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Zafar Ansari – the academic all-rounder of Pakistani descent

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Harvey Burgess

It is not very often that you hear ‘double first from Cambridge’ and ‘professional athlete’ in the same sentence, but then again, the 24-year-old Zafar Ansari is far from your normal cricketer. With the young all-rounder set to replace Gareth Batty to make his belated debut in England’s second Test against Bangladesh in Dhaka tomorrow, it is worth taking a closer look at this most intriguing of cricketers.

Born to a Pakistani father and English mother, the left-armer attended Hampton School in Richmond and simultaneously developed his cricketing prowess at the Surrey academy. Ansari moved on to Cambridge University to study politics and sociology and soon became an integral part of the MCCU side, debuting in early 2011. In a University match against Surrey, the then 19-year-old famously took the wicket of former England captain Kevin Pietersen in a terrific bowling display, ending with figures of 5-33.

Having played for his county as well as his country at various junior levels, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the talents of Ansari came to the attention of England’s selectors. An unfortunate occurrence may have delayed his debut for a year, nevertheless Ansari will be sure to make up for lost time.

In what would have been a happy coincidence, Ansari was due to make his debut against the country of his father in the autumn of 2015, before a broken thumb ruled him out of playing in the UAE. He suffered a repeat of this injury in May this year and consequently required an operation, but recovered well to play a part in Surrey’s County Championship campaign this summer.

All this might seem somewhat normal for an England cricketer – developing in the academy system and rising through the junior ranks of his home county before making a strong impression in the County Championship and catching the eye of the England selectors.

However, it is Ansari’s view of his sport that sets him apart from his colleagues. “Cricket is not the end for me. My life isn’t directed towards it. Cricket is a part of my life,” the all-rounder has said in the past. This may give critics an opportunity to question his commitment, should he underperform on the tour of the subcontinent, however to doubt his ambition would be a great mistake and would be to ignore all the hard work the 24-year-old has put in to get where he is today.

Ansari goes into Friday’s Test as one of the touring side’s three spinners, the others being Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. With the Dhaka pitch rumoured to be dry, dusty and cracked just like in Chittagong, opportunity will be rife for Ansari to stake his claim to play a more prominent role against India. Gareth Batty is the one to make way in Dhaka, but the selectors may decide to bring him back in against India or even go with two spinners instead of three.

Rashid’s place is particularly under threat after a rather underwhelming performance in the first Test, where he bowled too inconsistently and conceded far too many runs, while his scores of 26 and 9 will be unlikely to compensate for his rather lacklustre display with the ball in hand.

Rashid and Ansari have an almost identical first-class bowling average of around 34.5, albeit the Yorkshire spinner has played almost 100 more matches than his younger contemporary. Perhaps it is the left-armer’s relative youth – he is almost four years younger than Rashid – that gives him a slight advantage.

Another reason why Ansari may be edging ahead is down to Rashid’s somewhat terrible record in Test cricket. Averages of 20 and 61 may seem very promising to the average cricket fan, until you learn that the former is his batting average and the latter his bowling. An economy of almost four will do nothing to help his cause while other bowlers like the debutant Bangladeshi Mehedi Hasan concede runs at a far lesser rate – 2.3 in this case.

Moeen Ali’s position in the side as fifth batsmen and key bowler will not be challenged by the Cambridge graduate. Ali batted well in Chittagong and took five wickets too, albeit on a pitch produced to get the very best out of spinners. Were he to be merely a bowler in the side, criticism of his place would be more extensive, however his form with the bat has been right up there with England’s best. In the first innings, he dug England out of a hole, coming in at 21-3 and steadying the ship with an impressive 68, top scoring for the away side.

Ansari may not be of the same calibre as Ali in the batting department, but a first-class average of over 30 only stretches England’s depth and quality with the bat all the way down to number ten (number eleven if Stuart Broad had not been replaced by Steve Finn for this match). His performance with the ball in hand will be under far more scrutiny however, as England look to solve the issues of spin that so plagued them last week.

The selectors will consider this a trial run ahead of the five-Test series in India that beings on November 9, where spin will be a crucial asset to both sides and if this young man performs anything like he has done in his educational background to date, England may have found a solution to their problems.

England XI: Alastair Cook (capt), Ben Duckett, Joe Root, Gary Ballance, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Chris Woakes, Adil Rashid, Zafar Ansari, Steven Finn.

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