Waugh, Hayden to Ponting and Gilchrist to Gillespie himself, he saw hugely different men harness themselves to a common goal.

Not narrowed by Yorkshire's parochialism, Gillespie had a good look at Shahzad and agreed with the rest of them. Divorce time. Amicable - well, relatively - swift, satisfactory. Even a goodwill tweet or two from Leeds to Manchester.

With both Bairstow and Shahzad comes a riveting past and an element of risk in the future. Right now, one is a whole more in control of it than the other. Though they are no longer of the same Rose, one cannot help but hope that one day, further on up the road, they will wear the three lions together. Over to you, Ajmal.

Former Hampshire batsman Mark Nicholas is the host of Channel 9's cricket coverage