Ali Shah - a short biography

MAJOR TEAMS: Rhodesia B (1979/80), Zimbabwe (1982/83-1996/97), Mashonaland (1993/94-1995/96)

John Ward
FULL NAME: Ali Hassimshah Omarshah
BORN: At Salisbury (now Harare), 7 August 1959
MAJOR TEAMS: Rhodesia B (1979/80), Zimbabwe (1982/83-1996/97), Mashonaland (1993/94-1995/96). Present club team: Universals
KNOWN AS: Ali Shah
BOWLING STYLE: Right Arm Medium Pace
OCCUPATION: Clothing store owner
FIRST-CLASS DEBUT: Rhodesia B v Transvaal B, at Salisbury, 1979/80
TEST DEBUT: Zimbabwe v New Zealand, at Bulawayo Athletic Club, 1 November 1992
ODI DEBUT: Zimbabwe v Australia (World Cup), at Nottingham, 9 June 1983
BIOGRAPHY (January 2000)
Zimbabwe's first official international match was their World Cup game against Australia in 1983, when they astounded the cricket world with a 13-run victory. With the recent retirement of Kevin Curran, none of that team is still active in first-class cricket, but there is one member who still plays first-league club cricket in Harare and is still able to turn in match-winning performances. This is Ali Shah, the first player from outside the white community to represent the country's first cricket team, and one who has always brought credit to his team wherever he has played.
Ali comes from a keen cricketing family, almost an essential for a top player in this country. His father was the major influence on his career; he played a great deal of club cricket himself. He regularly took the young Ali to matches where he himself was playing, and Ali remembers his job was to prepare his father's kit, polishing his pads and boots. His father was initially a member of Universals, for whom Ali has played most of his cricket, and then moved to Sunrise. Originally there had been one team for Asian cricketers in Harare, known as Orientals, before dividing into two. He and Ali played a great deal of cricket at home, and he gave Ali a sound education in the sport. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have achieved what I did," says Ali. "He gave me lots of encouragement whenever I was down and depressed, with regard to professional, and encouraged me not to lose heart but to keep working at it. We always used to sit down and chat about cricket - different players and different tactics, and so on."
Sadly, Mr Shah was to die of bone cancer in 1985, which first came on two years earlier, robbing him of his ambition to travel to England and watch Ali play for Zimbabwe in the World Cup.
Ali's younger brother Waqar was also quite talented, and they played together at Sunrise and Universals, but Waqar lost interest and his career faded. Ali claims that Waqar was more talented than he, but lacked the same commitment.
Ali grew up in the days of racial segregation in the country, so he was limited to his own community for schooling and clubs, although sporting fixtures were possible against white teams. He attended the Asian and Coloured schools in Harare, Louis Mountbatten Primary School and Morgan High School. At Louis Mountbatten he first won a place in the senior cricket team in Standard Three, playing with and against boys two years older than he. He has always been an all-rounder, always bowled his medium-paced seamers, but for most of his school career he batted at number four. He remembers taking seven wickets for six runs in one match against St Michael's, when he also made his highest score of 45. He won the school Sportsman of the Year prizes in Standards Three and Five. He also played soccer for the school team. While still at junior school, Brian Davison came at times to coach the top Louis Mountbatten players, at the invitation of the headmaster; recognising Ali's talent, he soon took him aside for more specialised coaching.
At Morgan High School he captained his age-group teams for his first three years there before progressing to the school first team. He feels he had a rather up-and-down career at high school, but recalls a memorable Under-14 match against St George's College, one of the country's most powerful school teams. The opposition contained four Nuffield players, but were bowled out for 30, with Ali taking four wickets for about 12 runs. Morgan passed their score with two wickets down, and it was one of the shock results in school cricket. After that Ali and a couple of other top players were invited to the schools trials, but they did not make the eventual national side. Ali remembers some of his contemporaries who briefly played first-class cricket for Rhodesia or Zimbabwe: Jannie Meyer, Gary Scott, Peter Geach came to mind.
At the age of 15 he also began to play first-team cricket for Universals, and found it hard going against such renowned opponents as Jackie du Preez, Mike Procter, Richie Kaschula, Dave Houghton and others - which makes him a first-league player for an unbroken 25 years, 19 of those consecutively as captain. The Pakistani Test player Younis Ahmed was the club professional at that time, and he did a great deal for the club, helping to turn them into an outstanding fielding team that hardly ever missed a catch. Younis gave Ali and the other youngsters a lot of encouragement, so he feels that he and the other schoolboys in the team were able to hold their heads above water playing at that level.
His father repaid the compliment of Ali's childhood in reverse, coming to watch Ali play. Mr Shah had finished his career with Sunrise rather than Universals and would have liked Ali to play for Sunrise, but when Ali was deciding which of the two clubs to play for, most of his friends came from Universals, and so he opted for that. He stayed with Universals until 1980, when he went to Sunrise for three years with Warwickshire and Barbadian fast bowler Bill Bourne. They had become friends at Universals and moved together to Sunrise, although Ali's main reason for moving was that he felt he was not being utilised to the full as an all-rounder at Universals and would be able to make better progress at Sunrise. He took over the captaincy at Sunrise, which was a challenge that he enjoyed. After three years, though, he returned to Universals because the first-league format had been changed: there were two sections, Sunrise was to be in the B Section, and the selectors advised him that he should play in the A Section to have a better chance of playing for the country.
When he first played club cricket at the age of 15, Ali was put in low in the order at number ten, but he forced his way up to number six, the first five batsmen at Universals being very strong. The lower order was weak, though, and Ali often found himself trying to stave off collapses, and playing some good innings while he was at it. Younis Ahmed thought that, as Ali was able to hold an end up and had a good defence, it would be better for him to open, and so he did. This was the position for which he was first selected for Zimbabwe, although the country generally played him lower in the order later in his career.
Immediately before independence, after consistent rather than outstanding league performances, Ali made his first-class debut, for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia B against Transvaal B at Harare Sports Club. Batting number 8, he scored only 2 and was not given the chance to bowl in a rain-affected match. He says he was picked as an opener, but Jack Heron and Kevin Arnott opened instead.
It was another three years before Ali played first-class cricket again, and this time it was for the full national side, against the touring Young Australian team, immediately before the World Cup. Opening the batting with Jack Heron, he scored 42 and 55 in his first match, and then 13 and 105 in his second. The Young Australians he found a completely new experience; they were "very aggressive, very verbal, and we hadn't played cricketers like that before. It was hard, tough cricket; we got abused on the field, but it was good, because it really woke us up." Their two pace bowlers, Rod McCurdy and Mike Whitney, were faster and more hostile than anything Ali had faced before, and his scores, when so many other Zimbabweans were struggling, do him tremendous credit. He was dropped on 67 while fighting his way to a century, mistiming a hook, and was beaten many times, but sheer guts and determination saw him through. "I like challenges and I took them on," he says, and his deeds proved that these were no empty words. His superb innings, with little support until captain Duncan Fletcher came in to score 56, enabled Zimbabwe to set the tourists 310 to win and bowl them out for 216.
With a good 68 in the final one-day match, although Zimbabwe lost, Ali won a place in the World Cup team for England in 1983. He went out to open the innings with Grant Paterson in the first match against Australia, and they shared an opening stand of 55, of which Ali scored 16 before being caught by wicket-keeper Rod Marsh off Dennis Lillee. He also caught Kim Hughes in the square leg area before the Australian captain had scored, and Zimbabwe went on to record a sensational victory. It was a great experience for Ali and indeed all the players, rubbing shoulders with the most famous cricketers in the world. He had little success with the bat, though, and after scoring 8 and 2 against India and West Indies he lost his place.
Back in Zimbabwe, he was selected to play the touring Young West Indies team, but scored only 37 runs in the two first-class matches. He attributes his failure to his efforts, and those of some of his team-mates, to change their techniques when facing the express pace of Malcolm Marshall, Wayne Daniel and Hartley Alleyne. They had seen certain overseas batsmen moving their feet back and across before the bowler delivered, and tried to copy this, but with mixed success; certainly it did not suit Ali.
After this was a tour to Sri Lanka, in which virtually every day's play was badly affected by rain, and Ali's main memory is of the crowd stoning their bus after a one-day match had been abandoned after a torrential downpour at lunchtime and the crowd had not been informed. As the Zimbabweans tried to leave by bus, a mob of irate spectators threw stones at their bus, a frightening experience. Ali did little on the tour even when the weather permitted play, and in fact there followed several seasons where he failed to reach 50 in a first-class match, although selected fairly regularly. He bowled, on the face of it, usefully, but failed to take wickets; after the 1986/87 season his career bowling average was 238 and his only wicket was that of David Boon during the Young Australian tour, for 148, brilliantly stumped by Dave Houghton standing up to the stumps.
Part of the reason for Ali's failure to fulfil the rich promise shown against the Young Australians was that he started a new business in 1985, and for years afterwards found it taking a great deal of his time. He opened a boutique and found it very difficult and time-consuming to start with. For several years he was unable to afford a manager to allow him much time off, and so his cricket suffered. Cricket in Zimbabwe was still almost entirely an amateur sport, and Ali had to put his livelihood first; "cricket didn't put food on my plate," he says. Even in later years when he had a manager running the shop, business still tended to interfere, and leading Zimbabwean players often said that Ali played his best cricket on tour when they could get him away from the distractions of business.
Almost throughout his career Ali was the only Asian - in fact, until the nineties the only player not of European descent - in the side, but he did not find it a problem. He never had any difficulty either racially or culturally with any of the white Zimbabwean players, a tribute both to the Zimbabwean players and to Ali himself. In the 1983 World Cup he shared a room with Kevin Curran, which some would consider a recipe for potential disaster whoever the player, but Ali got on well with him, and also made particular friends with Grant Paterson and Iain Butchart. He also found particular help from senior players like John Traicos and Kevin Arnott. On the 1985 tour to England he shared a room with Graeme Hick.
He also played in the ICC competition in England in 1986, which Zimbabwe again won, and in the World Cup of 1987/88, but without much success. On the latter tour he was one of the side's leading seamers, but only through injury: Peter Rawson, Kevin Curran and Eddo Brandes all had injury problems, so Malcolm Jarvis, Iain Butchart and Ali had much work to do with the ball. Ali took five wickets, second only to off-spinner John Traicos, and his average of 35 was second only to Curran. Conceding only 4.5 runs an over, he did his job well. He had found a good temporary manager for his shop while he was away on tour, but his cricket at home was still badly affected.
Ali lost his place in the team in 1988/89 after continued disappointing form, but won it back as an opener the following season. The opposition was England A, and for the first time Zimbabwe were playing five-day cricket, in the wake of a positive ICC decision made with a view to enabling the country to prepare more effectively for possible Test cricket. The five-day matches were noted mainly for some very slow batting by both sides, but Ali's form, opening the innings, was a revelation. In the first match he played some superb attacking drives to take him quickly into the forties, after which he played more sedately before eventually being out for 98. He did not do so well again, but did enough to win a place in the team to tour England and play in the ICC Trophy in Holland in 1990.
The highlight of that tour for Ali personally was an innings of 185 against Gloucestershire at Bristol. The county attack contained David Lawrence, Kevin Curran (who had now left Zimbabwe permanently) and David Graveney, all of whom played international cricket of one sort or another. He was disappointed not to reach 200, but had been told that a declaration was imminent and hit out, to be caught on the long-on boundary off Graveney. His innings gave Zimbabwe the advantage, and they just failed to force home victory.
After this tour Ali remained a fringe player, irregular in the national side, until Zimbabwe were granted Test status in 1992. The news came as a surprise to him as he had never expected that decision to be taken, but he thought, "Things will have to change now and we will have to become a lot more professional." He realised this would create difficulties for the majority, like himself, who were still amateurs, as they could no longer expect to have just one or two hours of practice a day and run a business as well. The initial squad, of which Ali was a member, began by organising lunchtime practices as well as evening practices, making a total of about three hours a day. They were trained by the Zimbabwean rugby player Ian Robertson, and also went to the gymnasium in the evening after nets; Malcolm Jarvis also helped Robertson, and the national players reached new levels of fitness.
Ali should have played in Zimbabwe's inaugural Test match, against India, although now as a middle-order all-rounder, but at practice the evening before the match put his foot in a hole and sprained his ankle, requiring his replacement Gary Crocker to make an overnight car journey from Bulawayo to reach the ground in time. He was fit for the Test against New Zealand in Bulawayo that immediately followed, when he scored 28 runs and took the wicket of opener Mark Greatbatch.
Having a manager for his shop enabled him to make the brief trip to India at the end of the season, for three one-day internationals and a Test match at Delhi. He played in all the matches except for the second one-day international, but without much success. He remembers that India were under a lot of pressure to win that Test, after having the worst of a draw in Zimbabwe in the inaugural Test, and there was some controversy about the umpiring, in those days before third-country umpires, with seven lbw decisions being given against Zimbabwean batsmen in the match, helping India to an innings victory. Ali was one of them, in the second innings.
The next season Ali went on tour to India again for a one-day tournament, playing in two of the four matches with useful rather than notable performances. The team went on to Pakistan for a major tour, but several of Zimbabwe's amateurs could not afford any further time off and had to return home. This included Ali, as his manager was leaving. After this it seems that the selectors decided to stick to those players who were available all the time, because some of those who went home - notably John Traicos and Kevin Arnott - were never selected again, while Ali, Andy Waller and Iain Butchart were not selected again for a long time.
With the Logan Cup competition now first-class, Ali was still able to play this level of cricket, and he scored an unbeaten 200 for Mashonaland against Mashonaland Under-24 in 1994/95. Although he still attended national practices he was still not selected, and the selectors made no effort to communicate with him or give him any reasons for his omission or any encouragement. Since his appointment as a selector late in 1999, Ali decided that he would try to do a better job of communication in his duties. However, he was selected as an experienced player in the Zimbabwe A side that toured saf briefly in 1995/96.
Ali finally returned to Test cricket almost four years later, when he had enjoyed a superb all-round league season and was chosen to tour Sri Lanka in 1996/97. First of all there was a quadrangular one-day series; Ali opened in the first match and scored 41, despite Zimbabwe slumping to 56 for five at one stage, and was rewarded with a demotion to number ten in the second match and omission from the third! His bowling was scarcely used.
After being omitted from the first of the two Tests, he was brought in for the second, when he made a superb fighting 62 in five hours in difficult circumstances and without a reliable partner at the other end. He had also sprained a shoulder diving for a ball in the field, which caused him a lot of pain and restricted his strokeplay. The spinners were in control, but Ali, as a left-hander, had an advantage against Muralitharan as he was better able to pad up safely to his sharply turning off-breaks. He concentrated on the sweep, finding most other strokes too difficult with his painful shoulder. Other batsmen, on this slow turner, were at a serious disadvantage if they did not use their feet, crowded as they were by close fielders waiting for the bat-pad chance, but the left-handed Ali was able to get away with a lot of pad play.
This was actually Ali's final first-class match. With the return of Dave Houghton, whose coaching commitments with Worcestershire had made him unavailable for Sri Lanka, Ali was not required for Pakistan or against the English touring team. So he quietly faded away from first-class cricket, although still playing regular club cricket with success, as he is still doing. The 1999/2000 season may be his last, at the age of 40, because he has no wish to keep younger players out of the side, but he has not yet made up his mind. He still enjoys playing club cricket, although finding it more difficult as he gets older, and he enjoys passing on his experience to younger players. He has thoughts of getting more involved in coaching in the future.
His best memories are not of individual performances, but of the 1998/99 season, his last as captain, when Universals achieved the treble, winning three out of the four club competitions available to them. On a personal note, he remembers a fine innings of 196 that season against Bulawayo Athletic Club. He feels, though, that the standard of league cricket has dropped since his early days, especially when the national players are unavailable.
Ali is perhaps an example of a fine player who never quite fulfilled his potential, due mainly to the difficulty of playing as an amateur in an increasingly professional world. One cannot speculate on how his career might have gone if Zimbabwe had been granted Test status ten years earlier and he had had the opportunity to play as a professional, but it would surely have been more productive than it eventually was. When he does finally call it a day, it will be with sadness, for he has done much for the game, both as a player and as a man.