It might not be the fast-bowling merry-go-round, but it isn’t far off this close season as four former England bowlers have moved Counties in a bid to try and revive their stagnating careers. During some part of the past decade, Sajid Mahmood, Liam Plunkett, Ajmal Shahzad and Kabir Ali have all been seen as England’s next fast bowling hope – only for injuries and inconsistent form to scupper their careers at some point or another.
In this post I look back at the highs and lows of each player’s career and try to predict what we can expect of them in their new homes of 2013.
Sajid Mahmood – Lancashire to Essex
Career so far: The 31-year-old cousin of boxer Amir Khan has decided to swap recently relegated Lancashire for fellow Division Two outfit Essex in a hope to fulfil his promise that once saw him earn eight Test caps for his country in the mid 2000’s.
Originally spotted by Lancashire whilst playing in the Bolton Leagues, he was signed up to a professional contract in 2002. Such was Mahmood’s impact in his early Lancashire career that he was called up by the then England A side after just six first-class matches under his belt.
Then England coach Duncan Fletcher liked what he saw from Mahmood, with his ability to bowl at 90mph a particular interest to the England set-up and he was rewarded with an ODI debut against New Zealand in July 2004.
Mahmood was eventually called up to make his Test debut in May 2006. He took steady match figures of 5-168 as England failed to beat the visiting Sri Lankan’s at Lords.
More Tests followed against Pakistan that same summer, but it will be England’s disastrous Ashes campaign during the winter that Mahmood’s Test career will be remembered for. He was called up for the third Test in Perth with England already having suffered defeats in both Brisbane and Adelaide, for Mahmood it appeared damage limitation. England were already on a hiding to nothing and Mahmood was probably made a scapegoat in the aftermath of such an Ashes hammering.
The Sydney game marked the end of his Test career. 20 wickets at 38.10 perhaps don’t do his talent justice and many good bowlers have had worst figures after eight Tests then his.
Despite his Test career hitting a wall, he remained in the ODI plans and was part of the disappointing World Cup squad of 2007, making six appearances as England fell short at the super eights stage. He was dropped from all formats by his country after that tournament and only briefly returned to make his final (and 26th) ODI appearance – taking 1-41 against South Africa in November 2009.
His form for Lancashire since the England days has been indifferent. Between 2007 and 2010 he averaged over 30 in first-class cricket – before coming back into form to take 35 wickets at 29.85 in his side’s 2011 Championship winning effort.
Things turned sour for Mahmood and his side in 2012. In what was a disastrous season for all involved with the Lancastrians, he managed just four wickets in three Championship matches before being dropped. Unable to force his way back into the side after the arrival of Shahzad, he subsequently joined Somerset on loan for the rest of the season.
His form at Taunton was consistent with that of his previous few seasons in county cricket –as he took eight wickets at a touch over 30. He was released by Lancashire at the end of the season after ten years and 260 first-class wickets worth of service, and made no secret at his disappointment of the decision.
What 2013 holds? The now grey-haired Mahmood moves down to Chelmsford after signing a two-year deal with the Eagles in late November. He joins a young Essex attack looking for an experienced figurehead to lead the line. Talented youngsters Reece Topley (19) and Tymal Mills (20) will start the season as first choice seamers and it will up to Mahmood to challenge the likes of Maurice Chambers and David Masters for a place in the side.
It will be the first time in his career that he will play in the Second Division of the County Championship and a good start is vital for his confidence. Should he hit his straps early and take regular wickets then there is no reason he can’t be the man to spearhead Essex’s push towards their ultimate goal of promotion.
What he said: “I am delighted to be joining Essex. Playing at Lancashire was a great experience for me and I thank them for all they did for my cricket. I see this move as a new beginning and can’t wait to get started. Paul Grayson has been brilliant throughout the recruitment process and I appreciate the faith he’s shown in me.”
Liam Plunkett – Durham to Yorkshire
Career so far: It’s hard to imagine that Liam Plunkett is still just 27. His long career at Durham has already spanned ten years and with his 28th Birthday only around the corner he should still be ready to reach his peak.
Despite many successes at Durham including winning the County Championship in both 2008 and 2009, Plunkett had reached a crossroads in his career and a move to Yorkshire looks a wise career choice for a man with so much more to offer County cricket and perhaps, even still English cricket.
The Teesside-born man made his first class-debut at Chester-le-Street as an 18-year-old and from an early age it looked as if he was destine for England honours. His breakthrough season came in 2005 where he took 50 Championship wickets for the first time and it was this form that led to him earning an England call-up for the tour to Pakistan after Simon Jones pulled out through injury.
His debut on that tour was an unspectacular event as the Pakistani batsmen pilled on the runs, but he was given further chances notably coinciding with Mahmood’s debut in the 2006 home series with Sri Lanka. Unlike Mahmood, Plunkett escaped any involvement in the Ashes whitewash of that winter as he remained an unused squad player throughout the Test leg of the tour.
Impressive performances in the following tri-series, where he took 12 wickets, were enough for Plunkett to book his place in the 2007 World Cup squad although he failed to make an impression in the three matches he was involved in.
He was recalled for the 2007 home series with the West Indies as a result of the Ashes backlash – but he let himself down in two of the three matches and drifted out of the reckoning as England favoured of other bowling options.
A superb 2009 in which he claimed 49 Championship wickets as Durham recorded back-to-back Division One titles earned him a recall to the England Test side but he remained unused on the winter tour of South Africa. Ironically it was his teammate Graham Onions who kept him out of the side and Plunkett has failed to add to his nine Test caps since.
A brief return to the ODI side in early 2011 proved a false dawn and later Plunkett struggled for consistency when back at Durham taking just 11 Championship wickets at 38. If 2011 seemed a disappointment then 2012 would be looked upon as catastrophic. He started the season will poor fitness levels and out of the first XI. Things didn’t improve over the following months as the likes of Chris Rushworth and Calum Thorp kept him to just one Championship appearance. To top this off an Achilles injury finally put pay to his season in July and despite having a year left on his contract he was allowed to speak with other Counties in September.
What 2013 Holds? After weighing up his options, Plunkett decided to sign a three-year contract with Yorkshire in October, a move that sees him reunited with former Durham coach Martyn Moxon – now director of cricket with Yorkshire.
Fully recovered from the Achilles injury that blemished his final months at Durham, Plunkett recently spent a two-month stint at the Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy in Adelaide before joining the rest of the Yorkshire squad in their pre-season tour of Barbados.
Early signs are good that Plunkett has recovered well from his injury problems and Yorkshire will hope he returns to the bowler of 2005 or 2009 – where he was consistently one of the country’s best opening bowlers.
Following the release of Shahzad, Yorkshire have not only recruited Plunkett but also Northamptonshire and England Lions bowler Jack Brooks too. The duo are likely to challenge veteran Ryan Sidebottom, youngster Moin Ashraf and the wily Steve Patterson for a place in the starting XI.
All being well for Plunkett then he will open the bowling for the Vikings in all forms of the game. With time on his side he certainly has the skills and talent to return to the Plunkett of old, perhaps leaving the comfort zone he had at Durham will be the tonic for him to challenge himself and return to the international scene.
What he said: “I have been fortunate enough to represent my country as recently as last year and there is no doubt I want to pull on an England shirt again. I strongly believe I have what it takes to play at the highest level again and I feel Yorkshire is the best environment to help me achieve this.”
Ajmal Shahzad – Yorkshire to Nottinghamshire
Career so far: What a difference a couple of years make. Shahzad was breaking through into the England squad and adored by the Yorkshire faithful – fast forward a couple of seasons and he finds himself forced out of the club and moving down the M1 to join rivals Nottinghamshire.
There wasn’t always animosity towards the Huddersfield-born Shahzad. In 2004 he became the first British-born Asian to represent his County – this led the way for the likes of Adil Rashid, Azeem Rafiq and Moin Ashraf to follow suit in recent times.
Despite making his first-class debut in 2004, it took a few seasons for him to establish himself in the side and it wasn’t until 2009 that he really had a breakthrough year.
With Tim Bresnan away with the England squad, Shahzad took his run in the Yorkshire side with both hands and finished the 2009 summer with 40 wickets and 445 Championship runs.
Such form was bound to impress the England selectors and he was duly called up for England’s tour of Bangladesh in early 2010, although he didn’t play any part on that tour he made his much anticipated Test debut later that year against Bangladesh at Old Trafford, taking a decent 3-45 and 1-18 in the process.
Despite a promising debut he was dropped for the following game in favour of Steven Finn and remained on the outskirts of an England side that was stocked with fast-bowling backup. Although he toured Australia with the successful Ashes campaign of that winter, he remained a backup squad player behind the likes of Finn, Bresnan and Chris Tremlett.
His all-round skills also earned him a place in England 2011 World Cup squad, but yet again he remained on the fringes of the side and with the rapid rise of Finn he was soon out of the immediate England thinking altogether.
Upon his return to the Yorkshire side, he was hit with injuries and couldn’t quite get over the disappointment at being axed from the England setup, as a result of this his form and temperament suffered and he was blamed by some as one of the reasons his County suffered relegation.
Yorkshire then dropped a bombshell at the start of the 2012 season, announcing that Shahzad would be allowed the leave the club on loan, whilst also branding him a ‘non team player’ and someone who refused to accept team discipline.
It later emerged that his stormy relationship with Yorkshire was a prolonged one, with the club and player in disagreement over his bowling tactics and general attitude.
Unwanted by Yorkshire, he joined bitter rivals Lancashire on loan until the end of the season, but despite his 20 wickets at 35.45, Lancashire were relegated just one year after they claimed their first Championship title in 77 years.
Despite Lancashire’s relegation, he was keen to join the club on a permanent basis as it was close enough to his Bradford home, but he eventually received a better three-year contract offer from Nottinghamshire.
What 2013 holds? Despite Nottinghamshire not being his first choice of destination and despite Nottinghamshire openly confessing that they would have preferred to have signed Glamorgan’s James Harris instead, this move looks a good one for both parties.
For Shahzad he has the chance to join a successful County and also to be based at Trent Bridge, a venue which isn’t far from his Yorkshire home and more importantly is a venue which will assist his style of bowling.
Nottinghamshire have signed someone that they believe can open the bowling and bat at number eight for them whilst replacing the impact left with the departure of Darren Pattinson, who has returned to play for Victoria.
After initially putting his name down for the Pakistan Super League, the league was a non-starter and he instead headed to South Africa and Barbados to continue his pre-season and fitness work with Nottinghamshire.
Like Plunkett, Shahzad is still just 27 and has time on his side to improve on his first-class bowling average of 34.01.
If he can regain his fitness and form and build up bowling partnerships with Henry Gurney and Luke Fletcher then the future looks bright for the Outlaws.
Don’t bet against an England recall for Shahzad in the next 18 months.
What he said: “As a seam bowler there is no better ground to play at than Trent Bridge. Hopefully playing alongside so many England players and performing well for Notts will put me back in the limelight.”
Kabir Ali – Hampshire to Lancashire
Career so far: Surely it’s now or never for Ali. A career that began fourteen years ago has seen him divide his time between Worcester, Southampton and now Manchester, and then of course there was a time when he threatened to earn himself an international career.
At 32, time is just about on his side and with this move to Old Trafford he has a chance to claim back a career that injuries have so often threatened to stall.
His talent has never being in question and if it wasn’t for the multiple injuries that have blighted his cricket, then he would have no doubt have added to his solitary Test cap – gained almost ten years ago.
England first became aware of his talents back in 2002, where after eight successive Ashes defeats, he was called into the Adelaide Academy as cover for an injury affected bowling unit.
He was awarded a Test-cap a year later and despite taking 3-80 and 2-56 against South Africa on debut, injuries started to take there toll.
Despite the injuries, Ali continued to represent England in ODI cricket and earned 14 appearances between 2003 and 2006, taking 25 wickets at 34.10.
He was over looked for the 2007 World Cup despite showing good form with Worcestershire and fell away from the England radar, before injury again scuppered his participation in an England A tour of India in 2008.
After ten years of service to Worcestershire, Ali decided he needed a change of scenery to fulfil his desires of playing for his country again and he joined Hampshire in a disputed move ahead of the 2010 season.
Despite the change of scenery, injuries again returned and he was ruled out of the entire 2010 summer due to a knee problem. He returned ahead of the 2011 season but was restricted to just five Championship appearances before a pre-season injury affected the start of his 2012 campaign.
He returned to hold his nerve and bowl the last over to lead Hampshire to victory in the Clydebank Pro40 final against Warwickshire in September, before being released as his contract expired. He made just 33 appearances in his three years with Hampshire and joined Lancashire on a two-year contract in November.
What 2013 holds? A record of 483 wickets at 27.35 spread across 130 first-class games show that Ali is no mug in County cricket and if he can starve off the injuries of old then there is no reason he can’t act as a like for like replacement for Mahmood at Old Trafford.
Word is that Ali’s injuries are behind him, for now. A prolonged run for the Barisal Burners in this year’s Bangladesh Premier League have helped him get off to an early pre-season and like Shahzad, he showed a willingness to participate in the Pakistan Super League.
It’s no secret that Lancashire would have preferred the younger Shahzad as their marquee bowling signing for the season, but after his move to Nottinghamshire they decided to give a chance to Ali and he will be looking to reward their faith in him with performances that help fire them back into Division One at the first time of asking.
He will compete with the likes of Oliver Newby, Kyle Hogg and Tom Smith for a place alongside stewards Glen Chapple and Steven Croft in the line-up.
What he said: “Lancashire is a fantastic Club with a proud history. I am excited at the prospect of working under Peter Moores and his coaching team as well as playing alongside Glen Chapple who is still one of the best in the country. Lancashire has an exciting and emerging squad and I am looking forward to playing my part in the challenges ahead.”