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 a thought-provoking piece and The Old Batsman, who managed to pick up on it before I did, 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.
Different Shades of Green, 29th April 2011