Shan Masood speaks to Taha Hashim about a blistering start to his time at Derbyshire.
“Played a game at Oxford, then went to London, and we’re off to Leicester this week,” says Derbyshire’s Shan Masood. “It’s a busy schedule and it keeps you on your feet. I suppose that’s the challenge of being a county cricketer.” The Pakistan opener has joined The County Grind.
Still, the game hasn’t looked at all gruelling for the 32-year-old left-hander. After two rounds of the County Championship, Masood has more runs than anyone else in the competition, with two half-centuries on debut at Lord’s followed by a double ton at home against Sussex. He’s sussing out conditions, averaging something silly and striking at 70 to have his fun with the Dukes. “As cricketers, when things are going well or aren’t going well, we tend to be very past or future-oriented,” he tells Wisden.com. “What I’m trying to do is take it a game at a time, a session at a time, just trying to stay in the present.” It’s the kind of thing you hear cricketers say all the time, but Masood speaks with a certain conviction. He genuinely means it.
Joining him for the ride is Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’s coach from 2016 to 2019. Arthur left his coaching role with Sri Lanka last year to become Derbyshire’s head of cricket, and he moved quick to sign up his old student after an unexpected meeting. “I bumped into Mickey while he was going back to Sri Lanka after the [T20] World Cup,” Masood says. “We met at Dubai airport and his words were that he was going to call me in the next day or two and offer me the proposition of joining Derbyshire if I was available. We can say the stars aligned over there. It was something that was meant to happen.”
Masood is effusive in his praise for Arthur, a well-respected operator who has brought a certain gravitas to the county circuit by swapping international cricket for Division Two. “He spent three years in Pakistan and I would say that a lot of my development took place during those three years. He’s what you’d expect of a parent. He’ll give you love when you need it and will also tell you off when you need to be told off. That’s Mickey. He’s 100 per cent honest, even if it’s brutal. That honesty comes from a very good place, from a place where he wants you to do better and expects you to do better.
“I consider myself lucky to have a guy who’s going to give me an honest opinion and going to be there for me no matter what. He’s always somebody that will put himself on the line for his players, loves his players and is great at managing his players. I think he’s taking this county to another level.”
While this is Masood’s first stint in county cricket, England is a setting he knows well. He studied at Stamford School in Lincolnshire before going on to play first-class cricket for Durham MCCU, and it was at Old Trafford two years ago that he celebrated the highest score of his international career so far. Having struggled against England in 2015 and 2016 – eight innings resulted in 129 runs at 16.12 – Masood began the 2020 series between the two sides with a brilliant riposte: a 319-ball 156, his third consecutive Test century.
“The best thing to appreciate on a personal point of view from that innings was that what I was in 2016 was not who I was in 2020. There was progress, there was change. If you make mistakes, you always want to come back to that place and show that you’ve learnt from your mistakes. That’s me. That’s been my USP all along. Initially, even if I don’t start off well somewhere, I always learn from it, go back to the drawing board and I want to come back and I want to make amends.”
That constant desire for self-improvement is what has brought him to these parts. “When I started playing international cricket, you sign with agents and you discuss what you want to do and your plans,” Masood says. “And playing county cricket was at the top of my list. When you go there as an overseas professional, you’re supposed to churn out performances week in, week out. You spend time on your own and I think it just helps you grow as an individual and as a cricketer.
“Eventually it has happened and I feel that this might be the right platform to set me up for whatever cricket lies ahead in my career. It’s going to make me feel more comfortable in my own skin. You never stop learning and I feel this is the ideal place for me to learn more about myself and see what brings the best out of me, test myself against different attacks in different conditions. It’s an ideal opportunity that I had been looking for for a while.”
There’ll be plenty of time to take in the whole experience; Derbyshire have signed him up for the whole summer and for all forms. Having begun brilliantly against the red ball, he seems set up to excel against the white one, too. Masood’s List-A average of 57.46 is the third highest of those to have played a minimum of 50 innings. In the T20 sphere, he’s just had the best PSL season of his career; only Fakhar Zaman and Mohammad Rizwan made more runs in the tournament. He’s been unfortunate to have only played five ODIs.
Naturally, a constant flow of runs will invite talk of what comes next for Masood in a Pakistan shirt; he hasn’t played for his country since January 2021. After that series-opening century against England in August 2020, he failed to cross 18 in his next eight Test innings, finishing a tour of New Zealand with three consecutive ducks. Life in lockdown, bio-secure bubbles and quarantine – it all took a toll on him in that period.
“If we rewind back to PSL 5, just before the England tour, I felt in a really great space, both physically and mentally. And then for months as a family we never got out of the house because of Covid. So that meant that in terms of preparation, in terms of cricket training, I wasn’t up to speed. When I got to England, there was a lot of catching up to do.
“It’s a game that catches up to you. You need to be on the ball, on the dot every day, your preparation can never take a hit. And I think that initial period of Covid did set me back a few months. And pressure does funny things to you. When an innings or two goes wrong and you feel you’re not prepared, the game can seriously turn on you, and that happened.”
Masood’s presence in Pakistan’s squad for last month’s Test series against Australia suggests he remains in his country’s plans, but for now the focus is on Derbyshire. With the start he’s had, the question – contractually-obliged at this time of the year – has to be asked: any chance he’s thought about 1,000 runs before the end of May? “I don’t want to have any personal milestones or targets in my mind,” he says, laughing away the somewhat outlandish suggestion. One game at a time. He really means it.