Cricket interview

Owais Shah, former Middlesex and England Batsman

With the Test series against India fast approaching and questions still being asked about the make-up of our batting line-up and in particular who will bat at number 3, this month we speak to arguably one of the most stylish top order batsmen to have played the game in the early 2000s, a player who can most definitely count himself unlucky not to have played many more times for England, particularly in that problem number 3 position. And that player is former Middlesex star Owais Shah.

“I was fortunate to have played with some fantastic players throughout my career. Ricky Ponting, Jacque Kallis, Mark Ramprakash, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen to name a few. Of course, I wish I could have played more for England but it is what it is,” said a philosophical Owais. We’ll talk more about Owais’ international career later. But where did it all start for this batsman, who during his teenage years carried many great hopes on his shoulders?

Owais was born in Pakistan and enjoyed nothing more than playing games of cricket out on the streets of Karachi. “I grew up in Pakistan and Pakistan was very similar to India and other sub-continental countries where cricket was hugely popular. We used to live in a flat and I loved going outside and playing games of cricket with the other kids on the streets. We all wanted to be the next Javed Miandad. When I was 8 we moved to England.”

Upon arrival in England, Owais joined his local club side Wycombe House Cricket Club, a club where through the years, he has broken a number of club records and it wasn’t long before this talented youngster was attracting the attention of the first class counties. “I joined Middlesex at under 11s and went on to play under 12s and under 14s – I missed the under 13s as I was pushed straight through to the 14s and then I started playing second eleven cricket when I was 15. Cricket had certainly taken over my life!”

Such was Owais’s rapid rise that he made his first-class debut against Nottinghamshire at the age of just 17. I asked Owais how daunting was it to be walking into a dressing room with some very established players in it at such a young age? “To be honest, it was a lot of fun. Mike Gatting was in the team, so was Mark Ramprakash, Angus Fraser and Phil Tufnell. I was probably a bit too young to be intimidated. If it was a few years later and I was 20 or 21, I might well have been, but at 17 I just felt I was turning up to play another game of cricket. I obviously knew these guys had achieved a huge amount in their careers, but I was just relishing the opportunity and enjoying being in their company.”

Did going into the side at such a young age accelerate his development?

“Yes and no, if I’m honest. I was pushed in at such a young age that I was having to learn first class cricket as I went along. A tiny bit of me, when I look back, thinks I wish I could have played a bit more 2nd XI cricket to learn my game more and then maybe move up into the 1st XI when I was 20 or 21. I could then have gone into first class cricket with a better understanding of my own game.”

Owais’s career at Middlesex spanned 16 years – a period where he scored 13,377 first class runs for the county. However, despite being one of the most consistent batsmen on the circuit he and his team mates only had the one trophy to show for their efforts: the 2008 T20 title – the final of which saw Owais score a match-winning 75 off of just 35 balls.

“At that time, I was playing for England, so I remember I only played in the quarter-finals in the lead up to finals day. Ed Joyce was our captain who led the side really well. We had a very good side. Tyrone Henderson had a really good semi-final where he smacked Durham around the park. We then batted first in the final against Kent and put a big score on the board. We defended the total and lifted the trophy, it was a wonderful evening.”

I asked Owais if it was frustrating that despite all of his personal achievements with the bat, that, that trophy was the only major honour he was able to win during his 16 years at the county. “We were in a rebuilding phase and we accepted that; the club had, had a lot of success but that group then moved on and us young guys had to come through and rebuild Middlesex. It was of course frustrating on occasions. At times we didn’t perhaps sign the right players, which disappointed the playing group. For example, we’d sign a fast bowler, when we really needed to sign a spinner, or we’d sign a spinner when we really needed a batsman. It was bizarre at times. But that was life and all you could do as a player was to get on with it, try your best, score runs and hope success would follow. Thankfully it finally did with that win in 2008.”

One of the big benefits of playing for Middlesex was that his home ground was also the home of cricket. “Everyone who played for Middlesex was fortunate that your home is the home of cricket. For me Lords is the best ground in the world, and I just felt like part of the furniture there. I was very fortunate.”

Owais’s success at Middlesex brought inevitable international recognition. Firstly, in 1998, where impressive performances in his first couple of years of first class cricket, saw him named as captain for England’s under 19 World Cup campaign in South Africa – a campaign they went on to win.

“That was a great experience. We had the likes of Rob Key and Paul Franks in the team. It was a really good time in my life, when cricket was just fun, there were no pressures. Yes, we wanted to win the World Cup, but we were a bunch of lads that just wanted to play cricket.”

Owais’s success in that under 19 World Cup campaign soon saw him elevated to full England honours, when he was selected to make his debut against Australia in a one-day international in 2001. Many hoped it would be the start of a long and successful international career, but for many reasons, a number of which seemed to be out of his control, he just wasn’t able to nail down a consistent run of games in the side.

“I’d been scoring a lot of runs for Middlesex and I had been asked to come and join the one-day squad. On the morning of the game Michael Vaughan got injured and I was suddenly told “Owais you’re in!”. We batted first, lost a few wickets and then me and Ben Hollioake put on a decent partnership to get us up to a respectable total but Australia were far too good. Ricky Ponting scored a very good hundred and that was that.”

Owais went on to play 71 times in one-day international cricket but for whatever reason the selectors didn’t give him the backing that players of today most definitely appear to get. “The year before I got dropped for the final time, I was the highest run-scorer for England in white ball cricket and playing some of the best cricket of my career. We’d been to India where I scored runs, I then had a very good series against New Zealand; it was just bizarre. I think it does help now when you have a dedicated one-day captain, whereas when I played, we had many different captains and coaches, and they were always captains and coaches for both the Test and ODI sides and at times I think it’s fair to say their heads and thinking was perhaps more towards the Test side. You just had to hope you fitted in people’s plans which I obviously didn’t.”

Owais finished his one-day international career with a batting average of 30.56. You feel it could have been much more if he wasn’t under the constant pressure of having to prove himself. But what were some of his big highlights?

“I scored 98 against South Africa in the Champions Trophy, against the likes of Dale Steyn – that was probably my best innings for England. Then there was my hundred against India at the Oval, where I scored 107 not out off of 95 balls. Those two knocks were my favourites, for sure.”

It was a familiar story in Test cricket, where despite a debut knock of 88 in Mumbai, Owais only went on to play 5 further Test matches for his country.

“It was an amazing feeling to be picked for your Test debut. Similar to my ODI debut, I wasn’t meant to be playing but Alistair Cook was feeling ill, so I was given the opportunity to bat at number 3 as they pushed Ian Bell up to open. I scored 88 in the first innings and 30 odd in the second, so over 100 runs in total on my debut, which I thought was a good return. For me, I’d had a wonderful Test match. Then at the start of the summer I was told I wasn’t in the team. I didn’t get another opportunity for 2 years. It just didn’t really add up. But what could I do? All I could do was go back and continue scoring runs for Middlesex which is what I did. But a Test recall didn’t come for another two years.”

The call eventually came in a Test series against the West Indies, but after scores of 6 and 4 in the match, he was immediately dropped again. Owais was given another chance in the 2009 series away in the West Indies, when he was brought in to replace an out of form Ian Bell and despite an excellent half century Owais never played Test cricket again.

For someone of Owais’ undoubted talent, 6 Test matches seems an unfair return when you think back to many players who were given perhaps many more opportunities.

12 months after his last Test match for England, Owais parted company with Middlesex, in what was a bittersweet moment for the Middlesex stalwart.

“It wasn’t my decision to leave Middlesex. Angus Fraser decided to release me. I wanted to stay but at the same time I was a little frustrated with the way things were being run at the club. I was a little bit surprised they didn’t offer me a new contract as I felt I had performed very well over many seasons. I admit I had a poor 4-day season in my last year, but I was the leading run scorer in one-day and T20 cricket. I hold my hands up about my red ball form in that final season, but one bad season in all those seasons batting well at number 3, I thought they might cut me some slack. I moved to Essex and looking back I think it was the best thing that happened to me.”

With T20 cricket growing exponentially, Owais concentrated his efforts on the shortest form of the game. And it was a start of a wonderful journey that saw him play in all of the big T20 competitions around the world. “I took the opportunity to really look at my T20 game and I decided I was just going to focus all my efforts on T20 cricket. It was obvious I was never going to get picked for Test cricket again. I played four-day cricket, as any player does because they dream of playing Test match cricket so with that dream gone it made sense to concentrate on T20 cricket. I ended up playing in the IPL, the Big Bash and all of the major leagues. So, that decision by Middlesex was a blessing in disguise really.”

I had many questions for Owais on T20 cricket, but I did have to begin by asking him that when T20 cricket was born in England back in 2002, did he ever believe the format would grow to the levels it is today?

“No one did! I think we all felt, what is this competition that’s getting in the way of the County Championship and one-day cricket. That was the attitude of everyone. It was just a bit of crash, bang, wallop. But as time went on the popularity grew and now everyone is desperate to play in the IPL and T20 is very much here to stay.”

Owais was one of the first English players to play in the IPL and having represented a number of the big franchises I was keen to hear what was it like playing in what is the biggest tournament in world cricket?

“The atmosphere at the games is just amazing. If you could perform in front of those big crowds, you got such a buzz. There’d be 60 or 70,000 people chanting your name. You were a hero of the night. And it was just a great opportunity for me to play alongside the likes of Sehwag, Dilshan and Gilchrist. You’d talk to each other about the game, you’d watch how those players prepared for games, see how players batted differently, or bowled differently. It just gave you a broader sense of the game.”

Having played in all of the major leagues around the world I asked Owais how our domestic tournament ranked?

“The IPL is a tough tournament and the most financially rewarding. It’s tough because you play a lot of cricket. While in the Big Bash, which is a very good competition, you typically play less games and those games tended to be more at the weekends. The quality of both were amazing, which is what you want as a cricketer. They are by far the best two tournaments. With the Blast we don’t have the noise in the grounds, or the build up around the competition. At times that can make our competition I guess a little boring or just another game of T20 cricket. But there is no reason why we cannot have a wonderful competition in England, because our competition definitely has the talent.”

Could the proposed 100 ball competition make the difference? “It’s a tough one to say as no one has actually played this kind of game before. People are rubbishing it, but it could be a genius of an idea. Until a game is played none of really know and remember back in 2002 people thought this T20 idea was daft!”

It’s a good call. T20 brought a great climax to Owais’ career and he is pleased that players in England today are now encouraged to play in various leagues around the world. “You’ll get left behind if you don’t. These competitions grow you as a person or cricketer. People of course have different motives, some are career some are monetary, but playing in these leagues were a wonderful experience for me and I’m very grateful that T20 cricket gave me the opportunity to tour the world, play cricket and meet different people.”

Owais still hasn’t officially retired from cricket and if the right white ball opportunity arose, he’d be keen to take it, but he is accepting that his playing career is reaching its end so much so he has already starting to make strides into coaching. In 2016 he coached the UAE in an interim capacity and is keen to do more. “I was head coach of the UAE for a small stint, which was a good experience. I’ve done other bits and bobs since and I’m enjoying it. I’d definitely like to do more. Cricket is who I am.”

Reflecting on his long career, I asked Owais to name some of the best players he’d played against together with the hardest bowler he faced? “Tendulkar, Ponting and Lara for sure. It wasn’t great being on the receiving ends of some of their hundreds, they were three greats of the game. In terms of the bowler it has to be Glenn McGrath. He was just so accurate and didn’t give you anything. He was so tough to get away.”

And the best captain? “I played a series under Adam Hollioake. He was great to play under and has very good man management skills. As did Andrew Flintoff, the results didn’t necessarily do his captaincy stint justice, but he was a good captain and very good man manager.”

Owais finished his career with over 16,300 first class runs, at an average just shy of 42, and with a further 10,500 List A runs and 5,500 T20 runs its fair to say despite some poor decisions by various England selectors it was a career fulfilled. And as a Middlesex fan writing this I can definitely attest to many happy memories watching this lad in the middle! Owais – thank you!

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