Ajmal Shahzad: British-Asian poster boy to county reject and now coaching Arjun Tendulkar as MCC Head Coach
Retired in 2017, Ajmal Shahzad now hopes to impact a the next generation of English cricketers. (Image: Twitter/@LordsTaverners)

LONDON: “Ajy, how’s it going?” calls out England skipper Eoin Morgan as he runs off the field at the MCC Cricket Academy at Lord’s, heading indoors for a quick break.

The man he’s addressing, wearing a dark blue MCC kit, turns his head slightly to acknowledge Morgan, nods his head, says he’s doing fine and keeps walking. He doesn’t break stride. He’s on the clock, with a job to do. A job he’s “very, very blessed” to secured it when his cricket career came to a standstill in 2017.

That man is Ajmal Shahzad, the former England fast bowler who played 11 ODIs, three T20Is and one Test match between 2010 and 2011.

He and Morgan once played together for England, in 14 matches. They made their Test debuts days apart from each other, in a two-match series against Bangladesh. They went to India as part of England’s World Cup squad in 2011. The tournament where Shahzad hit a last-over six off Munaf Patel in a famous tie with eventual winners India.

Today Morgan is captain of the top-ranked ODI team, and potential World Cup winners. He’s England’s all-time run-scorer in ODIs. Shahzad last played a competitive cricket match in August 2017, for Leicestershire’s 2nd XI versus Northamptonshire 2nd XI at a place called Desborough.

Ajmal Shahzad Test debut
Ajmal Shahzad bowled Mahmudullah on Test debut at Old Trafford in 2010. © AFP

Less than two months later, Shahzad, who 15 years ago became the first British-born Asian to play for Yorkshire, was forced to call time on his cricket career. After playing for five different first-class counties: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Sussex and Leicestershire, and with 417 wickets to his credit across first-class, List A and T20s, he was out of a contract.

He was 31 years old.

“Let’s go back five years. I would have hoped to still be playing at 33,” Shahzad tells CricketCountry at Lord’s. “I keep myself fit and strong. I grew up in an era where the Ryan Sidebottoms, the Glenn Chapples, the Matthew Hoggards all played until they were at least 36 or 37, but it just wasn’t to be.

“I wouldn’t have thought I’d be finished playing cricket at 33, but that’s the way it is. On the positive, I’ve started a new career sooner rather than later and I’m hoping that two or three years later I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt, which will set me up going forward.”

In early 2018, Shahzad got a call from Steve Kirby, the former Yorkshire bowler then working as MCC head coach. Kirby asked him to come and work, for no pay and on a part-time basis, to work with the MCC’s Young Cricketers programme, established in 1972 to nurture young cricket talent in England.

Ajmal Shahzad played 97 first-class matches from 2006 to 2017. © Getty Images

Shahzad, with an infant son and wife to support, jumped at the opportunity despite the risks attached. The MCC Cricket Academy is at Lord’s, in London. Shahzad was at the time coaching at Ampleforth College in York. He took the plunge, and it paid off.

Shahzad impress those who matter at the MCC, working with Kirby as one-day specialist bowling coach. He was promoted to Assistant Coach and in October 2018, when Kirby left to coach Derbyshire, Shahzad took up the role of Head Coach of the MCC. That opportunity came to Shehzad at the right time.

“I guess when I came out of my Sussex contract, at the age of 31, I was looking for opportunities elsewhere on the county circuit but they just didn’t come. At that point, having a new-born in the household, I needed to take the responsibility of doing something to make ends meet. Coaching was one of those options,” he says.

“Fast-forward 18 months, here I am. I still bowl, I still bat, I still practice. I try to keep myself in good nick. Not so much for the opportunity that’s there, but so that I’m in tune with the modern-day game. I’m a big believer in that if you ask something of your players, I should be able to do it myself, at 33, especially when the students want someone to show them how its done. It’s fine watching YouTube, but seeing it in real life is a different thing.

“I’ve had a lot of trials and tribulations along the way, but I’m very fortunate to have played for my country and now blessed to be the head coach of the MCC,” he says. “It’s a very prestigious job. It’s also a challenging job, but I’m around very good people and a good set of lads who I think could potentially make it all the way.”

Shehzad has entered the current MCC setup having inherited the players that his predecessor Kirby had given contracts to last year. He plans to restructure the program in 2020, hoping to get some “fresher faces” into the academy with the goal of recognising talent and harnessing it to ensure that at least play county cricket.

While members of England’s World Cup squad train at the outdoor Lord’s nets, Shehzad stands in watch as his MCC wards roll their arms over in the adjacent nets. He is communicative, hands moving in that very Asian way. He has a long discussion with two sturdy teenagers, one of whom seems to have issues with his footmarks. Shehzad speaks to the boy, and then nods his head when his pupil gets it right.

Ajmal Shahzad Arjun Tendulkar
Ajmal Shahzad on Arjun Tendulkar: “He’s a very good left-arm quick.” © Getty

One of the teenagers bowling at the MCC nets is Arjun Tendulkar, who has been part of the setup for several years.

“First of all, he’s a very good left-arm seamer,” says Shehzad. “He swings it back, gets good pace, he’s strong. He had Joe Root in all sorts of trouble when he bowled to him today, and last year he sent Jonny Bairstow off with a wobble. He gets very good shape, and he’s got decent height. I think about where he is now, and his ability to also hit a clean ball, and it’s very exciting to wonder where Arjun might end up.

“He’s a very, very good kid. He wants to learn, he wants to work hard. I know he’s played for Mumbai’s age-groups and for the India Under-19s, apart from a T20 league in Mumbai. I think the fact that he’s a bowler, and his dad didn’t bowl, is a benefit to him.”

Having worked with Arjun, Shehzad sees two areas where the youngster needs to improve.

“He should develop his fielding, and I genuinely believe that there should be nothing holding him back from doing that because he’s a fit lad,” he says. “And his batting. He hits the ball well, and being the son of one of the greatest batsmen of all time will help him.”

From being a torch-bearer for the British-Asian community, to being touted as the next English fast bowling sensation, to going to a World Cup, to struggling with injuries and then finding himself without a county deal, Shahzad has come a long way. He’s far from done with cricket, and wants to give back to the game that shaped him. The young students at the MCC Cricket Academy have a very good teacher, one who can teach them the difference between good and bad.