Ex-England international Afzaal says coaching Grantham Cricket Club satisfies his soul
With the cricket season fast approaching, the Journal recently caught up with Grantham Cricket Club's newly appointed head coach – former England international Usman Afzaal.
Forty-four-year-old Afzaal's cricketing career saw him play for Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Surrey, as well as three Test matches for England.
An all-rounder, he was a left handed middle order batsman and an occasional left arm slow bowler.
The new head coach and Grantham Cricket Club's paths crossed pretty much by accident through a contact of Afzaal's at the Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA).
Afzaal said: “When certain things are meant to happen, it happens. A lovely lady at PCA, Lynsey, who looks after all the members and the cricketers, she introduced me to a chap named Dan who works on employment and so forth, and Dan was the one who mentioned ‘look, it would be fascinating for you to meet the chairman of Grantham Cricket Club. I think you too would get on really well. He’s got a big focus on where he wants to take the club, where he sees the club in years to come’. And that was Ian Mihill.
"When I sat down with Ian, I loved his thought process, I loved the effort and what he’s trying to build here.
“I know already Notts play some of their first class fixtures here, so that’s a good relationship with me and Nottinghamshire.
“And with what Ian, the chairman, was thinking here and I thought why not, why not come here and let’s move a local club and let’s make it a club when in years to come not just Grantham but quite a lot of Lincolnshire young cricketers would like to come and develop here.
“And that’s the focus I’ve got and that’s the focus the chairman and the committee have got at Grantham.
“It’s going to be a club that we’re looking to set, not just our first team, second team, third team, but we’re going to emphasise our junior structure.
“We can have amazing Grantham elite development squads being put in for young kids, so that’s where they are going to get a lot of one-to-one coaching at group sessions. And then you’re going to have your normal club junior sessions.
“So, there’s going to be stepping stones for young kids who want to keep developing. And that’s what Grantham and myself are going to emphasise more on our junior structure and see if we can progress further with them.
“Grantham Cricket Club came up with an opportunity for me. I was very, very impressed with the chairman here – Ian Mihill, I thought his vision and where he wants to take the club fitted in with a project for me, purely because since I have been retired I love giving back to the sport, so there’s plenty of coaching that I do with the PCA.
“We do a lot of coaching all round the country and I also have my own academy which my brother runs, Aquib his name is. It’s called International Cricket Masters, which we run in six different cities.
“It’s all about giving quality coaching to our next generation coming through.
“So, that’s a way of me giving back to the sport. And when I met Ian, even though I’m doing my ECB Level Four and doing a bit of part time work with Nottinghamshire first team, I just thought this is a great place for me to leave a legacy; where I can better the infrastructure of our youth cricket. And it was a glove that fitted me well really, after sitting down with Ian."
Afzaal's obsession with cricket has been near enough lifelong, his first memories of the game being from primary school age after he and his family moved to England from Pakistan.
Afzaal said: “I think I came to England roughly round about when I was five to six years old, and pretty much from there on.
“It was mainly my older brother, his name was Kamran, who used to be a cricket lover. And like most older brothers, the young ones follow, so that’s how pretty much my love of the game started.
“I use to bowl to him and field the ball when he used to bat, and slowly but surely gradually became interested in playing the sport.
“I played all sports. I used to play football, a bit of tennis, golf, but cricket was always a number one sport because of the level of love my brother had for the game. He had a big appetite for the game of cricket and used to be mad about the sport.
“I wasn’t as crazy about the game as he was, growing older I used to enjoy football more. But I think cricket came to me and I came to cricket.
Afzaal said he did not get any of his cricketing prowess from his father who was more of a boxing fan, but he said his dad was nonetheless very supportive of his sons’ endeavours in the sport.
Usman said: “One thing great about my father was that he never missed a game of cricket for my brother, who used to also represent Notts at age group levels, and he never missed a game of mine.
"At that time and when we were younger, for our father to be fully supportive and always be there, taking time out and driving you around the country and making sure you get to the game properly, I think is far more superior support than him actually playing the game."
Afzaal went on to describe how he ascended the cricketing ladder from club level to county level and higher.
He said: “I came from an inner city school, so the emphasis on cricket wasn’t massive. But I got into county, somehow.
“The club I used to play for, they recommended me for county trials. The club I played for at that time was called the West Indian Cavaliers.
“So the way I got found was through playing for Cavaliers and then from there going on to play county under-12s/13s at the time, and 14s and so on. I came through the infrastructure of Nottinghamshire.
“But the biggest appetite and the reason for me to keep continuing to play the game and be in love with it, I wasn’t at all thinking of playing county or whatever, it was just I loved the game of cricket, because that’s the morale and environment my brother had set out for me."
Although born in Pakistan, Afzaal is proud to call himself English and to have represented his country. However, he could have played for his country of birth had he so wished.
Afzaal said: "I had an offer actually [after] a match against Lancashire, first team cricket, first class match. I think I got man-of-the-match pretty much. I got 70 not out in the first innings and 70 again not out to win the game for Notts.
“It was a small scoring, four-day match, and from there I got a lot of recognition from that game.
“And I had an opportunity to go back to Pakistan if I wanted to, and to play in first class cricket for Pakistan.
“However, for me and my father and my family, it was a case of that this country has given me everything, this is my country and this is where I belong. And it was time for me to produce my best results in England.
“There was no second thought even given for me to go back to Pakistan and play. It was always, I’m English, I’m playing first class cricket here and for me this is where I belong. And I want to play for England; at that time I wasn’t playing for England."
Unsurprisingly, Afzaal's own personal cricketing heroes hail from both England and Pakistan. He said: “I loved Imran Khan from Pakistan, loved his personality. I loved his school of thought on how he played the game. I loved his arrogance, in the sense of how he used to portray himself.
“Many more people – David Gower, I used to love him, I used to enjoy watching him batting. The likes of Sir Ian Botham; growing up I was fascinated by how he used to turn the game around on his own.
“Those are the heroes that really stick out in my mind."
The Journal met up with Afzaal at Priory Ruskin Academy where Grantham CC make use of the school's indoor nets, for which the new head coach was most grateful.
Afzaal said: “Grantham has got an amazing ground, it’s a first class facility, but an indoor net in the winter is required. We haven’t got one there yet. Most cricket clubs don’t have indoor nets.
“However, Priory school have been fantastic and they’ve been working with Grantham for many years, and it’s a great relationship. The facilities are fantastic.
“Hopefully, within a period of time, that’s one of the aims of Grantham Cricket Club, to have an indoor net, and have the infrastructure set, which is also a plan of the Grantham committee to take things further.”
Cricket fans will no doubt be keen to know whether the new head coach will be strapping on the pads again to represent Grantham CC.
With something of a glint in his eye, Afzaal said he would definitely be donning the whites sometimes, although he relishes his supportive role within the club equally.
Afzaal is definintely not neglecting his own game as he revealed he is still keeping company with some of the all-time greats.
Afzaal said: "I just recently came back last winter from the Road Safety World Series tournament in India, playing for England, which was amazing because there were eight different countries.
“The likes of Kevin Pietersen was the captain of England, Brian Lara was the captain of the West Indies, Sachin Tendulkar was captaining India.
“And it was amazing, and it was really good to go back and get back into that environment again.
“I love the game and a project like Grantham is one where I don’t have to play, but if I’m there supporting, helping, guiding our first team, second team, our junior set-up and their team, for me that’s massive for my personal satisfaction for the soul."
Grantham Cricket Club first team's first match is scheduled to be played at Gorse Lane on Easter Monday, April 18, when they take on Belvoir CC.