The County Championship has always drawn fabulous global cricketing talent keen to test themselves in English conditions. Just last week, Middlesex and Glamorgan fans were treated to the mouth-watering matchup between the 2019 ICC Emerging Player of the Year Marnus Labuschagne and the 2021 ICC Player of the Year Shaheen Shah Afridi. It's fair to say that Shaheen came out on top in Cardiff and indeed has Marnus on toast at the moment having captured him five times in their last seven meetings.
Today I was able to catch up with Shaheen and his Middlesex captain Peter Handscomb, to find out how both are feeling about the County season as it well and truly swings into gear. With Middlesex due to face Leicestershire tomorrow, which Lords end, I asked, would Sheheen prefer to attack Hasan Azad and his Leicestershire colleagues? Possibly an undiplomatic question given the Afridi was sat next to his captain and he was quick respond with a smile that it was Peter Handscomb's decision. Afridi may be fearsome with the ball, but he is a model of charm and politeness in person. He did, however, divulge that "he had always rather fancied bowling with the famous Lords Pavilion behind him", which may be no bad thing if the left armer has left-handed Hazad is in his sights.
Shaheen will lack neither enthusiasm or energy. Asked about the thorny issue of workload, having come here of the back of a tough series against Australia, he was very clear that "I just want to play cricket".
Both players were fulsome in their praise of the County Championship. Peter Handscomb, of course, does have extensive previous experience with Gloucestershire, Yorkshire and Durham, before joining Middlesex, but this season is the first for Shaheen, following a white ball sojourn with Hampshire last year. For Pakistan cricketers, he felt that it is a fabulous opportunity to test themselves on different wickets and conditions that help to develop different skills than those that may be needed at home in the The Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. His Captain, who is fresh back from leading Victoria to the Sheffield Shield final was quick to concur that the Championship tests players by "asking different questions than those from their home environments".
The Middlesex captain was also hugely excited by the prospect of leading Middlesex this season, feeling that the squad has not just depth, but also a fine balance of youth and experience. Crucially, he felt that "the feeling in the group is incredible" and there is "a calm and clear process on how to play", which should excite Middlesex followers. He was also keen to highlight the excellent efforts of Toby Roland Jones and Tom Helm at Cardiff.
This led to another tricky question, for Peter this time. How would this Middlesex team go against either of the Sheffield Shield finalists, Peter's Victoria or Western Australia? The Melburnian Handscomb met this with a perfect straight bat and a wry smile. For a two-match series played here and in Australia, then 1 -1 would be his bet, with the home side triumphing in each case.
There is no doubting Shaheen's genuine excitement ahead of the Leicestershire clash. "It's every cricketer's dream to come here and play at the Home of Cricket" he said. He might just be able to draw some inspiration from his 6 for 35 here versus Bangladesh in the 2019 World Cup (or, to a slightly lesser extent, his removal of Middlesex's Martin Andersson in the Blast last year). "When you play for your country at Lords, you always feel proud and that came against Bangladesh so it was a good game for me as well" he said. "As a youngster, you're playing in a World Cup game and you take six wickets so yes, it's a big high for me and one of the best memories for me."
"Now I want to take 10 (wickets in an innings)," he added with a smile.
"It's nice being on this side, definitely," said Handscomb of Afridi. "Not so nice in the nets, but out in the middle it's nice having him on your team. That first game, the energy he had running in, the pace on the ball. He always wanted another over, so that energy is great to see from someone just coming in. The boys loved him, loved everything that he brought. "I hope that's a good sign to come for the next few games".
Both, Peter Handscomb and Shaheen Afridi now line up alongside each other at Lords for Middlesex. Who, I wondered, were the big influences on their careers, which both include international cricket in all formats? For Shaheen, it was "definitely my brother Riaz". Although Shaheen was only four when his big brother played his Test for Pakistan, he has been coach, critic and inspiration for his young brother through the latter's career to date. For the Middlesex skipper, two names came forth. The first, Greg Shipperd, had been Peter's coach at Victoria, the second, coach there now, needs little introduction to Middlesex followers. It is none other than Chris Rogers who performed with distinction at Lords for both Middlesex and Australia.
Shaheen certainly seems to be enjoying London life and getting acclimatised to English conditions in more ways than one. "Last week I felt cold, but it's really good for me here. I spent time with my cousin and friends and my team-mates as well in the first game and we really enjoyed that time."
Afridi's time in England will take him around the country but there is one location that counts above any other, as far as he is concerned. "Lord's is the one ground I like. Everything comes second after Lords" he said.