There's a tremendous passage in Leo McKinstry's Boycs, in which Boycott describes his final game of cricket. It came at Scarborough on 12 September 1986. "Something had come to an end, something wonderful," the great man said. "I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. Then I wandered around among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans".
I thought of it the other day when I drove past one of my own favourite grounds. The leaves had begun to come down over the outfield. The grass was uncut and already starting to thicken for winter. The chains were up around the square. Early evening rain swept overhead. Something had come to an end. When I got home, the counties had announced which players they wouldn't be retaining, and one of them was Saj Mahmood.
Lots of others were on their way, a few of them quick bowlers, too; Brooks, Shazad, Punkett. But they all had new gigs. Saj hadn't had his contract renewed. It's always a melancholy time, but in Mahmood was a story of more than just a county and a player running out of steam. He'd been at Lancashire for ten years, had more than 300 first class wickets, but his last game for them had been a Friends Life game against Derbyshire in which he'd conceded 42 from 2.3 overs. He'd gone to Somerset on loan, and taken eight wickets in three games at just over 30.
In 2005, Duncan Fletcher had seen a vision of the future. Injury, bad luck, hubris, whatever meant that his Ashes-winning side would never play together again. Fletcher looked around, not for old school fast bowlers like McGrath and Pollock, but for men like Lee and Tait and Malinga. In his analytical way, he stared into the game that was starting to emerge and deduced that the next generation of batsman would need to be detonated from the crease by swing at high pace. He wanted men who could bowl at 90mph, and Saj Mahmood, who was 22 and had been playing in the Bolton leagues not too long before, could. So could Liam Plunkett.
The game did morph, but not quite in the way that Fletcher thought it might. Tait, Malinga and to an extent Brett Lee became white-ball specialists. Saj played eight Tests and got 20 wickets at 38. He bowled fast but inconsistently. Sri Lanka climbed into him in an ODI at the Oval; in 11 of his 26 one-dayers he went for more than 50. In the last of his four T20 internationals, he bowled four overs for 61. Liam Plunkett's record was quite similar.
When the news about Saj came out, several reports mentioned Duncan Fletcher's idea about the 90mph bowlers. It seems that Saj will forever be its public symbol. It was couched in terms of failure, a failure echoed by the decline of Mahmood and Plunkett. And yet England are at the moment stocked with more men who can bowl at 90mph than perhaps ever before: Broad, Finn, Tremlett, Dernbach, Meaker, Shazad, and with lots more tweenies on the way at Loughborough, where David Parsons and his men have identified the physiological factors common to those who will be able to propel the ball at such a speed. Australia have a new batch of their own, who are about to go up against Steyn and Morkel in what looks to be a series that will be decided by quick bowling.
The truth may be that the international careers of Mahmood and Plunkett dropped into a gap in the game, a brief interregnum between generations, between old and new, between pre and post T20. It might be that they were just below international class, too. But as a concept, the notion that fast bowlers would have to bowl fast was being borne out even as Fletcher's idea was being stitched once more into stories about Saj Mahmood.
Fletch is with India, now, of course, where his thought about 90mph bowling is about as relevant as those on using the sweep shot to get off strike. Saj Mahmood, for the moment, isn't with anyone. Something had come to an end after all, something good, an opportunity that proved fleeting and elusive and not quite his to seize.
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