Released by his county and forgotten by his country, Owais Shah tells Robin Hutchison where it all went wrong
Sprawled on the couch in the living room of his North London home, Owais Shah greets questions with a shrug. “If you chase something, it never comes,” he says wistfully, yet it is not long before a burning sense of injustice emerges.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been given a fair go at playing Test cricket. You look at other players who have four or five games not playing well and people say this is their last chance and they get a score. If you get four or five games, of course you’ll get a score. But I have two bad games and bang, I’m out.
“Look at Ravi Bopara, who’s a very good friend of mine. He got three back-to-back hundreds against the West Indies, then got dropped at the end of the Ashes. But Ravi had four Tests not to do well, not two.” Strictly, Shah had the last three in against West Indies in 2008-09, averaging 22.16 in six innings.
The couch is perhaps a fitting location for someone whose career has been subject to Freudian levels of analysis. A talented, wristy batsman, he had to wait 10 years for a Test debut. But his international appearances have been spasmodic and he last played a one-day international more than a year ago. The most recent of his six Test appearances came seven months before that in March 2009 in Trinidad. The ghost of Mark Ramprakash is hard to escape. After 15 years at his boyhood county, Middlesex, he was released controversially at the end of the season and was recently signed by Essex.
Moving from one Division Two side to another is not perhaps the obvious choice for a player who wants a return to the England set-up. Shah, now 32, sounds as if he is trying to convince himself as much as anyone else that he still wants to resurrect his international career.
“I used to approach my seasons saying to myself that, if I do well, I’ll play for England and that’s not always worked,” he says. “I now like to be in the present and do well for my county. If the England thing comes along, that’s a bonus. It’s not to say I don’t want to play for my country – because I do – but to keep myself grounded I just try to focus on the day-to-day. I’m not bitter about it but I am disappointed that some people in cricket have had an easier ride than I have. But I’ve also come to accept that’s how life goes.”
So why did he not cement a place with England? “You’ll have to ask the selectors, the captains and the coaches,” Shah says. “None of them seem to want to persevere with someone like myself. I was told the reason I wasn’t picked was that I wasn’t consistent enough and my fielding’s not good enough. I didn’t think the consistency issue was correct but I’ve tried to improve my fielding this summer. I’m addressing the problem, if there is one. I can’t say I’m an absolute gun of a fielder but the odd dropped catch was always highlighted more with me than it was with others. It’s the same with the run-out issue.”
Shah joins a lengthy list of talented British Asian batsmen who have failed to nail down a place in the England side. So is there an issue? “The people who make the decisions are not looking at the stats alone and the black and whiteness of those stats. It’s not about performing well and getting a fair go. I think there are other issues and other boxes that you need to tick for them. I don’t know if British Asians are ticking those boxes.”
Despite having time to get used to feeling let down by England, it was a new experience at Middlesex last summer. Shah has given most of his career to the county, for whom he first played when he was 16. He scored more than 20,000 runs in all forms of the game in his 16 seasons at Lord’s but, with only one Championship century last summer, hitting 633 runs in 12 games at an average of 33.31, he failed to live up to his own standards. In August it was announced he would not be offered a new contract.
What might have been a difficult decision was made easy for Middlesex’s managing director of cricket, Angus Fraser, and chief executive, Vinny Codrington, by the statistics Shah says he should be judged on. If Shah felt stabbed in the back by Middlesex’s decision, the way it was handled certainly twisted the knife. Primed for a meeting to discuss his future, he claims to have known bad news was on its way. But discovering his time was up via the internet before being told in person, due to a bungled embargo on a press release, was a painful and very public wounding. Middlesex were appalled and very quick to apologise. Shah and his agent were just as quick to bemoan what they perceived as a lack of loyalty and professionalism.
Once the news was out he lost little time in proving his worth, hitting an unbeaten 58 to help beat Derbyshire in a CB40 game and 117 in a Championship match against Worcestershire. After the latter he pointedly declined to acknowledge the applause from the Lord’s pavilion, choosing to reserve his celebration for Middlesex supporters either side.
He said: “It was a conscious decision but it was nothing to do with my team-mates. It was towards Middlesex CCC to remind them that I’m good enough to play at this standard and to tell them they’d disappointed me.”
A few months down the track, and with a new Essex contract successfully negotiated, he is more stoical. He even admits that he himself approached his new county as far back as May last year to sound out a possible move. But he still paints an unflattering picture of the state of Middlesex cricket.
“They’ve signed an overseas batsman [Chris Rogers] who’s 33, so where’s the logic in that? I had a horrible season but I still had a lot to offer. It’s the first dip I had in 10 years and I’m told that’s it. If you look at the Middlesex team that won the Twenty20 [in 2008], their first trophy in 20 years, not many players are still there. It’s not a coincidence that people are leaving. If you keep changing your team every 18 months, you’re not going to have any team spirit. You aren’t going to win anything with kids.”
Kids, though, are what Essex have at the moment. Four of their top six in the final Championship game of last season were 25 or under, and three of them had yet to reach their 22nd birthday. Essex clearly disagree with Middlesex’s statement that Shah’s performances were not justifying his high salary. Shah’s riposte to that is simple and might possibly earn him an unwanted nickname: “The reason I’m expensive is because I’m worth it.” Essex are about to find out.
Why we released him
By Vinny Codrington,
Middlesex chief executive
“Cricket can be a cruel world now and players just have to deliver. Players like Owais, who are highly paid, have to perform because counties can’t afford to retain them if they don’t live up to their salaries. If he’d averaged 50 throughout the Championship season, we would have retained him. Instead he averaged less than 35 and we didn’t score 400 or more runs in the first innings enough, so we had to shake it up.
By his own admission Owais came back from England this spring and his head was all over the place. He recognised for the first time that he wasn’t going to be an England player and his international career was all but over. That then meant that his performances for us were not what we wanted them to be for a very highly rewarded cricketer.
It is interesting that he says all is not right at Middlesex. If he felt it that way, why didn’t he say anything? He had plenty of opportunities to do so because we were talking to him about any number of issues over the last few years. He didn’t indicate at any point that he was unhappy.”
Why we signed him
By Paul Grayson,
“Owais is not an old man by any stretch of the imagination and along with Mark Ramprakash and Marcus Trescothick, I think Owais is one of the three best players in the country not currently playing for England.
My coaching philosophy at Essex is that we want to produce England players. If we help Owais get back his international place, then we’ll be doing something right. It will be good for him working with Graham Gooch at Chelmsford, which might give him an incentive to get back playing with England. Graham might have one or two influences with the England coaching staff and I’m sure he’ll want to impress.
I’ve had some good conversations with Owais and he’s very excited about joining us, and in particular teaming up with Ravi Bopara. He had other opportunities at counties in the north and the Midlands but he wanted to stay in this area so we held the aces when it came to a deal. Owais wants to play Division One cricket and our ultimate goal next season is to get back into that competition.”
The Shah File
Born October 22, 1978, Karachi, Pakistan
England Under-19 captain 1997-98
Led England to U19 World Cup win in 1998
Cricket Writers’ Club Young Player of the Year 2001
County debut August 1995 Middlesex v Notts, Lord’s
ODI debut June 2001 v Australia, Bristol
Test debut March 2006 v India, Mumbai