With an action as beautiful to watch as Saqib Mahmood
's, it is a slight disservice to think who it reminds you of. Every action is very much its own living, breathing vehicle, built initially through an internal process of trial and error while growing up and inhaling every bit of cricket watched; and then, once in a system, a touch-up here, a tweak there by a battery of coaches and we're there: an action, built to repeat but, because every single human body is different, unable to be replicated in detail, and unlike anyone else that has come before.
But still there are those influences. Because they've been inhaled and then exhaled through countless kid's games, it's impossible they don't leave tiny imprints behind. With Mahmood, those imprints are unmistakable. When Mahmood was growing up, the two fast bowlers he always watched were Brett Lee
and Shoaib Akhtar,
a pair who, at the time, were duelling it out in cricket's last great pace race.
Now it starts to make sense, see? The sense that he's taken the best of both of those and turned it into something entirely his own which, if all things go right, you can see young kids wanting to inhale one day, just as he once did.
Mahmood's run-up is better behaved than Shoaib's - that was both a result of his body's limitations and also a mood. Some days it did whatever it wanted and some days it did what he had practised it to do. But it is more Lee in its orderliness and polish, though not quite as much of the panther's grace that Lee had.
The action itself has a business load-up of the right wrist, not unlike Lee's, before bringing the wild party of the round-arm release - but a fairly upright round-arm if that makes sense. That round-arm is Shoaib-ish though, in actual fact, is probably even more Waqar Younis
. Shoaib's hyper-extension, after all, made him look raggedy but also, in a literal sense, inimitable. Maybe Kabir Ali
? IYKYK, as they say.
This picture of him below from the 2020 season is another feeling altogether. Sideways on, he's not wound up for nearly as catapulting a release as Thommo - the right arm would be loading up behind the right hip there - but it's slingy still.
All put together, that round arm, the sling, the pace, and it's easy to imagine those early scouts and coaches watching on and ticking off a couple of magic boxes: pace yes, reverse definitely. We have a prospect. And this is what the earliest dispatches seemed to say.
Which is why this series, at Cardiff and Lord's today, has been - if not an eye-opener as such (he has new-ball success in List A and county cricket) but an affirmation that Mahmood is ticking more boxes. Quite a few more.
For instance, with the pace, there has been a meanness in Mahmood's control and the significant movement that he has extracted in those first new-ball overs - effectively winning England a series that, a day before it began, looked a daunting prospect but ended up being dispatched with ease. That is how singularly incisive Mahmood's new-ball spells have been - no greater illustration than in the two dismissals of Babar Azam
, on the outside and inside of his bat.
On a number of occasions when Mahmood has followed through after beating a batter, he's thrown his arms up and cupped his mouth in disbelief, as if the laws of physics are his oppressors. The action may come from elsewhere, but there's some serious Stuart Broad
energy there. See also: the celebrappeal for the Babar leg-before.
All of it is a mix that, rightly, should have many people very excited. Shoaib was excited enough to ring Mahmood during the first leg of the PSL this year where he was the leading wicket-taker and told him there was a lot more to come, and that he'd be happy to pass on pointers if their paths crossed. (In Shoaib's recent retelling of that, of course, Mahmood sought him out, but all that's beside the point.)
The PSL was a key moment because Peshawar Zalmi gave Mahmood a freewheeling, more expansive brief, beyond bowling the grunt overs in the middle of a white-ball innings. It became, he told ESPNcricinfo
, an opportunity to really learn.
The England management will be right at the front of the queue of those getting excited about what they've seen. It's not, as Mahmood has noted, an easy time to be battling for places in their white-ball sides. Mark Wood has more pace. Chris Woakes is England's leading wicket-taker since the 2015 World Cup
. There's the generational genius of Jofra Archer. But Mahmood's work across these two games will now be impossible to ignore.
Last, and very much not least, is the fact that he is a British Asian player, which, at this pointedly divisive moment in our lives, is significant. He's frequently been asked about his development and understandably, as an individual who has made it through an unsympathetic system, identifying the structural clogs that prevents a collective from emulating his progress is not easy.
He did, however, highlight the lack of Asian role models in the English game, a hole that Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid are now filling. But you know who else can fill that hole? Fast bowlers whose every mannerism and action you want to inhale. Here's to the beginnings of a journey.