The Evening Standard

Owais Shah has always wanted to trade places with David Beckham. The Middlesex player may be an unlikely cricketing Golden Balls but in the last three weeks every time he has taken the field for Kolkata Knight Riders in an IPL match he has felt the same adulation that Becks experienced at Manchester United and Real Madrid.

He says: “That’s the only way I can explain it to people in England — that is just what it is like to be a part of the IPL. It’s like a Champions League match involving United or Real.”

The 31-year-old is hardly a starry-eyed novice to cricket or India. In his teens he was considered the best batting hope in this country and in 1998 he captained England to victory in the Under-19 Youth World Cup.

Shah first went to India with the senior team led by Nasser Hussain 10 years ago and made his Test debut in 2006 in Mumbai under the leadership of Andrew Flintoff.

But according to Shah, none of that compares to the IPL. “I have played for England in all three forms of the game — Tests, 50 overs and Twenty20. This is very different to anything I have experienced before,” he says.

That experience also includes making the sort of money which has so far been the preserve of top-flight footballers.

“I am not going to shy away from the fact that you get good money from the IPL, much more than I would be earning for Middlesex,” he adds. “In a six-week period you don’t earn money like that back home.”

But just as important for Shah is the road to stardom that the IPL offers. It can make even the nearly men of cricket, like him, into overnight stars.

A couple of weeks before he left London for India, Shah and his wife went to see Avatar at the O2 Centre in Finchley, not far from where he lives in Southgate. Nobody recognised him. That’s how he likes it — adulation on the pitch but a quiet life off it.

“In London, no one knows who I am,” he says. “I like to walk down the street like a normal person. I love being anonymous. I don’t like being asked for autographs.”

But autographs are just what fans in India have been demanding since the opening IPL match when his 58 from 46 balls helped Kolkata to victory.

His form since then, like that of his team, has fluctuated. But this is all part of what Indians call “cricket tamasha” — the fun, frolic, excitement of instant cricket.

“A couple of hours before the game starts the ground is totally packed, there’s music, a lot of noise and it’s absolutely amazing,” he says. “There is nothing like this in England. The IPL is a carnival.”

This year’s IPL is also somewhat unreal, with the entire circus of players and officials living inside an extraordinary security bubble. Not that this has dimmed Shah’s enjoyment.

The day I went to see him at a hotel on the outskirts of Kolkata, barricades held back a crowd of cricket fans while the security made me feel I was a potential terrorist. Shah, when he finally emerged, looked relaxed. He is well aware of the lucky turn that has brought him to Kolkata.

Last year, when signed by Delhi Daredevils for $250,000, not only was the tournament moved for security reasons to South Africa but Shah, himself, did not get a game.

In the media he was cruelly dubbed the “unwanted man” of IPL. “It was very tough sitting there in the dug-out, not performing,” he admits.

Delhi accepted his transfer request and the Knight Riders swapped Australian all-rounder Moises Henriques for Shah. This meant the Middlesex man found himself in a team owned by Bollywood’s biggest star, Shahrukh Khan, and led by India’s most successful cricket captain, Sourav Ganguly.

You can sense the awe in Shah’s voice as he speaks of his owner. “Shahrukh Khan has made me feel very welcome,” he reveals. “He makes an effort to say hello whether we win or lose.”

To add to this Bollywood tinsel, Ganguly has not used Shah as a bag man and has given him some useful batting tips. When Ganguly played for Lancashire, he asked Mike Atherton, the then England captain, to carry his sweater back to the dressing room.

His English nickname may be Lord Snooty because of his perceived haughty manner but Shah laughs at the mere idea. “Snooty? No, he has made me very welcome here,” he claims. “He has given me tiny little batting tips and he is a very shrewd guy.”

To complete this picture of cricketing bliss, the IPL has united Shah with the heroes of his childhood. As if on cue as we talk about Wasim Akram, the Kolkatta bowling coach walks by and greets Shah. “I am almost a bit in awe of him,” the Middlesex batsman confesses.

“When I was growing up I had a poster of Wasim on my bedroom wall. Here I am in the same dressing room as him. This is what makes the IPL different. When you are playing for your country you have great players but you don’t mix with legends in the same dressing room. At the IPL you do.”

Shah’s cricket started on the streets of Karachi and although he moved to England at the age of eight, when his pilot father was posted to London, he went back to Pakistan two years later.

As well as Wasim, his idols were Waqar Younis, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, on whom he modelled his batting.

“As a child, I played a lot of taped-ball cricket, where you use a tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape. We didn’t have any parks in Karachi where I lived so I played on the roads.”

He was back in England at the age of 15 and joined a cricket club near his home in west London, and while his mother and father wanted him to work hard in his studies they soon saw they had a potential star on their hands.

Shah adds: “They realised I was getting a lot of success at a young age in cricket. They didn’t hold me back but encouraged me. My dad wasn’t always there because he was flying but my mum did a lot for my cricket.”

Some critics have suggested the failure of Ravi Bopara, Monty Panesar and Shah to build on their success in England is a relflection of the soft Asian family life being unable to produce a killer instinct.

Shah’s response is sharp. “To me that argument is weird. What killer instincts are they talking about?”

He clearly does not like labels and wants to be judged on his cricket alone and not his race.

He adds: “I see myself as just another cricketer, not bringing any special dimension to the game because I am Asian. I know a lot of people say I am more wristy but this happens naturally. I saw the best players on TV and just tried to copy them. First Javed Miandad then, as I grew older, Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar. I have always wanted to be an attacking player and it speaks for my personality.”

His 88 on Test debut for England in Mumbai four years ago formed a vital plank in a victory over India that helped draw the series. After that he got a call from David Graveney, then chairman of the selectors. “He said, You have to make way for Marcus Trescothick.’ He didn’t give me any reasons. I was gobsmacked. I get 88 on Test debut and then I don’t get to play for 18 months. You tell me where is the sense in that?”

When he returned to the Test side, Shah played against the West Indies and scored only 10 in two innings. This meant waiting another year before he got three Tests in a row, again against the West Indies, in 2009.

“I got a 50 in the first game, then I had two bad Test matches and that’s it. I have not been given a fair chance.”

That rankles with him more than anything else. The IPL gives Shah all the money he could want but he still has the desire to play Test cricket. He says: “I believe I am good enough to do a job for England.”

If he fails to break back into the Test side there is the 50-over World Cup being staged in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh next year to target.

First, though, comes the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies next month but Shah concedes he may be struggling to make the cut. He is in the 30-man squad and surely, I suggest, a good IPL will make him a certainty?

Perhaps not. Shah adds: “As far as the England team is concerned what you do in the IPL doesn’t matter.

“If you are in their plans you are, if you are not, you are not. I am not holding my breath about being in England’s T20 team.”


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