@Phil_Wisden 4 minute read
In Rehan Ahmed and James Anderson, England have two superstars at opposite ends of the same journey, writes Phil Walker.
You may have heard that this week Rehan Ahmed became England’s youngest men’s Test cricketer, the youngest boy in history to take five wickets on Test debut, the second English leg-spinner to take a five-for since 1959 and the latest teenager to make his dad cry on national TV. This week’s miracle comes fully formed, and with a message: that this team has no limits. That age is secondary to class. That experience is merely the by-product of self-expression and that freedom is everything.
Ahmed gave an interview at the end just there, chewing gum, eyes ablaze, swaying slightly as the adrenaline sloshed around. “I’ll take them wickets!” he said, when asked about Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan – one with a drag down, the other with a beauty. Good or bad, “It’s all God’s will”. And any idea why he hadn’t bowled for much of the day? “Don’t know, I was warming up for three hours!”
His captain is intrigued and a little bit in love with what he’s found. He said he’d been watching the boy for weeks, but furtively, so as not to spook him. After confirming that he would indeed be playing, Stokes spoke again about freedom, how it basically bursts out of the kid, especially when he bats. Accordingly, because nothing normal happens any more, when England lost a wicket in the gloaming of day three, Stokes sent him out at three. This month Stokes has given debuts to two spinners; and batted them both at first drop.
Other symbols are everywhere. In Brook’s abnormal nonchalance, Root’s smile, Bairstow’s rehabilitation. In the faith afforded to Zak Crawley, and the quiet revolutions of Stokes’ personal favourite, Jack Leach. And it’s there in the presence in Stokes’ first overseas squad of Rehan Ahmed (18) and James Anderson (40).
An iconoclast on the rampage, Stokes is interested in convention only in order to smash it up. So it must have been tempting to play them both, to bind them forever in the dust and sweat of a Karachi Test, the old master’s studs catching in the undeveloped soil, scraping out just enough roughage for the kid to aim for late in the day. In the event, one played and the other rested. One day, soon enough, they will walk out together.
The son of a much-afeared quick from the Pakistani provinces, Ahmed was born in Nottingham on August 13, 2004. Somewhere else in England that day, Anderson was wrapping up the West Indies’ innings with his first Test wicket on his home ground. They’re separated by 22 years, 1,060 first-class wickets and one first-class hundred, for the boy will cheerily tell you that he’s a batter first, a leggie a close second.
By a certain measure it’s ridiculous that he’s anywhere near this team. On the one hand, it’s almost showboatingly bold. He’d played three red-ball games, and wasn’t even in the initial tour party. On the other, it’s a free hit, and besides, why should the small detail that literally no English Test cricketer since around the second world war has bowled leg-spin even vaguely successfully put us off? As soon as they went 2-0 up, it was on. And so England’s year of behaving weirdly ends with an 18-year-old leggie of Pakistani heritage winning them a match at Karachi.
The calls make sense, though. Series won, Stokes was planning for next year. He’d said before the match, explaining his line-up, that he’d never forgive himself if Anderson pulled up lame before the Ashes due to overwork. Yup, he’s a long term banker.
They say (frequently, boringly) that it’s late in the day for Anderson now, as if such labels need only apply to him, as if it’s not the case that every time a cricketer takes the field is another step closer to the end. Most of them, of course, don’t last very long at all. Ahmed is the 97th Test cricketer to play for England since Anderson debuted. Still, they insist, his ‘days’ are ‘numbered’. To which the obvious point is: whose aren’t?
How it must rile him up. But sport does this, fixatedly. It’s just how it is. People who are good at games must at some point get hung on the line marked who’s past it, who’s coming up, and who never was. It’s the dialogue of sport. The consolatory discourse of the not-very-good. And Anderson is a sub-genre all of its own. Here are some facts: he took eight wickets in this series at 18, on pitches curated by nihilists, at an economy rate of 2.2. His average in the last decade is lower in Asia than in England.
In normal times, if you’re a bowler, three bad games and you’re done. If you’re a bowler of pace, and your oldest’s in high school, three bad spells and it’s curtains. Historically, of course, the quicks come up strong and fade fast. Hardly any fast bowler walks away of their own accord. The game retires them, and rarely is it met with much resistance. Only the very strangest and most obsessive refuse to go gently.
Anderson is perhaps the strangest of the lot. This month, which has seen England give debuts to three more cricketers, marks 20 years since he first pulled on an England shirt. Next summer he will spearhead his tenth Ashes. Study the anatomy of a physical freak all you like; the organ that matters is the heart.