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Feature

Saqib Mahmood happy to be back in the dirt after year of hurt

Lancashire seamer feeling his way back into red-ball cricket following back stress fracture

Saqib Mahmood returned after injury for Lancashire, Somerset vs Lancashire, Taunton, County Championship, 1st day, April 20, 2023

Saqib Mahmood returned after injury for Lancashire at Taunton  •  Getty Images

On the face of it, 37 overs of grind for just one wicket does not sound overly encouraging. But Lancashire's Championship stalemate against Somerset on a docile Taunton pitch was as a welcome return to the red-ball format for Saqib Mahmood.
"It was actually a year to the week since I played my last red-ball game," said Mahmood, referring to Gloucestershire's visit to Emirates Old Trafford at the start of the 2022 season. A back stress fracture picked up during the match sidelined him for 10 months, with Mahmood eventually returning to competitive action in February of this year for England Lions in Sri Lanka.
He donned full England colours in the second ODI against Bangladesh a month later. Getting through nine overs (0 for 41) in a dominant win was another step towards a more rounded return. As much as a skiddy action, the ability to move the ball late and a reliable yorker see Mahmood tend towards the white ball, his passion is to get ahead with the red.
Mahmood's diagnosis came a month after earning his first two Test caps. England were in a state of enforced, almost self-defeating transition, leaving out James Anderson and Stuart Broad and calling up Mahmood and Yorkshire's Matt Fisher for the tour to the Caribbean. Mahmood acquitted himself well, with six wickets at 22.83 on dull surfaces - similar to what he encountered at Somerset.
"The conditions weren't the best," Mahmood said of Taunton. "The outfield was real sandy, so for a first game back it probably wasn't ideal for the body. Halfway through the second session, my legs were gone. It was challenging: slow, low, flat wicket - as the scores suggested. But for me, it was something I wanted to do - I don't just want to take my time and settle back in, I wanted to come back in and try to make a difference straight away."
The 26-year-old had been warned his first day in the dirt would sting. After 96 overs in the field, as centuries from Tom Abell and James Rew took the hosts to 311 for 4, he experienced first-hand.
"I remember I bowled all of day one, and I woke up to go to the toilet after that, put my left out and it nearly gave way. I had to limp over the toilet, got back in bed, and woke up the next morning real stiff."
There was a slight anxiety at the time. That is understandable, given the nature of the injury and the tedium of rehabilitation that puts bowlers on edge in the early stages of their return. The fear of having to do it all again creates a distinct paranoia.
"Pre-stress fracture, if I was sore like this, I'd have thought nothing of it and just cracked on. But I suppose those anxieties do come in a little bit. But as soon as I get a ball in my hand and bowl and it feels all right, you can crack on."
Those thoughts are more manageable. As much because he can now distinguish between one soreness and the other, as his more-robust mentality. "I've learned what not to put your energy into, as well - rather than constantly focusing on the negatives."
"The one positive coming out of the [Taunton game] was getting through the four days. My last spell was probably the quickest of the game, which is encouraging"
There are also some physical adjustments he has made. The first is around preparation, which he regards as more professional. Mahmood gets up half an hour earlier than he used to for training or on the morning of matches, going through extra mobility work. If there is a swimming pool handy, he'll use that to loosen the joints and limbs. While it is still early, the benefits were apparent on the final day against Somerset.
"The one positive coming out of the week was getting through the four days. My last spell was probably the quickest of the game, which is also encouraging in terms of my engine and being able to back spells up."
A second tweak has come with his action, specifically around his load-up. Having grown up with the ball by his side just before he goes into delivery, he noticed his right hand had drifted closer to his belly button. Though he does not think there is a direct correlation between that unconscious shift and his injury, there is no harm in resorting back to the old ways particularly when it comes to giving his skills the best chance.
"When I look back at my action, as soon as you're loading up in front of your body, your arms have to splay out to get behind yourself. If you try and load up here [mimics holding the ball by his right hip], you can work in straight lines. That's what I've tried to do.
"I watched the game back at Somerset - certain spells, there was a bit of reverting back. But I expect that. For the most part, it was quite good and I actually think it's improved my skills. A lot of bowling coaches tell you fast bowling is straight lines and things like that. When this is free-er, what I do with my fingers and wrists is a lot easier to control as well. From that point of view, I think it's had a good effect."
As for a route back into the national set-up, Mahmood is realistic. A chat with managing director Rob Key last month was encouraging, detailing how he should approach each red-ball game - essentially, focus on taking wickets in an attacking manner, which is pretty much what he does anyway.
In terms of further international honours this year, Mahmood is self-aware enough to know he has dropped down the pecking order. He can even look at his 22 England appearances to date and acknowledge some caveats.
Those first steps in the Test arena were symbolic of Anderson and Broad's omissions rather than reflecting his red-ball numbers, though 28 wickets at 23.89 in the 2021 summer did make an impression. Likewise, his white-ball caps have been here and there since debuting in 2019, with two runs of three ODI matches in a row due to Covid-19 restrictions, notably in 2021 when he was drafted in as part of an emergency squad to face Pakistan after the original group were ruled out following positive tests.
Nevertheless, he made that count with nine dismissals at 13.66, leaving a strong impression on Ben Stokes, who stepped in as captain. Even with Mahmood out of action, Stokes still has a high opinion of him, as do others within the England set-up. Now he has to take it further.
"I think I've got myself in positions where you feel like you should be part of the mix," he said. "But if I'm honest, at the time it did feel quite tricky, especially during and after Covid when you were balancing the squads. Sometimes it just felt like I was keeping someone else's seat warm.
"That's the tricky bit; if you look at when Eoin Morgan first came in, he really backed all of his players, and there still is that, but those guys got a run of games. I think that Pakistan series was the only games where I was playing and had a run of games and an opportunity to show everyone.
"It's not an excuse or anything, but sometimes it does get challenging. For me now, though, rather than focusing on those, I'm just trying to get back to the best of my game, and the rest will take care of itself. What I can control is what I do out there and what I do in training."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo