For many watchers of county cricket, the selection of Zafar Ansari was the perhaps the most controversial.
Just as Moeen Ali, Zafar Ansari is a top-order batsman who bowls some left-arm spin rather than an out and out bowler. He regularly opens the batting for his county team, Surrey, and he is a real plodder. His first-class strike rate is a brilliantly slow 36.77, and when he gets himself set, he looks after his wicket like it's a precious family heirloom. He has three first-class hundreds and nearly 3000 first-class runs. His career batting average in first-class cricket is 30.7, but he is a better batsman than what that shows.
But he hasn’t been picked for his batting. As a left-arm spinner, he gives England another set of variations with the ball. In his first Test in Dhaka against Bangladesh, he picked up two wickets in the second innings, although he should have had two more had the England fielders not treated the ball like a slippery bar of soap.
If England had a brilliant spin bowler that was smashing batting line-ups to pieces in the first-class game, Ansari would not be on this tour. But they don’t so he is. There was a case for Ansari to be left out and Jack Leach of Somerset to be picked on the back of his stellar season with the ball, where he took 68 wickets at 22 in first-class cricket in 2016. The issue was that this was Leach’s first full season of county cricket and he is something of an unknown quantity.
Ansari has been on the selectors' radar for a while now, and he has his chance this winter. He may not play in the first Test in Rajkot, but he will feature somewhere along the line.
The issue for Ansari is that he is far from the finished article. He hasn’t always been a frontline bowling option for Surrey, and in the five years since his first-class debut playing for Cambridge University, he has only bowled over 250 overs once in a county season — in 2015. In many ways, the 24-year-old Ansari is still learning his game.
Not that learning is something that Ansari has found hard. He is a clever man, he went to Cambridge and got a double first. He plays the piano and names left-wing intellectuals and civil-rights activists as his heroes. He has just submitted a 40,000-word dissertation for a Masters degree. It is very easy to latch on to this academia and use it to define Ansari, but he is a really smart cricketer as well as a smart man.
While Ansari is not the finished article as a spinner, he is hugely admired by the England management. He would have been on the tour of the UAE for the Tests against Pakistan last winter if he hadn’t suffered a hand injury just hours after the squad was announced. Alastair Cook has already singled him out for praise, and when he made his Test debut, he didn’t look overawed even when things did not go his way in the first innings.
The absence of spin bowling options in the county game is a much discussed trope. It is also something that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) are acutely aware of. They have amended the playing conditions in the County Championship so that away teams can chose to bat first. The intention was to make it less likely for home teams to prepare green, seaming pitches on the hope of bowling first. Instead they hoped that flatter, drier pitches would promote spin bowling in the county game.
It is early days, but the ECB think it was enough of a success for them to extend the experiment into 2017. Realistically, it will take years for this to bear any fruit. For now England need to pick from the players that are available to them, and that is what led them to Zafar Ansari, but this is a selection that was made in hope rather than expectation.
So much of international cricket is about temperament and how well you deal with the pressure of playing at the highest level. There is little to suggest that Ansari would struggle in this regard. He has performed for Surrey in one-day finals at Lord’s, been integral to their T20 side playing in front of sell-out crowds and TV cameras and taken international cricket in his stride.
He can find a way to succeed with his bowling in the same way that Moeen Ali has, but this tour of India will be a ridiculously difficult examination.
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