Tuesday 26 April 2011

Billy Shaf And The Top Of The Mountain

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.


Brit said...

Mark Lathwell is the only player from Braunton Cricket Club, North Devon, to have represented England. I know because I grew up there and am still a (drinking, not playing) member. The snug at one side of the bar bears the proud name "The Mark Lathwell Bar". In this corner of England at least, Mark remains the Great Achiever.

I hope the above consoles all who read it.

John Halliwell said...

If I remember correctly, there was a great clamour for Lathwell to be selected by England very early in the 1993 season, but it was resisted by the selectors, and by the time he was selected, he was rapidly going off the boil. Then only two tests - and farewell. Such a shame. I think it was Peter Roebuck who said that if Lathwell had been West Indian, he would have been treasured.

As an aside, one of my daughters, then 14, fell hopelessly in love with Lathwell after watching the Trent Bridge Test of '93. In the mid nineties I drove, at her insistence, 213 miles to Taunton just to watch Lathers bat against Worcestershire. I think he scored 7. We met Mark coming from the nets and asked him to sign a photo. He shyly obliged, and my daughter couldn't speak for about 10 minutes. We were both very sorry that his career didn't hit the heights it should have done. He was, like Billy Shaf, gloriously talented.

The Old Batsman said...

John, great story - and excellent parenting!

Hope that Lathwell still enjoys the game, wherever he is now...

Brian Carpenter said...

Lathwell still plays. And well. A couple of season ago he took Braunton into the Devon Premier League as Captain. They were relegated again last season but he reamins at the heart of the club.

And anyone who saw him at Taunton when he was at his best knows he was just about the best timer of the ball English cricket has prduced in the last twenty years or so. His vunerabilities lay elsewhere.

My thoughts on Shafayat are here:

Tim Newman said...

Ah, I remember Lathwell. He debuted with Graham Thorpe, who scored a century in that match. Perhaps the selectors thought one out of two isn't bad...

keith said...

Lathwell had a brief opening partnership with Trescothick, which didn't work out in the main but on the days it did they were a class act. Remember a game, against Yorkshire I think, when they put on over a hundred for the first wicket, biggest partnership of the match and they were the only two batsmen to get more than 40 in the game on a bowler friendly wicket. They really did take batting onto a different plane.