Shan Masood returns to familiar surroundings

Few of the players involved in the opening Test will know the surroundings of St John's Wood quite as well as him

Melinda Farrell
Shan Masood tuned up with a fifty against Somerset, Somerset v Pakistanis, Taunton, 1st day, July 3, 2016

For Shan Masood, the Lord's Test will be special for many reasons  •  Getty Images

At the age of 19, Shan Masood took his fitness seriously.
Nearly every day he threw on his gym clothes, left his parents' flat on Hall Road, St John's Wood - they lived near Lord's from 2008 to 2013 - and ran to a gym in Baker Street to train. But while the outbound journey was focused on physical fitness, the return route provided his real motivation.
"I'd run to the gym through Lisson Grove but on my way back I'd make sure I'd come through Park Road and then St John's Wood Road to just see Lord's every day. I'd look into the sky and hope that maybe one day I'd be playing here rather than just making this walk past every day."
The daydream has morphed into reality and Masood admits the transition from strolling the streets as a St Johns Wood local to walking out of the pavilion to open the batting for Pakistan is "weird".
While many players in the England and Pakistan teams may be more familiar with the Lord's dressing rooms, the Long Room and the pitch, the names of the surrounding streets, lanes and parks roll effortlessly off Masood's eloquent tongue.
"I'd just roam around this area like any normal person would do," Masood told ESPNcricinfo. "Now I'm here with the Pakistan cricket team, I'm roaming around the same neighbourhood but it just feels different. There's a lot of excitement."
"The gates I used to pass by are the ones that have actually opened for me now, and I'm really looking forward to making my mark come Thursday."
Masood was born in Kuwait on the 14th of October, 1989, his mother going into labour as Pakistan took on West Indies in an ODI in Sharjah. His father missed the birth, too busy watching Wasim Akram take a hat-trick that would help Pakistan to an 11-run victory.
It is hardly surprising then that Masood caught the bug at an early age. His first memory of cricket is strong amid those of the early tumultuous years of fleeing Kuwait during the Gulf War and then moving to his native Pakistan after two years in the US.
"We're at our place in Karachi," he recalled. "I'm about four years old. My brother's in a corner. He's moody and miserable but I'm in my full whites, I have a bat in my hand and my oversized kit all over me."
If his brother, Ali, was sometimes unhappy, it may have been because Shan received more encouragement and support to play the game from an early age. Ali was more naturally gifted but Shan was determined, always greedy to bat, and clearly passionate about playing.
He joined a cricket academy at the age of five and represented Pakistan Under-15s when he was 12. But after a disappointing performance in the 2008 U-19 World Cup - "I was awful," said Masood - he lost confidence and drifted away, instead deciding to concentrate on his education.
But the pursuit of academic excellence in England merely led Masood back to cricket's door. At Stamford School in Lincolnshire, where he crammed his A levels into one year rather than the usual two, he was persuaded to play and benefited from the coaching of Elliott Wilson.
"We had the indoor academy, so he could work with me all year round," said Masood.
"When the cricket season came the second time around I managed to have a really good school season and it really invigorated my love for the game."
That 2009 season he describes as "really good" was actually a remarkable achievement. Masood scored 1237 runs for Stamford that year, falling just 50 runs short of the schoolboy record set by another left-handed opener, Alastair Cook.
"Scoring ten thousand runs, being the youngest player ever to score ten thousand runs, speaks volumes for the sort of player he is," said Masood. "I've always admired him. I like watching him play. There are few cricketers that I personally watch on TV and he's probably one of them."
At Durham University, Masood studied economics but his cricket education continued at the MCCU under the tutelage of Graeme Fowler. Masood played three first-class matches and came up against sides boasting future England players such as Ben Stokes, Mark Wood, Liam Plunkett and Gary Ballance.
"I have to give Foxy a lot of credit in terms of the development I've had as a cricketer," he said. "He saw things in me that I didn't see myself at that particular time and they still stick with me. I still remember the things that he asked me to do, he wanted me to do, in terms of being an international cricketer for Pakistan."
But the difficulty of juggling study, cricket and his family life in Pakistan was taking its toll and Masood entered a distance learning programme through Loughborough University, where his final year - now majoring in Management and Sports Sciences - is on hold, while he tries to cement a place in the Pakistan side.
Masood got his chance when Mohammed Hafeez was dropped after the 2013 Zimbabwe series. He made 75 on debut against South Africa but has played just six Tests since, the highlight being a fourth-innings century against Sri Lanka in Pallekele, when he formed a 242-run partnership with Younis Khan that led to Pakistan's win in the third Test and a series victory.
Masood's seven Tests have been split over three spells in the side, each break lasting several months, partly because of the relative scarcity of Test fixtures for Pakistan and partly because of the three-way battle for the opening positions with Hafeez and Ahmed Shehzad. Masood admits coming in and out of the side makes finding his feet at the top level difficult, but doesn't want to use it as an excuse.
"It's a challenge I have to accept and I have to step up. I want to be consistent and I want to be scoring heaps of runs for my country."
He must also contend with rumblings surrounding his selection - Masood's family is considered privileged, his uncle has a prominent position in the Pakistan government, and his father is a representative on the PCB board.
"My father's never really been part of the system over there. It just happened to be that he was a representative of his bank to the board of governors, and that only started a year or so ago. He's never been an actual part of the board or made decisions that involve cricket.
"At the end of the day I've been playing cricket a long time. I've been playing with my own merit, with my own potential, and if there were strings being pulled then I reckon I wouldn't have such a stop-start career so far. I would have been part of the set-up a long time ago and I would have been playing more games for Pakistan. I get my reward when I perform well and I get punished when I don't perform well."
So far on this tour - for which he was preferred to Shehzad - his returns have been solid rather than dominant; scoring 62 and 29 against Somerset, followed by innings of 4 and 38 not out against Sussex. But he points to the fact that he has fulfilled his major role in negating the new ball on three occasions and is confident in facing England's attack in English conditions, perhaps because they are not foreign to him.
Giving extra motivation to Masood is the presence of his parents, who arrived in London on Monday night. They will only be present for the Lord's Test as they must return home to care for Shan's sister, Meeshu, who suffers from a rare chromosome disorder that has seriously affected her development.
"I don't think there's a lot of awareness in Pakistan about children like my sister," said Masood. "She's a special child. Her physical development is completely fine. She's 30 years old, but mentally she hasn't developed one bit. She's like a newborn child. She couldn't get a dependent visa, she couldn't fly to England and live with my parents, so my parents were quite divided in that my mother had to keep going back and forth and my dad was running two houses at once, just to make sure my sister was fine. I just hope she realises what we do and that it makes her proud as well."
There's little doubt Masood's parents, back in their old neighbourhood, will be proud of their son's achievements. He is about to realise his father's dream - Mansoor Masood based his family near Lord's because of his passion for cricket - along with his own.
"My dad always wanted me to do two things," Masood said. "One was to try and get into Cambridge University. I tried twice, I got the grades, but they have an interview process, a selection process, and I wasn't good enough to get in. The other was to make a name for myself in cricket and play a Test match at Lord's."
No doubt, when Masood achieves the second wish, it will more than make up for the first.

Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo