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exclusive interviews
"Shoaib Akhtar was like Marble on Ice" : Bilal Shafayat

In an exclusive interview with PakPassion, former Nottinghamshire and Habib Bank batsman Bilal Shafayat talks about his introduction to cricket, his experience playing first class cricket in Pakistan, and the fastest bowlers he has faced. Shafayat, a former captain of the England under-19 side started his career at Nottinghamshire but moved to Northamptonshire in 2005. One early highlight of his career was a catch made for England as a substitute fielder in a Test against New Zealand in 2004.

 

 


by Shayan Siddiqui and Saaib Uppal (6th December 2012)

PakPassion presents an exclusive interview with Bilal Shafayat.

Shafayat, a former captain of the England under-19 side started his career at Nottinghamshire but moved to Northamptonshire in 2005. One early highlight of his career was a catch made for England as a substitute fielder in a Test against New Zealand in 2004. He returned to Nottinghamshire for the 2007 season.

He was the twelfth man in the 2009 Cardiff Test against Australia, where he was the focus of a controversy when he came out twice during the final overs of the match as the last pair of England batsmen were trying to save the match. The Australian captain accused the England team of time-wasting.

Bilal was released by Nottinghamshire after the 2010 season. He played domestic First Class cricket in Pakistan in 2010/2011 for Habib Bank. He played second eleven cricket for Hampshire at the start of 2011 and averaged 239.5 in his two matches before returning to Northamptonshire on a match-by-match basis during the 2011 season, playing for the Second XI and the first team in Twenty20 and List A matches during June and July 2011. 

He ended the season playing for Wellington in the Birmingham league. In April 2012 he joined Shropshire and last season he played for Hampshire.


PakPassion.net: How did you get into cricket, was it through family members or friends? How did the interest of playing cricket build?

Bilal Shafayat: Playing at the highest level, it came much later on in my career, but the initial love for the game came from my father and my older brother. My father was the first one who would express his love for the game and watch cricket, and he would probably have me and my brother sitting down watching a little bit with him. 

Generally we would be following the Pakistan team because he came to England when he was quite young and he would still follow Pakistan cricket. As time went on, he spent more time in England and he watched a lot of English cricket as well. He was quite a fan of the Botham era and the great West Indies era when they came over here, and he would follow a lot of cricket. So we would generally just sit down with him now and then when he was watching cricket so we started to enjoy it at that stage.

Then my older brother, who is 4 years older than me, started to play before myself, and as the younger one does, I generally just followed in his footsteps. We just seemed to really have a love for the game and cricket in particular was a sport that we enjoyed more than anything else.


PakPassion.net: Tell us about that journey from schools cricket, playing with your friends at school and the park etc right up to playing county cricket. How did that journey evolve?

Bilal Shafayat: There was a local scheme set up by the council for all inner-city and Asian ethnic minority kids, like a lot of the schemes we see set up today for various sports and ways and walks of life. This one in particular was set up by the Nottingham City Challenge, a cricket scheme set up with two local coaches who they had employed and my older brother joined in the coaching sessions that had started up. 

I was 8 years old at the time and I still went to watch. I can remember the two coaches that were in charge, one was Andrew Jackman, a West Indian player who had played a lot of cricket for Guyana in the great West Indian era of the 80s. He moved over here at that time and was employed by the City Challenge to run this scheme along with Munawar Choudhary, a Pakistani-born local batsman who played in the leagues but was a coach as well. So these two coaches were the main men for running this scheme who the City Challenge had employed. 

They had it for all age groups and I went to watch one day at the age of 8 and Andrew Jackman shouted out from inside the cricket net to myself that I wasn’t too young to get involved and that I should come in and enjoy it. So that was the first time I entered a net at that age at 8, and I’m 28 right now and they are still my coaches at the moment! 

Although I’ve played 12 years of first class cricket, I still go back to these guys and they know my game inside out, so I’m quite fortunate to have the support of these guys. They’re still running a very similar scheme at the moment, but privately, and there are hundreds of kids that go to them and there are a lot of prospects coming through in Nottingham.


PakPassion.net: How did you get picked up by Nottinghamshire?

Bilal Shafayat: When I started at 8, I think I was just a quick learner and at the age of say 9 and a half, I got picked up for the Under 11 trials at Notts, and that was a pattern that started to build. I started to play a year or so ahead of my age group all the way up to Under 15s. 

I never really missed a chance at the time, all the trials I was going for I was getting picked up, and then I got picked up for Young England Schools and Midlands and played all the age groups that went on till Under 19s. 

However at the age of 15 I started playing for Notts 2nd XI. Obviously the first year was quite difficult as I was quite young, but the following year I ended up doing really well for them and I made my first-class debut at the age of 16. I’d shown a lot of promise at that age and I was still playing for England Under 17s. I toured Australia for the first time at that age group and then went on to success for Under 19s. I still played for Notts at the time but we had an amazing side so I was in and out of the squad. We had players like Kevin Pietersen, Usman Afzaal, Jason Gallian, Darren Bicknell, all senior players. 

Generally Notts had a very good overseas player, at that time they had Stuart MacGill, Chris Cairns and Greg Blewett. I think Blewett was the first overseas that I played with for Notts when I went out to bat, and he was actually my favourite Australian batsman. He was there at the other end so I was fortunate enough to make my debut alongside him. Obviously I played well in the U19 for them and my professional career really kicked in after that. 


PakPassion.net: You’ve been playing county cricket in excess of 10 years now, it’s a career that a lot of youngsters want to get into, and it’s a dream come true for many people out there to get involved in county cricket. As far as you’re concerned, what are the best parts of being a county cricketer, and what are the worst things about it?

Bilal Shafayat: The best thing is obviously you are doing something that you really love doing, and there’s a lot worse things that I could be doing right now! You get paid for something that you really love doing and you continue learning as well, that’s the second best thing about it, no-one’s ever cracked it. Ricky Ponting’s only just retired and he will tell you more than anyone else that you always feel you’re still learning in the game, and you have to face new challenges each time you go out to bat generally. 

You’ll have some easier days than others and I think the difficulty is that when you do have those difficult days, it’s getting through that mentally and physically. Inevitably, hard work is something that comes through so that’s something that you should always refer back to. It requires hard work and dedication as well as professionalism in this career that we’ve been blessed with and you generally come through on top. It might take longer than you plan but it will come through. There are some great examples of it throughout the history of cricket or any sport in particular. You can always come back and make it through the difficult times and that’s all through hard work and dedication.


PakPassion.net: Corruption in county cricket - we’ve heard recent stories about Kent vs Sussex being targeted. Do you think corruption in cricket or county cricket is a concern, or is it all being blown out of proportion?

Bilal Shafayat: To be honest when you hear and read what people write about, it’s sad to know that in this gentleman’s game there are things happening and it’s sad to see. It’s a beautiful sport. 

I’ve never even heard anything on my side throughout my career, but unfortunately you get the stories that you read in the papers and it’s really not good to see in any sport. It’s like anything, there are good bad and ugly in any field, and we just try to stick to the good and play by the rules basically.


PakPassion.net: You played some first class cricket in Pakistan, I remember you playing for Habib Bank Limited out there with guys like Hasan Raza and Danish Kaneria. Tell us about that experience of playing first class cricket in Pakistan.

Bilal Shafayat: It’s a great experience in any country to go and play first class cricket. Pakistan being my second home there’s a lot of things that I’m already used to out there so I can cope with certain things and the organisation side of things. 

The cricket is brilliant, the talent is still there in Pakistan and with the facilities and despite the organisation that they have to come through, the players still come through. My hat goes off to them, we really get some things in England and other parts of the world that we take for granted. My prayers are always going out to all those people who are less fortunate, and Pakistan first class cricketers are in that bunch. 

Now the PCB are trying to really put back into the players, they are recognising that that’s very important. The standard of cricket was brilliant and I personally would go out there every winter to prepare for an English summer because it’s a really tough challenge out there.


PakPassion.net If the opportunity arose again, for you to go out there and play first class cricket in Pakistan, would you be interested?

Bilal Shafayat: Yes, I only didn’t go this year. I did go the last two years, but I did enjoy this year because the competition was split. They’ve made the departments and the regions separate and made sure a lot of players are available for their teams. There was probably no way I was going to get in, anyway, had I gone this year. Habib Bank is a very strong team. Even Hasan Raza just got two games this year- so there are people like that who are averaging close to 50 in first class cricket. If that’s happening to them, I don’t think I would have a sniff out there this year. That’s why I stayed at home and tried to prepare with whatever options I have here.


PakPassion.net: How did the experience compare to the English county cricket? We hear about it being a lot less organized and the facilities not being as good. Overall, what would you say are areas for improvement in regards to first class cricket out there?

Bilal Shafayat:For first class cricket, I think that the whole country that I’d wish would get organized. It’s an amazing part of the world and I really do love it. But I think that cricket is excellent and the talent and abilities that Pakistani or subcontinent players hold are amazing and second to none. 

I’m delighted to see that in terms of things off the field, we see that Zaka Ashraf is trying really hard to really bring and implement the right stuff and really bring people through and really value professional cricketers. That’s something that if it happens, the guys work a lot harder and really put back in that little bit more of dedication because they know that they have the family support behind them. Like I said, I think it’s still bright for Pakistan cricket. The future is very bright, and I’m sure you’ll see that in the days to come.


PakPassion.net: I have to ask you this question, you mentioned his name earlier, Ricky Ponting, and you probably know what I’m going to ask now. What was the plan and what were your instructions that particular day when you were a substitute fielder against Australia?

Bilal Shafayat:There were no instructions, everything happened at the moment. They genuinely needed a drink and a pair of gloves out there and I went and took that. There were no instructions that I was given. Monty Panesar and James Anderson batted really well. Ricky Ponting is a gentleman of the game and he’s someone I’ve always looked up to.


PakPassion.net: Did Ponting offer you any advice when you were on the field? This interview will be read by kids and family as well, so just be careful with your words.

Bilal Shafayat: Like I said, Ponting is a gentleman of the game. He didn’t say or do anything at the time which was against that or otherwise. He spoke to me after that particular day and Test match and had a lot of batting advice to give me. That was it really, he’s a gentleman.


PakPassion.net: Any thoughts on Ricky Ponting's retirement?

Bilal Shafayat: Look, he’s been a great ambassador of the game, a great captain, a high-class batsman. He’s always been so positive and can play all forms of the game, which I always hold in high regards if a batsman can do that. He’s done that for so many years at a certain threshold. You seen the response he got, everyone on TV was appreciative of what he’s done. From another cricketer, he’s someone I’ve always looked up to along with a couple of other high-class batsman. He’s been in the top three pretty much all of his career.


PakPassion.net: A sensitive issue, but we’re seeing instances of racism in football in fans and also players. Have you ever encountered anything similar or do you think cricket has a similar sort of problem? Or have you never had any problems with opponents, teammates, or fans?

Bilal Shafayat: Look, I think that I’ve been fortunate. I’ve never really experienced it either on or off the field. I can’t really relate to it. If people have, I really couldn’t relate to it. Generally, in the game of cricket, the supporters and fans have been very welcoming. They’ve really given me the support throughout my career and even now that I’m facing difficult times, you always see a few people who remind me that I’m only 28 and to keep going. That’s come from all kinds of people. It’s been nothing but love.


PakPassion.net: Over the years, you must have faced some pretty hostile and aggressive fast bowlers in county cricket and also in Pakistan when you were out there. Any particular spell that you recall from a fast bower where you thought, “This is probably the fastest spell I’ve ever faced, or the most hostile spell?

Bilal Shafayat: I think there’s been a couple that really stand out. I think I was quite fortunate to get the back end of “White Lightning”, Allan Donald. It was only a one day game and I can remember it was one of my earlier games. Just to see him run in with that great run-up that he had, it made my heart beat fast. It was a privilege to be facing Donald, and he was really quick and high-class. The white ball, when it’s old, generally doesn’t do much. But he was getting it to reverse a little bit at high speeds. Although he was at the end of his career, it was quick enough for me. 

For me the second spell that stands out is Shoaib Akhtar. I faced him when he played for Worcestershire. I was opening the batting each time. I think I faced him in two one-dayers, two four-dayers, and a Twenty20, so like ten innings in the space of a month. I was facing the new ball each time and it never got any easier. He was a real challenge. The first time I faced him, I had no idea what to expect, although I’d been brought up with quick bowlers, in all stages of my career. Andrew Jackman used to really present a challenge in the nets. I was generally quite well prepared for quick bowling but Shoaib was like marble on ice. That’s the only description I could give you, he was rapid! 

The third one, I’d probably say, I’ve had great battles with Steve Harmison in county cricket. He’s bowled some absolutely horrific spells in terms of speed. He just never tends to take the long sleeve. He used to bowl the longest spells out of the guys I’ve faced. He was always hard working. Me being 5’8” and him being the monster that he is, it’s a lot more difficult for probably myself. I always felt that I never really could get on the front foot, he was always pushing me back. Those are the three that probably really stand out.


PakPassion.net: You were with Hampshire last season. What was it like going out to South Africa to take part in the Champions League?

Bilal Shafayat: It was crazy, honestly. It was something that reminded me of when I was 12th man for England and the intensity that was given to international Test cricket. The Champions League was amazing, and probably a little bit more. 

You had amazing cricketers from all around the world that were there. You would just pop into the restaurant or hotel and you’d have people like Mahela Jayawardene and Jacques Kallis there. An endless amount of great cricketers were there. There were people coming out of everywhere in terms of international cricketers. Just to be really involved with that competition was a great experience. It was really well organized and we were very well looked after, it was a great experience out there. It was a shame we never made it through to the second stage, we had some quality players with us as well. We had Shahid Afridi with us and it was great to be on the same side as him. He’s done really well in international cricket over the years and it was really special playing for Hampshire with him. Looking back I wish the Champions League had lasted longer, but the ten days I was out there were really special.


PakPassion.net: You mentioned Shahid Afridi, did he offer you any advice on your batting?

Bilal Shafayat: (laughs) He’s a great guy. I've played against him over the years when he came to Leicestershire and when he had a previous stint with Hampshire as well before I joined them. You never really appreciate the talents he holds because people are quite quick to criticize, generally if someone gets out early. Shahid’s had a run of form at the moment that I don’t think he’s ever experienced before, and he appreciates that. But the guy has an eye, like high-class international batsmen have. 

I’ve seen him in action in training. He can really pick up the ball early and we’ve seen that when his timing is on and going with that eye he has, when he picks out the ball, he’s a destroyer and can really clear the boundaries. Shahid’s a great player. He's a great ambassador for Pakistani cricket as well. He’s one of the stars that really puts Pakistan on the map.


PakPassion.net: What are your plans for the upcoming season? 

Bilal Shafayat: I started last season with Hampshire and they signed me up after I got the 92 against Derbyshire. I think that they were grateful and I’d done well immediately. They signed me on a one year contract which ended after the Champions League. We’re having talks at the moment. Up to now, the news is that I don’t think that I’m going to extend it because they've signed a couple over overseas players, one of them being a test batsman. So I think it’s going to rule my extension out. I think my stint at Hampshire will end there.

PakPassion.net: You’re obviously fit and ready to play county cricket wherever it’s available.

Bilal Shafayat: The journey’s continuing. Who’d have thought that it could end at 28, the way my youth cricket went and my early cricketing career went as well as the Under 19s. I probably thought I was going to stay at Nottinghamshire for the rest of my life. But the beautiful game has its journeys and you have to keep making decisions that are best for you and your cricket. Up to now I've played for three counties, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Hampshire and they look like they’re not going to extend my contract so I’m just trying to stay fit and ready for the next opportunity. I’m 28, I feel I can come back and play better than ever for hopefully my fourth and last county.


PakPassion.net: Thanks for your time Bilal and I wish you all the best for the future. 

Bilal Shafayat: Many thanks.

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