November 18, 2012

Remember Saj?

John Hotten
He was picked on the basis that international cricket needed bowlers who bowled fast. But while the prognosis was the right one, Mahmood wasn't

In 2005, Duncan Fletcher had a vision of the future. Injury, bad luck, hubris, whatever, meant that his Ashes-winning England side would never appear together again. Fletch played his hunch and went searching: not for old-school fast bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock, but for men like Brett Lee and Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga. In his analytical way, he stared into the game that was starting to emerge and deduced that the next generation of batsmen would need to be detonated from the crease by swing at high pace. He wanted freaks who could bowl at 90mph. Sajid Mahmood, who was 22 and had been playing in the Bolton leagues not too long before, could. Fletcher called him up.

There is an alternative universe somewhere, a superstring vibrating away in a different space-time continuum, in which Fletcher - Sir Duncan now, perhaps - is still coaching England, and Mahmood is his noble spearhead, pace dying a little as his hair greys, but with the nous of 250 Test match wickets behind him.

I thought of all of this the other day when I drove past one of my favourite grounds. The leaves had begun to come down over the outfield. The grass was uncut and already starting to thicken for winter. The chains were up around the square. Early evening rain swept overhead. Something had come to an end. When I got home, the counties had announced which players they wouldn't be retaining, and one of them was Saj Mahmood.

Lots of others were on their way, a few of them quick bowlers, too: Jack Brooks, Ajmal Shahzad, Liam Plunkett. But they all had new gigs. Saj hadn't had his contract renewed. It's always a melancholy time, but in Mahmood was a story of more than just a county and a player running out of steam. He'd been at Lancashire for ten years, had more than 300 first-class wickets, but his last game for them had been a Friends Life game against Derbyshire in which he'd conceded 42 from 2.3 overs. He'd gone to Somerset on loan, and taken eight wickets in three games at just over 30.

The game did morph, but not quite in the way that Fletcher thought it might. Tait, Malinga, and to an extent Lee, became white-ball specialists. Saj played eight Tests and got 20 wickets at 38. He bowled fast but inconsistently. Sri Lanka climbed into him in an ODI at The Oval; in 11 of his 26 one-dayers, he went for more than 50. In the last of his four T20 internationals, he bowled four overs for 61. Plunkett's record was quite similar.

When the news about Saj came out, several reports mentioned Fletcher's idea about the 90mph bowlers. It was couched in terms of failure and it seems that Mahmood will forever be its public symbol. And yet England are at the moment stocked with more men who can bowl at 90mph than perhaps ever before: Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett, Jade Dernbach, Stuart Meaker, Shahzad, and with lots more tweenies on the way at Loughborough, where David Parsons and his men have identified the physiological factors common to those who will be able to propel the ball at such a speed. Australia and South Africa appear to have caught on to it too.

The truth may be that the international career of Mahmood dropped into a gap in the game, a brief interregnum between generations, between old and new, between pre- and post-T20. It might be that they were just below international class, too. But as a concept, the notion that fast bowlers would have to bowl fast was being borne out even as Fletcher's idea was being stitched once more into stories about Saj Mahmood.

Fletch is with India now, of course, where he can be alone with his thoughts about 90mph bowling. Saj Mahmood, for the moment, isn't with anyone. Something had come to an end after all, something good, an opportunity that proved fleeting and elusive and not quite his to seize.

John Hotten blogs at

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on November 20, 2012, 23:52 GMT

    Mahmood's problem was that, while he had all the physical gifts one could possibly want in a fast bowler, he had none of the mental.

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2012, 13:27 GMT

    @AdityaMookerjee. Saj Mahmood was not a migrant. He played for the country he was born in which is also the only country he has lived in

  • Nikhil on November 19, 2012, 13:45 GMT

    "Fletch is with India now, of course, where he can be alone with his thoughts about 90mph bowling." lolz Now Fletch has brought down the limit to 85mph.

  • sachin on November 19, 2012, 11:13 GMT

    @SIRSOBERZ, I don't necessarily see the need to ban helmets to fire up Test-cricket, instead, just get rid of restrictions on the number of bouncers & get rid of bodyline-era rules like having no more than 2 fielders behind-square on the leg side, we now have all sorts of safety-equipment with arm-guards, chest-guards & what not so bowlers who can bowl quick can still pepper the batsmen with short-stuff & bring some of the old excitement back into the game & we'll again see more & more genuine fast bowlers around by simply having shifted the game a little more towards faster men.

  • Harvey on November 19, 2012, 5:00 GMT

    Real fast bowlers do bowl at 90mph every ball. Some of these guys can touch that pace but not consistently, that was Mahmood's problem. There hasn't been a true international quick since the Lee/Akhtar days.

  • Aditya on November 19, 2012, 2:35 GMT

    Very unusual, that he was playing for a nation, and not Pakistan. It is very true, that the U. K. is also a nation having many notable immigrants. Very many unusual players have donned England whites, including Mike Artherton.

  • Michael on November 19, 2012, 0:53 GMT

    Tait is a great example of what speed can do when it is inconsistent. 3 Tests, 5 wickets at 60, with an economy of 4.37. Even in One Day matches, where he had more success, he went at over 5 runs an over. However, accuracy can be taught; speed can't. Brett Lee was most successful when his radar was aligned and he bowled in the right areas. Shoaib, too, was devastating in peak form but fodder when his accuracy deserted him. Sajid Mahmood's record suggests he never learned to deliver his pace with control.

  • Samuel on November 18, 2012, 22:34 GMT

    " in 11 of his 26 one-dayers, he went for more than 50" so in 15 of his 26 ODIs he went for less than 5/over? That's actually quite good.

  • o on November 18, 2012, 19:32 GMT

    Saj prbly woulda been a star decade or 2 earlier but Helmets better protection arm guards,chest guards, bowling machines (practice), limited bouncers rule all destroyed the fear of fast bowling & with it the excitement of Test cricket ! it's so one sided now the only thing that would even things up again would be to ban helmets believe me. Everyone loves Fire In Babylon & talks about a wish to return to that era but no1 comments how these new laws & protection the ICC and England allowed damaged the game to a huge extent, you can say what you want but the prospect of batsman getting hurt and having an actual real battle between bat and ball is what the majority came to see. There is little incentive for fast bowlers now & t20 & free hits has only amplified this with most of the big money and focus being on big hitting batsman & allrounders add in the bigger lighter bats there has never beena worse time to be a fast bowler & in a decade or so they will probably be extinct.

  • stuart on November 18, 2012, 19:08 GMT

    Saj always looked good but jusat didn't get the wickets.No point looking good and not getting the results.

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