RICHARD GIBSON – WITHIN COUNTY CRICKET: Saqib is set to hit the ground running and Abbas won’t budge for pep

If you want to know how long a year in professional sports can feel, ask Saqib Mahmood.

He plays for Lancashire against Somerset in Taunton on Thursday, his first County Championship appearance since that week of the 2022 season.

Forget the extraordinary things England have achieved in the meantime and consider that when the fast bowler was suffering from a backache against Gloucestershire last April, Mahmood was in possession of a test shirt worn during an otherwise dismal tour of the Caribbean had proved to be a rare beacon of the previous month.

Before he was diagnosed with the stress fracture that would put him out of action for the summer from Baz, he received a call from new captain Ben Stokes detailing what was in store for him after that start of six wickets in two Under 23 Tests the County Action was required runs individually against the West Indies.

“I’ve had my shot at pretty docile wickets out there, and I’ve been happy that I’ve shown a lot of resilience and kept coming back,” says Mahmood.

Bowler Saqib Mahmood impressed on tour of the Caribbean before suffering a back injury

Bowler Saqib Mahmood impressed on tour of the Caribbean before suffering a back injury

“That’s what Test Cricket is all about – day after day, spell after spell. I was really proud of that and I really felt at home at that level and on those gates I felt challenging.’

As Mahmood points out, a player can “feel quite isolated” when injuries strike, but it’s a sign of the health of England’s current environment that Stokes invited him to be part of the dressing room at last year’s Manchester Test and he did says it felt like it hadn’t been away when it returned to the limited-crew squads last winter.

Wet weather here then delayed his return to top-flight action by a week and he starts 2023 several steps adrift of first place as he seeks to become a figure in England’s Ashes equation.

Ironically, the elements could further hinder him. In a hot, dry summer, Mahmood’s reverse swing abilities would see him move up a notch or two in a pecking order that starts with Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson, with Chris Woakes in reserve, in addition to pace ingredients in Jofra Archer , Mark Wood and Olly Stone, Fitness Addicted.

Despite being an effective new-ball bowler, he doesn’t possess the nous or career records of his traditional seam competitors, and while he’s approaching 90 mph, he doesn’t get to the other side of that line as often as the X Factor trio.

“I feel like I can do anything the captain asks, but maybe not at the level the other guys can,” adds Mahmood, who worked with Archer at a camp in Barbados before Christmas on his trajectory to improve.

“But if I’m honest, I feel like I’m a better bowler than I was. The hiatus has allowed me to become more skilled and I want to be someone they have to pick.

“In my head now I have the feeling that I have to perform at this level to have the chance to do it. Nothing must rust, I have to get started immediately.”

Abbas won’t move for Guardiola

His outstanding consistency meant Mohammad Abbas’ Hampshire team-mates had long ago bestowed him with superstar status – but he rose even further as he began his third season with the club.

Part of the Pakistan international’s Ageas Bowl deal includes accommodation in the Hilton hotel’s premier ground-facing penthouse suite, and he’s clearly not moving for anyone – including sporting kings like Pep Guardiola.

Premier League teams tend to stay in hotels for away games in Southampton and champions Manchester City asked earlier this month to use this special suite for their manager, only to be rebuffed over the presence of Hampshire’s foreign player.

The joke making the rounds in the Hampshire dressing room is that Guardiola was told to take another room, not because of Abbas’ typically prolific form with the ball – he started the season with six-wicket hauls against Nottinghamshire and Surrey – but because of the fact that the hotel’s operations manager is an Arsenal fan!

Mohammad Abbas refused to move out of his penthouse suite for Pep Guardiola

Mohammad Abbas refused to move out of his penthouse suite for Pep Guardiola

Mohammad Abbas refused to move out of his penthouse suite for Pep Guardiola

ONE TO SEE: Jack Haynes

This is already shaping up to be a pivotal period in the young Worcestershire batsman’s career.

A hundred under his belt in the second-round loss at Durham – in addition to the three he scored in a personal 2022 Championship return from 811 runs on 47.7 – made him the top scorer among England-qualified players in the second division.

At 22, he is already on the national radar, having played twice for the England Lions last winter while working with Ian Bell.

Not only is it visually appealing, but it shows that the art of striking is as much about substance as it is about style.

He also has a decent mentor. His father Gavin served the county as an all-rounder in the 1990s and continues to coach him – officially in recent months when Haynes senior was seconded from Worcestershire to replace Kadeer Ali in England U19 duty.

Worryingly for New Road fans, however, Haynes is out of contract this year and the big clubs will no doubt be circling June when offers can be made to free agents for 2024 and beyond.

The prolific pope stands out

Ollie Pope’s love of home comforts continues unabated: his brilliant second-inning 100, which made a hard-fought match against Hampshire a breeze, took his overall record to 11 in top-flight cricket at the Kia Oval.

England’s No 3 from Surrey has just six elsewhere and an average of a Bradman-like 96 at his district headquarters, making him something of an anomaly among modern players.

Not so good news for batsmen north of the Thames. Things have little improved for Middlesex’s top-orderers since they slumped to 4-4 in their first innings in Division One against Essex.

Ollie Pope has 11 centuries at the Kia Oval and averages a Bradman-esque 96

Ollie Pope has 11 centuries at the Kia Oval and averages a Bradman-esque 96

After three visits to the fold, Sam Robson averaged a 2.33; Mark Stoneman 1; and Pieter Malan 2. And after the trio lost a bowler-dominated contest with Northamptonshire, the trio had still failed to break their personal records into double figures.

Meanwhile, Northamptonshire will have to look elsewhere for a pace bowler next month after Australia’s Lance Morris was ruled out of his stint with a back injury.

Cricket Australia have ordered the Western Australian to spend the next four to six weeks “unloading” after an issue that emerged at the end of the Sheffield Shield season spilled over into the eve of Ashes’ selection.

Morris was set to take over fast bowling duties at Wantage Road from fellow countryman Chris Tremain, who won an impressive 13 wickets in the first two of his three scheduled games.

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