Banned fast bowler hoping to return December 13, 2006

Shabbir eager to iron out the kinks

Shabbir Ahmed: 'It has been a really difficult year' © AFP
If all goes well over the next few weeks - and admittedly, it is a super-sized 'if' - Pakistan might be making the trip to South Africa with a jauntier spring in their step than could have been expected a few weeks ago. Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif are back already and joining them in a burgeoning pace attack could be the banned bowler Pakistan almost forgot about, Shabbir Ahmed.

Shabbir became the first bowler to be banned for a year in international cricket last December, after being reported for the second time within a year for a suspect action. It was the fourth time he'd come under the spotlight in a career spanning seven international seasons and only ten Tests and 32 ODIs. But he might be on his way back; his ban ends on December 19, after which, if the latest reports on his action satisfies the ICC's bowling action committee, he will be allowed to return.

"It has been a really difficult year," Shabbir told Cricinfo at the National Bank of Pakistan ground, playing for WAPDA against Habib Bank in the Patron's Trophy. "Whenever you are out of the national team it isn't easy, but I have kept up my training. I played league cricket in England and did well there so I am not too rusty."

Contemplation of a year out of the game was enough for him to consider leaving the game altogether; nearly 30 when the ban was imposed, time was precious. "I did seriously think of retiring initially. But the team, the captain and some close friends really helped me through it. And the PCB has really backed me up through the whole thing - the help, the support, everything. They convinced me that I could still come back and that a year, in the long-term, wasn't necessarily the end of the road."

I did seriously think of retiring initially. But the team, the captain and some close friends really helped me through it

Gratitude goes out to Sarfraz Nawaz as well, who, while widely dismissed as the loosest cannon of many in Pakistan, still possesses a sharp bowling brain. "He's been a great help. We worked on a few small things that I had to rectify. I was only called because of two or three deliveries from more than 30 overs I bowled in the Multan Test (against England) so it wasn't a major fault."

He flew out to the University of Western Australia to have tests conducted on his new action last month and according to the PCB, the results are promising. A report has been sent to the ICC and only after they are satisfied with the results will his ban be lifted. Is he happy with his action? His response isn't clear though some bitterness is evident.

"According to the 15 degrees law, only a few of my deliveries were deemed to be illegal, from a whole match. But there are a few bowlers who have kinks in their actions out there who haven't been called. I don't want to take names but there are more than just a handful. Only I was called though."

If the domestic season is anything to go by, then his form is healthy. Eleven wickets in three games included a five-wicket haul against Habib Bank, eked out from the bounce and subtle movement that has been his way. Neither have the strangling lines deserted him; while Shahid Afridi was breezing through to a 91-ball hundred, Shabbir gave up 21 runs in 14 overs. Last week, he bowled 14 maidens from 20 overs.

Suddenly Pakistan find themselves with an abundance of fast-bowling options © AFP

"I am not feeling out of it," he explained. "I've worked hard and bowled a fair bit. I am happy to be just bowling again. When you come back from such a ban, you want to try even harder." As we spoke, he had even clipped an elegant 44, his second-highest first-class score ("You have to take these skills along," he smiles.)

And quite suddenly, Pakistan find themselves with so many fast bowlers they don't know what to do. To Shoaib and Asif goes the new ball with Umar Gul in line for hand-me-downs. Beyond them, competition is intense - Rana Naved-ul-Hasan seems to have recovered his groove, Rao Iftikhar Anjum is always steady, Shahid Nazir has done his credentials no harm and even Mohammad Sami still lurks around the international scene. To these seven might be added Shabbir.

Not that it will be easy: "It's going to be really tough because there are so many bowlers around. All I can do is hope that my action is passed by the ICC. After that if I can do well in domestic cricket then it is up to the selectors."

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo