Saqib Mahmood squirms slightly in his seat as a sheepish, embarrassed smile crosses his face.
“It’s so scary to say, but I just go on YouTube and watch myself,” he says.
The England and Lancashire fast bowler, who admits he rarely watches cricket when not playing, has been off the field for five months with a stress fracture in his back.
“I miss bowling,” he says. “The closest you can get to that is to observe yourself.
“It happens randomly, sometimes spurred on by a song I’m listening to, but I imagine running in and taking a wicket — that exact feeling.”
Mahmood’s injury, which ruled him for the season, was diagnosed in May. BBC Sport in June chronicled Mahmood’s emotional early weeks – Weeks that have left him in tears.
Three months later, he is making progress on a long, often lonely and frustrating road to rehabilitation and is now looking forward to his return.
“My legs and arms didn’t work at the same time”
It’s August 30th in a sunny Old Trafford.
The site is empty save for workers at the hotel construction site and a handful of broadcast engineers preparing for a Hundred game the next day.
But for Mahmood, this is a big moment. It is the day four months after his injury diagnosis, the 25-year-old is allowed to walk again.
“Especially the first rep, it’s hard to describe, my legs and arms didn’t work at the same time,” he says.
“It felt like nothing was out of sync.”
For fast bowlers, recovery from back stress fractures is notoriously slow and often boring. During the first 12 weeks, Mahmood could not do any exercises as the bone had time to heal.
After taking a call from the Lancashire physiotherapist while working on a one-day England international at Chester-le-Street for the BBC, Mahmood was given the green light to start his rehab.
Day one was a 20-minute walk, day two was 30 minutes on an exercise bike, while gym workouts included standard push-ups, squats, and lunges.
It’s worth it in the beginning. Mahmood now has a strict schedule that has to be met five days a week, whereas before he had little to wake up to.
“I can’t tell you how good it is,” Mahmood says shortly after his first training session in the gym in July.
“I get up every morning with something to look forward to.
“Even if it’s two hours in the morning and I’m done for the day, that little bit gives you a kind of satisfaction that you got something done for the day.
“My sleeping habits were terrible during my injury, my rhythm is getting better, my diet is better because I have to go back to work – in general everything has gotten better.”
But the duration of a stress fracture comeback leaves time for ups and downs. In late August, at the end of the initial five-week rehab program, Mahmood admits to being “very, very frustrated”.
“You crack a bit for the first week or two, but then you keep doing the same thing over and over again,” he says.
“I literally did every session by myself for five weeks. It was hard work.”
A morale-boosting text by Stokes
The loneliness was one of the parts of the journey that Mahmood struggled with the most. Day after day, he would return to Old Trafford alone or to a local public gym.
A timely boost came in August – a message from the England camp said captain Ben Stokes and new manager Brendon McCullum wanted him to join the squad during the Manchester Test against South Africa.
“I just texted Stokesy and said, ‘Hi mate, I’ve been told you want me for the test match?’ says Mahmood before reaching for his phone.
“He just said, ‘Absolutely, mate. Love having you in the group bro’.”
Mahmood adds: “The locker room environment is something I haven’t moved in months.
“Even after a matchday where everyone was just chatting, it was very worthwhile for me to do it because it still makes me feel part of the group.
“When you’re hurt, it’s so easy to think that everyone has forgotten you.”
Mahmood’s injury came two months after his long-awaited Test debut against West Indies in the Caribbean in March.
That was under England’s old regime but his three days last month were Mahmood’s first experience with the new Test team under Stokes and McCullum who have spearheaded the ‘Bazball’ revolution.
“You can see how the game was played, how everyone dealt with it, it made me want to get fit again and join this team,” he says.
“That was my way of thinking.
“These two days added to my drive to get back into this team and play at this level.”
A return to England remains a long way off but Mahmood will return to bowling this week in the next big step forward after his latest scan showed the fracture has fully healed.
He hopes to be back bowling at full capacity in November and hasn’t ruled out being fit enough to be selected for England’s Test tour of Pakistan in December.
But still the process will be gradual. Full speed bowling from a full run is weeks away.
In the meantime, there will be a ramped-up program of running and fitness exercises – he has a color-coded doc of cup squats, kneeling Supermans and mountaineers – that will help Mahmood get stronger than before. He also has planned improvements to his action.
Despite this, the longing to play bowling again remains strong. Visualizing himself bowling is used to forget April’s pain before his stress fracture was diagnosed.
“I do this because sometimes when I think about bowling, I think of pain,” says Mahmood. “When I run in and land, all I can think about is the pain I had bowling with a stress fracture.
“I’m thinking about getting Wickets in the Ashes next year,” he adds. “It’s something I really want to be a part of.”
There is still a long way to go, but the end is in sight.
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