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Saqib Mahmood seizes 'fearless' team mindset to make his mark for England

Fast bowler credits PSL experience as he takes on leadership role in 3-0 series win

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Saqib Mahmood has credited England's management for enabling the team's new faces to play the same "fearless" brand of cricket that won the World Cup two years ago today, after earning a recall to the T20I set-up off the back of his 50-over performances.
Saqib was named Player of the Series for his haul of nine wickets at 13.66 during England's remarkable 3-0 series win - a result achieved with a reserve squad following a Covid outbreak that led to the self-isolation of the original 16-man party.
And of Mahmood's wickets, six came in the Powerplay overs as Pakistan struggled to muster a response to his skill and aggression with the new ball.
His dominance of Babar Azam in the first two games was a particularly significant factor in England's success, as Pakistan were limited to totals of 141 and 195 before Pakistan's captain bounced back with a career-best 158 to post an imposing 331 for 9 in the third match at Edgbaston.
By then, however, England's confidence was coursing through the team, and with James Vince's maiden international hundred underpinning the run-chase, they sealed a clean sweep with two overs to spare in a three-wicket win.
"It's been a special week," Mahmood said. "Spoons [Chris Silverwood] pulled me to the side yesterday and said 'you've been bowling really well and this call-up is justification for how well you've been doing'. It was nice to hear that."
Silverwood had been due to be on holiday until he got the call to rejoin the squad, while Ben Stokes had been expecting to continue his return to fitness with Durham after breaking a finger at the IPL, until he was asked to step in as captain. But between them, Mahmood said, they managed to instil in their rookie team the levels of belief that have characterised England's white-ball success in recent seasons.
"The message we got from Spoons, and from Stokesy this last week, is we are looking to play smart and aggressive cricket, and the personnel they bring in fulfils that role," Mahmood said. "You get that backing to play fearless cricket and I feel like the boys showed that this week."
"I guess the fearless side is always taking the positive option, with ball or bat," he added. "If you feel like you can take someone down, you go for it.
"The way the batters are playing now in county cricket, they're going all out, as you see Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow doing at the top of the order here," he added. "So I think those guys have been role models for these younger players, and that's the nature in which they're playing. Look at Phil Salt yesterday, taking 16 off the first over after they got off to a very slow start. That's the way he plays, and he got us off to a great start.
"And for the bowlers, having been involved in the environment for the last two years, you're always taking the positive option. At times in this series we had three, four slips consistently and that comes from not worrying about runs and always trying to take wickets.
"You've got to have the thought in the back of your mind - how am I going to get this guy out, rather than trying to dry up the runs here. So always having that attacking option, whichever way you do it, is key."
Mahmood's performances, however, showcased more than just a positive mindset. His experience at this year's PSL - where he claimed 12 wickets in five games prior to the tournament's suspension in March - offered not only a step-up in responsibility as an overseas bowler, but also an insight in the methods of his Pakistan opponents that, he said, enabled him to feel more in command of his game than had been the case during his last series against them, the T20I series at Old Trafford last summer.
"The PSL helped in terms of playing against these guys," Mahmood said. "You can show them a bit of respect when you don't know what you're up against. When I was in the T20 squad, I was the only one short of experience, everyone else had over 100 T20 caps. But this time I knew their games, having played against them, so it meant for me more of a leadership role, telling other bowlers how these guys play and what good plans are."
Mahmood certainly could not have hoped for a better start to his series. In the first ODI at Cardiff, he removed Imam-ul-Haq to a first-ball lbw, then had Azam caught at slip two balls later, also for 0, at which point his figures for the series read: "W0W".
"The new-ball wickets were crucial, especially in the first two games," he said. "It really set the game up. We saw how well Babar Azam played yesterday and the class he has, so to get him out early in the first two games was crucial. That would probably be the highlight.
"At the time, you don't really think about the quality of player you've got out - obviously you're happy to take two wickets in the first three balls and get everyone off to a good start, but if a batter's got the better of you, sometimes in the back of your mind you can go slightly defensive.
"I feel like throughout the whole series, even in the last game yesterday, I was trying to attack him early doors and I think he was slightly wary and didn't really try and play any shots up front, and kicked on after I got taken off."
Mahmood's command of length and seam movement in this series, as well as for Lancashire in the County Championship, has encouraged the belief that he can go on to become a multi-format bowler for England, and potentially even a rival for Stuart Broad as a new-ball option against India and in the Ashes. But for the time being, he is staying grounded about his progress.
"I have read that but you try to put it to the back of your mind a little bit," he said. "A week ago, no-one was talking about me, I wasn't part of the squad. Obviously, everything has happened very quickly and I'm trying to take it in my stride, not focus too much on what people are saying and concentrate on what I'm doing.
"But Test cricket has always been right at the top of what I've wanted to do," he added. "I've managed to play a lot of first-class cricket this season for Lancashire on some pretty good Old Trafford wickets, which has helped my game massively. And it showed when bowling with the new white ball as well - pushing that length, having that consistency and moving the ball as well. So Test cricket is right up there. Whenever that chance comes - I don't know - I'll look to keep improving."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket