After training at Emirates Old Trafford on Tuesday, Graham Onions, Lancashire’s bowling coach, stood looking at a picture of the celebrations after the club sealed Division Two of the County Championship by beating Middlesex in September 2019. “That was my last game,” he noted to Saqib Mahmood, following his retirement from the professional game. After a moment’s thought, Mahmood twigged: “That was my last red-ball game as well.”
Since that win, Mahmood has made his England debuts in ODI and T20I cricket and has been named in a number of Test squads. Yet two days before the start of the 2021 county season, he sits further down the pecking order than he did 18 months ago. After six appearances against Ireland and Pakistan last summer, he found himself among the reserves for the Australia ODI and T20I series, leaving him unable to return to Lancashire and stake his claim in county cricket; by the time selection had come around for the tour to South Africa at the end of the year, Jake Ball and Tom Helm had moved ahead of him in the queue.
Mahmood had little chance to dwell on his omission. On the same day he was told he had missed out on the England squads, he was asked if he would consider taking part in the rearranged Pakistan Super League play-offs for Peshawar Zalmi. He jumped at the chance, and while his three wickets in the eliminator – which Zalmi lost – were expensive, the franchise had seen enough to bring him back for the 2021 edition of the tournament.
The season came to a grinding halt after 14 matches as it became clear that the bio-secure bubble had burst, but Mahmood made a major impression during his short stay: used as a strike bowler by Wahab Riaz, Zalmi’s captain, he took 12 wickets in 18.1 overs across five appearances, and left Pakistan as the competition’s leading wicket-taker.
“The message Morgs [Eoin Morgan] gave to us was that when guys go out and play in these tournaments, we want them to be MVP, leading run-scorer or leading wicket-taker,” Mahmood said. “Something I got from one of the England coaches was that if you want to be in the No. 1 team in the world, you have to show that you’re one of the best in the world.
“The PSL is known for the strength in the seamers. One of the local players said to me: ‘don’t underestimate what you’ve done out here’. There were only two overseas seamers playing in that tournament: me and Dale Steyn. They said to me that overseas seamers hardly get picked up, and if they do, they don’t do as well as you’ve done. I took a lot of confidence out of that.”
In particular, Mahmood felt as though he had demonstrated his ability to adapt to different situations. “Absolutely, [I had] a point to prove. When I have played for England in T20 cricket – and this isn’t an excuse – I was doing a role I wasn’t familiar with, bowling in the middle overs. That was something I’d never done for Lancashire.
“The PSL was ideal: I was in a new team, so there wasn’t a specific role for me and I was used whenever I was needed. I was open to that. As a learning process it was great for me. During the day, there was some reverse-swing which was great for me. In the night games, I’d been working on a knuckleball over the last 18 months, but you couldn’t bowl that because of how wet the seam was so I was developing another slower ball. I really took responsibility.”
The result is that Mahmood has been counting down the days to the start of the county season, where his Lancashire commitments will make it impossible for him to play the second half of the rearranged PSL. He is one of three seamers on pace-bowling development contracts with the ECB, giving him regular access to England’s support staff and meaning a degree of workload management from the national set-up, and hopes to play in four out of the first five Championship fixtures at the start of a busy summer.
“I didn’t enter the IPL auction this year – obviously you’re not guaranteed to get picked up, but I wanted to balance white- and red-ball cricket. That’s the message I’ve had: they don’t just see me as a white-ball player. This is a good chance for me to get a red ball in my hand and put some performances in for Lancashire.
“It’s a big season for a lot of reasons. I haven’t spent a great deal of time with this squad over the last 18 months but I’ve come back and fitted back in. There’s a lot to play for this summer, with Ashes places and T20 World Cup places, but [in the] short term I have to stay focused on winning games here.”
Crucially, he feels as though he has spent long enough in an England training shirt to feel at home in that environment, having tried so hard to impress in his debut series – the T20Is in New Zealand in late 2019 – that his performances actually declined. There are several talented players ahead of him in the queue for both Ashes and T20 World Cup selection, but if he can find his 90mph/145kph, reverse-swinging mojo throughout the summer then it would be foolish to bet against him making either squad.
“When I first came in, I was trying to impress and bowl fast all the time, but if you look at my numbers, I was bowling slower in that first series I played in New Zealand than I ever have done,” he said. “That was just about trying too hard and it set me back a bit. Last summer and in the PSL, I was a lot more relaxed, and my pace has been up since that series.
“I offer something slightly different, and it’s about doing as many roles as I can: early-season, we’ll get good wickets here, but you go away and play on green seamers and there are all sorts of conditions you’re exposed to. You spend enough time around the environment that you’re chomping at the bit to play. I understand there are a lot of seamers ahead of me but all I can do is put performances in here and try and push my case.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98