Andy Bull has written a lovely piece on Bilal Shafayat, who has been released by Notts and is turning out for a club side in the Birmingham league. It's a story that's been written before about different players from other eras and other countries. It's common to all sports and to most other areas of life, too, because it's a story about young talent brought to earth, about the souring of promise.
Billy Shaf was, as Bull points out, the star of an England U19 team that also featured Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Luke Wright, Tim Bresnan and Liam Plunkett. 'He stood head and shoulders above his team-mates' noted Wisden. 'I had always been the first pick of every side from a very young age,' Billy acknowledged.
It's easy to see Shafayat as a talent unfulfilled, but to do so says something about how we view talent. Billy Beane, the baseball coach who is the subject of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, says 'don't be victim to what you see'. It's a very human trait to be seduced by aesthetic beauty - it's why we think of David Gower as more talented player than Geoffrey Boycott, even though Boycott's career is superior. The players themselves subscribe to similar definitions, and yet to see talent in this way is to take a narrow view of what it actually is. Beane's theory, borne out by his assembly of over-achieving teams, ignored aesthetics and worked entirely on empirical evidence of ability.
Shafayat's career, though, has not been built entirely on aesthetics. His numbers, as a youngster, stacked up. And he is not the archetype George Best-style waster. As Notts coach Mick Newell, who let him go, said, 'his attitude and approach have been exemplary'. It's just that as Billy rose higher in the game, he began to reach his ceiling.
'I'm still figuring out what I struggled with,' he told Andy Bull. 'From what I can gather at the moment, it was doing it over and over again under the immense pressure that I felt was on myself in every game. That was it more than anything. It felt as if every game was so important, and as though I was playing for my spot. When you're young you compete with others without knowing it, but you're certainly not put under any extra pressure by the management or by people around you. But the expectations grow as you get older. People expect you to perform day-in, day-out.'
Well of course they do. Talent is not just a measure of physical ability, otherwise many more of the human race would be involved. If you view the game of professional cricket as a pyramid built on merit with Bradman and Tendulkar, Warne and Murali at its apex, Billy Shafayat is somewhere towards the top, above all of the good juniors who never made it and on a level with some of the solid county pros who look more prosaic when doing their job, but do it just as well.
Ultimately, talent as described in the case of Billy is taken to mean the ease with which they appeared to play. Ease in any physical activity is deceptive, a trick of the genes. Perhaps Billy Shafayat will come back with another county [I hope that he does], but ultimately the numbers tell his story. He has played 119 games and averages 30. That is how good he is.
NB: Billy's record is almost identical to Mark Lathwell's - of whom an identical piece could be written.
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