MiWay T20 Challenge

Shah shows 'pro' value

2011-03-10 11:19
Owais Shah (Gallo)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – I had tended, until very recently, to harbour a belief that overseas professionals are a dubious addition to modern South African domestic cricket.

It was my belief that unless one of the franchises in our slim-line, six-team environment could manage to sign up a genuinely iconic international name or at least known bums-on-seats entertainer, it did not seem worth the effort – especially given that his presence might be depriving a promising home-grown cricketer of a place in the team.

So when the Cape Cobras and Dolphins respectively, for instance, announced that they would engage often peripheral England batsmen like Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara for good portions of the latest summer, I could not stifle a cynical frown.

After all, I am among those able to recall the halcyon days in the old Currie Cup, and just beyond it as unity took hold, when the South African game was indisputably enhanced by such names as Alvin Kallicharran and that unrivalled throat-hunter Sylvester Clarke, plying their trade for the famous Transvaal Mean Machine.

There was also a period where the stirring revival of Eastern Province cricket, under the captaincy of Kepler Wessels, was significantly aided by such hard-nosed Aussie competitors as Rod McCurdy and John Maguire.

In the immediate post-isolation phase, too, why not ask then up-and-coming Shaun Pollock (KwaZulu-Natal) or Herschelle Gibbs (Western Province) just how much they benefitted from the respective provincial presences of Malcolm Marshall or Desmond Haynes.

These players were vital presences at the time, not least because so many South African domestic players were understandably clueless about the wider cricketing world out there.

All that, of course, has subsequently changed, with South Africa now bedded down back in the international family for some two decades.
And with respect, someone like Shah is not quite in the Marshall or Haynes league for global gravitas.

That is where my main reservation lay: would he not be simply using the Cobras as some sort of selfish springboard, say, for reigniting his own England comeback aspirations?

There is probably a case at this point for someone suggesting ironically from England: “Well, what about all the South Africans in the county game, then?”

My retort would be that the county scene is a bloated (18-team) beast with a crying need for a strong overseas-player element because otherwise standards would probably be quite severely compromised.

In South Africa, with a renewed strength-versus-strength emphasis in recent years, competition is fierce enough just for our own players to squeeze into first-team plans.

With somebody like 32-year-old Shah entering the picture for the Cobras across all three competitions, his presence was going to – and indeed has, at times – limit the opportunities of home-grown talents like Stiaan van Zyl and Richard Levi.

He has played for England at all levels, while being often regarded as “another Mark Ramprakash” ... his talent undoubted, but not always quite so compelling on statistical delivery in an international shirt.

Yet he has emphatically neutralised my reservations during his South African sojourn, including his manna-from-heaven role for the Cobras on Wednesday night as they saw off the Titans in what could only be branded a classic Standard Bank Pro20 second leg semi-final at SuperSport Park.

As records galore tumbled in a high-scoring thriller, the intriguingly fidgety Shah earned the Master Blaster award for his wholly enterprising, sometimes quirkily unorthodox innings of 64 off 34 eventful balls, which saw the Cobras not only into a home final against the Warriors next Friday, but also earn a place in the money-spinning T20 Champions League.

As television commentator Andy Capostagno rightly noted, Shah had played a crucial role in ensuring that some of his non-Proteas teammates “may now earn in one tournament what they might have struggled to bank in their entire careers so far”.

He has been easily the pick of the Cobras batsmen in the competition, with 254 runs at a strike of 146 – I have seldom seen anyone repeatedly “flick” a seamer better, backward of square on the leg-side – and was also a beacon of near-standalone solidity in an otherwise woeful MTN40 campaign by the Capetonians.

The fact that Levi has come nicely to light in the Pro20 suggests also that some of Shah’s skills and off-field counselling have rubbed off positively on the former SA Schools phenomenon.

Suddenly, I fancy that a few other South African franchises may just start sniffing around for an Owais Shah equivalent in 2011/12.

And I am beginning to believe, considering the cosmopolitan breath of fresh air he’s provided this season, that may be no bad thing ...

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