Paul Edwards talks to Saj Mahmood as Lancashire's players prepare to play some quite important games of cricket
There was no mistaking the sense of quiet purpose at Old Trafford on Wednesday morning. Practice took place on the outfield and in the nets; players called across to each other with news of Durham's progress at Trent Bridge or Warwickshire's at Headingley. One had the sense that virtually all of the planning for the Friends Life t20 Finals Day had been done. All that was left now was for Lancashire's cricketers to top up skills which are already so deeply ingrained as to be as much a part of them as their shoe size or blood group.
Journalists and other media gathered at the nets for interviews and, perhaps inevitably, they wanted to talk to Sajid Mahmood, who managed to be as engaging and light-hearted as ever without ever hiding his burning sense of purpose to bring back a pot or two for the Old Trafford trophy cabinet.
Yes, he said, it was the most exciting time of his Lancashire career; yes, he was "hoping to get a game" in the semi-final against Leicestershire on Saturday - "I didn't play in the last one because Corky took my place," he mourned. Most of the time, though, he chatted about putting plans into operation and the excitement he and his team-mates felt as the "business end" of the season approaches and Lancashire still have plenty of business to transact.
"I'm really looking forward to it," he began. "We're having a week off and we're training hard, we've done some specific bowling drills and batting drills. We've been bowling to different plans and everyone's looking forward to Saturday. It's going to be a big day.
"Confidence is sky high. Everyone's excited now, we just want to go out there and play some cricket. Leicestershire are a strong side, though," he warned. "They're going to be if they're in the semi-finals. But if we play to our plans and nail those plans down in every department of the game, we'll come out on top. I'm pretty sure about it.
"It's about the best chance we've had of winning silverware since I've been here," he added. "We've got to semis before, but hopefully we can change the outcome this year. Everything's looking pretty good in Championship cricket as well, so hopefully we can carry things on to the end of the season and put something in that cabinet. All we can do is play our cricket, and if we carry on as we are I can't see why we can't win the Championship.
"The way we're playing our cricket and the way we believe we can win from any sort of situation puts us in good stead for Saturday. We've gone into the fourth day of Championship games in tight situations and we won our last four games in the t20 and that shows how much character and how much belief we have. Everyone's drawn from that.
"A few of the boys have been working quite a lot on the mental side of the game - I know I have and that's helped me personally - and it's also helped a few of the lads who've just come into the side."
Someone asked Mahmood what specific mental skills he had been working on.
"Not throwing tantrums when I'm hit for four and sixes!" he replied with a grin. "Things like focusing clearly on the place where you want to bowl the ball rather than just saying "I don't want to be hit for four again."
Two cricket grounds dominated our conversation. One of them, Edgbaston, is huge and may be filled with something like 25,000 spectators on Saturday; the other, Hove, is smaller, but was boisterous and almost raucous for Lancashire's quarter-final against Sussex earlier this month.
"Hove was good preparation for Edgbaston," said Mahmood. "The lads enjoy that sort of stuff. I would rather play with a bit of heckling going on than with three people in the arena. It just spurs you on a little bit more. There's going to be over 20,000 at Birmingham and the atmosphere will be fantastic.
"The way we bowled and fielded as a unit at Hove was fantastic and I do enjoy being the spearhead of the attack. Having that title makes me focus a little bit more."
And then, of course, there was Sajid Mahmood the batsman to consider. Nobody gets his front leg out of the way more effectively or hits the ball much longer than the 29-year-old Boltonian. Is he relishing the prospect of launching an aerial assualt on Harborne or Moseley sometime on Saturday?
"I enjoy batting," he admiitted. "I'm either there for a little bit of fireworks or I'm sat back in the tent after two balls. To go out there and free your arms is quite nice."
And does he remember his 17-ball 34 in last year's quarter-final against Essex? Silly question really.
"Yeah I remember that, but I think Peter Moores has forgotten totally about it so I might have to go and have a word with him!"
Finally, someone stated the obvious and observed that Mahmood was excited. "Yeah, I know," he replied. "What's going on? Anyone would think it was a semi-final or something."
Photo (c) Simon Pendrigh
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