August 28, 2012

'Doubting yourself is one of the worst things you can do'

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Dropped by Lancashire, and playing out the rest of the season for Somerset, Sajid Mahmood tries to stay positive and believes he still has plenty to offer

"I blame nerves; I drove down OK, but as soon as I got close to Taunton I lost my way. I had to call Brian Rose [director of cricket at Somerset] to come get me." In the right area, but ultimately wayward - an apt metaphor, if ever there was one, for Sajid Mahmood and a career that has shown too few glimpses of great potential being fulfilled.

The former Bolton League bowler finds himself, eventually, at Somerset after a difficult start to the 2012 County Championship season with Lancashire. The campaign began with Lancashire looking to defend their 2011 crown but is set to end in a relegation battle, as bad weather and poor performances leave the county one point ahead of bottom-of-the-table Worcestershire.

Quite the turnaround for all concerned, especially Mahmood, who was determined to rid himself of the "inconsistent" tag even idler cricket fans attribute to him since his short-lived England career. It is an unfortunate tag for any bowler to carry, but one Mahmood feels he fully deserves.

"I'll hold my hands up and be the first one to say that I've been inconsistent throughout my career," he admits. "I do try and bowl fast, and sometimes I get carried away with that. But I try my best to be different to any other bowlers we have in the side."

Last year, Mahmood enjoyed one of his best domestic seasons to date, taking 35 wickets at an average of 29.85. It was only the third time in his career that he averaged under 30 with the ball, after 2003 (his first full season for Lancashire) and 2006, which led to an England call. However, a paltry four scalps in three games earlier this season saw Mahmood dropped, before Somerset offered him a way back into first-class cricket for the remainder of the season. The hardest thing, he says, has been staying positive.

"I wasn't getting too much of a gig at Lancashire," he says. "Somerset came in and I just wanted to go and play cricket. As soon as I heard they were interested, I was up for it straight away - just the chance to play some games again. It was the only thing I was focused on.

"Being dropped as a professional cricketer is tough. I suppose it's the same in any sport - doubting yourself is one of the worst things you can do as a sportsman. I spent more time doing sessions with Mike Watkinson at Lancs, just to keep ticking over, and I played 2nd XI cricket. It's very easy to get angry and frustrated by how things have panned out, but I've tried to take my mind off it. Otherwise it eats away at you."

It's an indication of his desire to get back to playing first-class cricket as soon as possible that he chose batsman-friendly Taunton as the place to resurrect his season. His self-belief is welcome to all those who support Mahmood, especially when it seemed he was starting to get disillusioned with his cricket.

In June, he was penalised for using "obscene, offensive or insulting language" in Lancashire's FLt20 defeat to Derbyshire. His figures - 42 runs conceded in 2.3 overs - would test any bowler's resolve, but it was his second breach of the fixed-penalty system in three years. Another breach could see him serve a ban.

"I do try and bowl fast, and sometimes I get carried away with that. But I try my best to be different to any other bowlers we have in the side"

The previous month, Yorkshire fast bowler and good friend, Ajmal Shahzad, made the switch across the Pennines on loan as Lancashire looked to address their poor start to the season. Mahmood played in Shahzad's Lancashire debut, against Sussex, with both taking three wickets apiece. However, it would be Mahmood's last County Championship appearance for the side.

"I was really happy when I heard Ajmal was coming over - we even roomed together for the first half of the season. But he's a great bowler and deserves to be in the side - I can't really say the same when I look back at my performances. I've not been able to get back in the side because they've not bowled too badly."

Five years ago, Mahmood was championed as the out-and-out speedster England had yearned for. He looked the part too; his powerful physique and piercing eyes ticked the boxes in England's "bully or be bullied" mindset that had helped them win the Ashes in 2005. He would go on to win eight Test caps, playing in three of their five defeats in the 2006-07 Ashes in Australia. The match in Sydney was his last Test for England. While he looks back on this time of his career fondly, he can't help but do so without a feeling of deep regret.

"It was tough and it gave me a gauge of where I was in relation to the best players and the best team in the world at that time. I enjoyed every single day of it. To represent your country at the highest level - it's pretty hard not to enjoy it. It's every boyhood dream come true - I made my debut at Lord's, I played against Pakistan - the country of my parents.

"But I took it for granted. At the time, it all seemed to come so easy to me. Ultimately, I was picked on potential. I didn't prepare for games as well as I should have. I just thought, 'Go out there, bowl fast and knock some people over.' That doesn't really fly in Test cricket. But then again, that's all I used to do in county cricket and it seemed to work - why change?"

Mahmood is in the last year of his contract with Lancashire, and nothing has been forthcoming from the reigning county champions. It is unclear whether success at Somerset will influence those at Old Trafford to stick by him. At 30, he is still an attractive proposition for anyone willing to gamble on the explosive spells offsetting the erratic ones.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a freelance journalist. He tweets at @Vitu_E