In Confidence

In the week when Yorkshire's Barney Gibson became the youngest player ever to play first-class cricket in England, thanks to Andy Bull, who wrote this thought-provoking piece and The Old Batsman, who got here first, my thoughts turned to a player who was once a prodigy.

On county grounds in the early season - even when the weather makes it seem like high summer - people talk about players. Who's showing early season form? Who'll make the step up? What happened to...?

Walking round the boundary at Derby last weekend I heard people talking about how Nottinghamshire were doing at Headingley. Comments came and went, but my ears pricked up when someone mentioned Bilal Shafayat. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing. All that was certain was that his county career, which once seemed the epitome of promise, had come to a premature halt. Whether it was the end of everything, well, no-one knew.

Many people's only memory of Shafayat will be of him coming on to the field in the final stages of the first Ashes Test at Cardiff in 2009, but I remember him from way back, pummelling some helpless fifteen year-old bowlers in the company of Andrew Gale in 1999. Gale looked the steadier of the two, but Shafayat's talent was obvious and apparently unstoppable. He had the basics down pat and he guided and punched the ball with power and flexibility, like a young Mohammad Yousuf. As Andy Bull mentions, he was playing for Notts within two years and later excelled in an England Under-19 side which wasn't short of potential. The breakthrough never really happened, though, and perhaps, now, it never will.

Shafayat's comments to Bull betray an admirable self-awareness and honesty. The observation that cricket is 'a mental game' might appear commonplace and trite, but God it's true. Pure talent will lead you so far, but, as the variables of capricious pitches and opposition bowlers take hold, if the runs don't come, the pressure increases and the confidence goes. It takes a strong person to overcome that, especially if you've never really known what failure is. When the effortless average of seventy or eighty you had as a kid when it didn't really matter becomes a careworn twenty-seven and the game is your job, the spiral of self-doubt and failure can be hard to escape, especially if you haven't experienced true success at that level.

Confidence plays a vital role in sporting achievement. And under-performance in cricket, where the numbers, ultimately, don't lie, saps the confidence more than anything. In less precise games you can kid yourself. In cricket you can't.

Things can change. Until a couple of weeks ago Warwickshire's Varun Chopra was another under-achiever with a promising junior career behind him. Now he has two first-class double-centuries. When the failures return - as, for him, they have already - he has runs in the memory to fall back on. He knows what he is capable of.

Things will be harder for Shafayat. The security of the county contract and its embellishments have gone for now, but, as Bull says, and Shafayat's words emphasize, he has faith and optimism.

'God willing, everything will work out...I am sure there is a lot more to come.'

Let's hope so.


Two to Follow

With the county season under way - in the type of weather which probably won't be seen again for months - players are immediately stepping forward to show their hands.

It's well-known that the England selectors are partial to the odd player born outside the UK, and, while they've tended to come from South Africa rather than New Zealand in recent years, it's been obvious for a while that Ben Stokes has something, and his six cheap wickets and a brutal century for Durham at the Rose Bowl over the weekend underlined his potential. I think it's probably too early to regard him as a serious contender for the England side, but he's on the radar, and he won't be going away anytime soon.

Adil Rashid is better known. His eleven wickets for Yorkshire in their crushing away win over Worcestershire may have indicated that he's taken a few steps forward since last season - and his experiences playing for South Australia won't have done him any harm - but he'll need a lot more of the same to convince the selectors that he's worth a punt. Especially as Graeme Swann is one of the first names on the England team-sheet and they're not exactly lacking in seam-bowling strength either.

Isn't it great to have a decent English leggie to keep an eye on, though?


The Soft Warm Radiance of Money

It's been a busy, though hardly stressful, time. Shuffling paper in a cool, dark room before emerging into the glorious April sunshine during the working week. Tramping the beautiful streets of Bath in similar weather yesterday, with a rugby match mixed in.

Such pleasures have prevented me from commenting until now on the issue of the moment in cricket. Not the IPL, or even the County Championship, but the ICC's crass and morally dubious decision to remove the incentive of qualification for the 2015 World Cup from its associate members.

All decisions like this show is that, as in so many areas of life, bureaucrats, administrators and climbers of the greasy pole in the world of cricket have a consistent ability to suck the life out of anything that is working well or is being appreciated and enjoyed by millions, just because money and vested interests decree that change is necessary.

The old aphorism which states that people who wish to be elected to political office should be automatically barred from standing for election never seemed more appropriate. This decision shows that those in charge of the world game simply don't understand that unpredictability and the triumph of the underdog are what gives sport of all kinds its lasting appeal.

It might not fit with your profit forecasts but that's tough. If you don't like it, get out. When sport sacrifices romance and uncertainty and instinctive brilliance in favour of the balance sheet (and tries to fix the market in which that balance sheet exists), it ceases to have meaning. The Pakistan Three know all about that, and the ICC wasn't slow to sort them out.

Persuading people who have played the game at the highest level to follow Anil Kumble and move into the corridors of power rather than the less accountable and better paid environments of the world's commentary boxes might just help, but it will never be easy to do. Here again, money talks.

This can be fought. Sign the petition here.


Fulfilled Expectations

It's not easy to be original or profound about what happened yesterday.

I'll settle for saying that India's win was the culmination of a lot of work, by Gary Kirsten and his players, to change them from being a side that tended to crumble under duress to one that was able to withstand the crushing pressure of the expectations of a billion breathless people and ease their way to victory from a difficult position.

Central to this were the coolness, bravado and power of Dhoni - who receives his due praise at greater length elsewhere - and Gambhir, who showed again, despite his ill-judged dismissal, that he will be one of the players to carry the baton on after Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman have gone.

Another will be Virat Kohli, who's rightly winning plaudits for the modesty and timing of his words, but bats with a hard-edged fluency and style which should take him a long way.

I go back a long way with Indian cricket. To the 1979 England tour, in fact, and I remember the 1983 final well. But I haven't lived the years of expectation and frustration like many an Indian has.

This, by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, sums up what yesterday meant from a young Indian's perspective.

And it's a bloody great piece of writing.


Photo Opportunity

Indian cricket's greatest day since 1983 seems like an opportune moment to return the photograph which used to appear at the top of this page until the autumn of 2009 to its rightful place.

It was taken at the old Wankhede Stadium by my friend Mark Ray in February 2001. Ten years on Warne has gone, but Sachin, a World Cup winner's medal now safely in his possession, seems destined to go on and on.

Here's looking forward to seeing him on English soil again in a few months' time.

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