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Ajmal Shahzad: Out of the darkness – exclusive interview with MCC’s new head coach

by Taha Hashim 7 minute read
Photo credit – MCC

Taha Hashim sits down with Ajmal Shahzad to talk about the premature end of the former England cricketer’s playing career, a dark time in search of new opportunities, and how the future is looking brighter as MCC’s new head coach.

“I had some tough conversations with my mum, who said: ‘Why isn’t the game looking after you now? You’ve played the game for so long. Where are those people you’ve dedicated yourself to? You’ve put your body on the line, you’ve been under the knife, you’ve bent over backwards for them — where are they now?’

I just said: ‘That’s the game.’”

Ajmal Shahzad and I are sat at Lord’s on an unusually sunny February day, discussing his new esteemed role as MCC’s head coach. The pavilion looks typically glorious, the outfield lush. There seems to be little wrong with the world.

And yet, just as spring is preceded by winter, so too is Shahzad’s new beginning a tale of emerging from darkness. Decked out in his coaching tracksuit, Shahzad comes across as every inch a ready-made coach, but to him, taking up such a position would have seemed near unimaginable just under two years ago.

Shahzad represented England in one Test, 11 ODIs, and three T20Is

“I’m not going to sit here and say it’s been rosy because there’s been dark times and you read about people and how they don’t come out of those dark times,” he tells me. “I look at where I am now and I’m blessed.”

The former England seamer’s county career came to an end in 2017, a short stint with Leicestershire an unfruitful last stop on an unforgiving county grind that saw him feature for Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Sussex. He burned bright on his brief foray onto the international scene between 2010 and 2011, winning caps across all formats, while registering speeds in excess of 90 mph.

Few will forget his crashing final-over six off Munaf Patel in the tied 2011 World Cup bout with India — “Going in with my bowler’s instinct I was just like, ‘I’m gonna smash it’,” he says. “It was all or nothing. I wasn’t going to defend it.” But even fewer will know the story of how his playing career ended and the challenges that have come since.

Shahzad and Graeme Swann after helping England to a famous tie against India at the 2011 CWC

Cricket can be a cruel mistress, holding little regard for your past glories. Shahzad wasn’t ready to wave goodbye to life as a sportsman even after his time with Leicestershire came to an end. But sport and life had other plans. “Look, I’m 33, I’m still quite young. I keep myself fit and strong and I was trying to push to play some county cricket last year, and the early part of this year. Ultimately, being a young father with responsibilities — I’ve got a two-year-old-son — I couldn’t.”

For a while, a foray into the foreign world of accountancy seemed to be on the cards, a field he had begun to study for whilst at Sussex. “I was looking on LinkedIn for an accountancy job just to start my way but when you throw your CV around as a 32-year-old trying to gain a very basic accountancy job, there’s another hundred 18-year-olds applying for the same job.

“Ultimately, what have I been doing for the last 12-13 years? Do they appreciate the value that I’ve gained through my experiences in cricket? Probably not, probably not on a LinkedIn profile. I had to go through that, I had to sit there and get people to reply back to me and say, ‘We’re not interested in Level Two bookkeeping’.”

It was cricket or nothing, and with no counties willing to pay for his services as a professional, Shahzad attempted to pursue a coaching career, but opportunities were still scarce. “When I played for England, you have all these people who want to ride the wave with you and be your friend and message you. My phone was very, very quiet for 18 months. People thought I’d gone underground, I hadn’t — there just weren’t any opportunities for me. Nobody valued what I offered and that hurt.”

In early 2018, a call to the then MCC head coach and former Yorkshire bowler, Steve Kirby, saw Shahzad’s fortunes change. Kirby invited Shahzad to work with MCC’s Young Cricketers, initially on a part-time basis with no pay. It was a punt for Shahzad, and a time-consuming one; he was forced to split his working week between London and a coaching role at Ampleforth College in York. It also affirmed that this was what he wanted to be doing.

A phone call to Steve Kirby (left) saw Shahzad begin his involvement with the MCC Young Cricketers programme

“I didn’t make any money but it ultimately gave me some direction in what I wanted to do next. I really enjoyed it. I’m a people person so I was lucky to be working with some young cricket players that wanted to make it, who I gained a quick rapport and trust with. They valued my opinions. I knew exactly what they were going through, how they were feeling, the emotional ups and downs that come with cricket.”

Kirby taking up a position at Derbyshire in October of last year allowed Shahzad to take on more responsibility. “I took over for a bit and became the assistant in charge, ran the nets, looked after the boys, tried to liaise with the admin side – tried to get things organised the best we could. In that process, I thought, ‘I’m going to throw my name in the hat.’”

From near obscurity, as a coach at least, Shahzad is now a leading figure at the Home of Cricket. The MCC’s Young Cricketers scheme comes with lofty history – Ian Botham and Mark Waugh are past graduates – but Shahzad’s role will see him help budding players, often those cast aside by the county circuit, find their way into the professional game. You’d imagine he’ll be able to empathise.

“I feel, ideally, you’d like to be remembered as a one-county man”

Despite the high of national honours, Shahzad’s career was also littered with the disappointment of injuries, instability as he moved from county to county, and a premature end. There are plenty of lessons to be passed on to youngsters now under his tutelage.

“I feel, ideally, you’d like to be remembered as a one-county man. Go back to the olden days where people played for one county for 16-20 years – you’ll be remembered as a great if you play for that long. I happened to move counties a few times, ultimately leaving me in a position at 33 where not many people wanted to touch me. I’ve learned the hard way. But on that journey, I’ve seen a lot and it’s helped me be the person I am now.

“Everybody is unique and there’s value in what everyone offers – it’s just how you can use that. Haseeb Hameed – he bats the way he bats. There’s no point trying to add too much to him. He can do you a job and if you give him direction and tell him that the job he does is brilliant for what you want from him, he’ll go do it to the best of his ability.

“Cookie’s [Sir Alastair Cook] played international cricket for so long – been knighted – by playing four shots. But he does them pretty well. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got and that sits pretty well with what I’m trying to do.”

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