Debate

Zafar Ansari retires: The changing face of Oxbridge cricket

Cambridge University Cricket Club

There was an inevitability about it all. Cricket could never stand between Zafar Ansari and his ambitions further afield. Each tidy over of left-arm spin he sent down, and each resilient knock he crafted at the top of the order, acted merely to prolong the impending moment when Ansari’s knowledge, and ambition, would outstrip his desire to continue playing. The game managed to stall him for years, but he was never its most orthodox disciple.

Ansari joined Surrey’s academy at the age of eight, and recounts “from a relatively early age it [cricket] was something that people thought that I’d do and I think you fall into things a little bit.” Though, if others were able to influence his future in the very beginnings, to cajole him lightly in the direction of The Oval, then it certainly became the catalyst for his endeavor to prevent the sport from dictating the years that would follow.

Upon leaving school in 2010, Ansari was offered a prestigious summer contract with Surrey; but for him, cricket was developing into more a personal challenge than a sport. By virtue of beginning study at Cambridge University, Ansari was able to continue playing cricket to a high standard, for the MCCU. As Ansari recalls, though, “Part of it was through circumstance rather than a particular decision.” Nobody was ever under the illusion that cricket was Zafar Ansari’s priority.

Ansari made his first-class debut for Cambridge MCCU in April 2011 against Essex at Fenners, and in the second-innings claimed his first victim – none other than Alistair Cook. Just a month later, he was pitted against his own team, Surrey, and Cambridge pulled off an astonishing 10-wicket victory. In the first-innings Ansari ran riot, claiming Kevin Pietersen bat-pad en route to figures of 5-33, and adding himself to the sport’s most ardent followers’ one-to-watch lists.

Now, so impressive, it was the Surrey colours he was donning when he next set foot on the cricket pitch. Within the space of three Summer months, Ansari was named Man-of-the-match on his t20 debut (incidentally, again versus Essex) in front of the sky cameras, developed into a key member of the white-ball sides, and then lifted the 2011 CB40 Trophy; in the final bowling Nick Compton just when Somerset were threatening to cut loose.

“I wanted to prove that I could cope and excel at Cambridge as well as being genuinely a professional cricketer,” Ansari told CricInfo. “I wanted to show that I could do both. But cricket wasn’t my priority while I was there. It was a luxury that I had in terms of cricket being a summer sport that I wouldn’t have had if I had been playing rugby or football.”

Ansari did more than cope with both, he flourished, for he is a remarkable young man. By the time that he graduated from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, with a coveted double first in Politics, Philosophy & Sociology, his ascension through the Surrey ranks had not gone unnoticed by England. Superficially, underlined by a maiden Championship ton and five-for in successive 2014 County Championship games, Ansari was now ready to embrace cricket fully where he had been restrained before.

That is the defining characteristic of Zafar Ansari, though. He never wants anything to define him. His studies and his cricket were tools for each other, used in “instrumental ways;” each denying the other the ability to consume him, yet equally pushing him to new heights in his development.

Critically, cricket was never allowed to become more than a tool; “I think cricket is a sport, and isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.” And his mind, too, has always been attune to the bigger picture in life. When England started the first test against India in Rajkot with four players of Asian heritage (Himself, Adil Rashid, Moeen Ali, and Haseeb Hameed) – for the first time on merit reflecting the almost 40% of recreational cricketers in the country who are of Asian heritage – it was not lost on Ansari.

The timing of the decision, however, just three games into the new season, is of course curious. But if this was an exit characterised by giving up when the going got tough (he was usurped in the Surrey team for the opening two fixtures), then Ansari would be long gone already. In 2015, just hours after being handed a first England test call-up, he suffered an open dislocation of his left thumb attempting to dismiss Ashwell Prince at cover point. It extinguished the opportunity to take to the field for his country, but it likely stoked the internal fire in Ansari, unwilling to bow out in such unsatisfactory circumstances.

The following season, Ansari balanced the writing of a 40,000-word dissertation on the Deacons of Defence – a little known civil rights movement founded in the face of racist oppression – for a history Masters at the University of London’s Royal Holloway college (he received a distinction), with the prolonged and tumultuous rehabilitation of his thumb. He continued to challenge the norm emphatically, thriving – now playing in Division 1 – despite the increasing allure, or even potentially duty, to have an impact on things with a wider significance in life. Over the Winter, Test appearances against Bangladesh and India duly followed.

From Zafar though, the message was always loud and clear. Never disrespectful, nor unappreciative, but refreshingly truthful. “Cricket is not the end for me. My life isn’t directed towards it. Cricket is a part of my life.” For others, such a statement would be indicative of a poor attitude, or of unfulfilled potential, but as Surrey coach Alec Stewart – who has known him from the age of 10 – can fondly impart, for him it was just being ‘Zaf’; “When Zafar was reading a novel, the rest of our boys would be doing a colouring-in book.”

Though his academia set him apart from his team-mates, Ansari was a hugely popular member of the Surrey dressing room, and despite his decision evidentially being long in the pipeline – this season, Stewart says, something was clearly amiss. Perhaps the once self-titled “slog” of what was fast becoming a dual career finally took its toll on him. Ansari endured, so much as enjoyed the many years that he transcended education and cricketing excellence, but even the most impressive of individuals eventually reflected the Oxbridge rhetoric that academia is on a pedestal.

On the same day that Ansari made his first-class bow at Fenners, fellow Cambridge University Undergraduate Paul Best was also a debutant. Like Ansari, a slow left-arm spinner, it was with the bat that Best initially excelled, and in the famous victory over Surrey he blitzed an incredible knock of 150, coming off just 181 balls and including twenty 4s. Whilst still in his teens, Best captained both the Warwickshire 2nd XI and England Under-19s, making cameo appearances in Warwickshire’s run to the 2012 CB40 final, too. Like Ansari, he was firmly in the category of outstanding junior cricketer. But in 2015, Best was forced to retire from the game after two-years of injury plagued performances and recurrent stress fractures. And yet there is a parallel narrative; a crippling back injury the result of daring to carry the weight of expectation of both Oxbridge academia and cricket. The retirements of Best, and Ansari, within the space of two short years, are part of a wider picture. Without them, the sport is now devoid of, historically, one its most profitable sources.

Best’s enforced retirement, though, is in fact an encapsulation of the reasons why the desire to pursue both cricket and higher education study exists, and is so invaluable. Unlike Ansari, who was in a position to plan and prepare for his exit, Best was left with no choice. He is, unlike many others, well-placed for a career outside of cricket, having graduated from Homerton college with a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

There is a fallacy among many that all sporting stars lead the charmed lives of the footballers in the country. But cricket is not as heavily fuelled by commercial presence, television contracts, and sold-out ticket receipts. The wage of a cricketer has no bearing in the attraction to the sport, and that carries important ramifications for life after. Cricket has an absence of depth to its domestic structure; one rung below the County Championship represents a life in the 2nd Xl, home to those who are injury-ravaged and bereft of confidence; the same players that are unendearingly labelled journeymen, and have likely long fallen out of love with the game. The point is, that it is very easy to fall off the circuit altogether. The story of Tymal Mills is a heart-warming one: in the space of two years he has stared down the barrel of retirement with a congenital back condition, and reincarnated as a short-format specialist, with a £1.4million paycheque to boot. In the same period, though, the sport has lost many more.

In the present day, cricket governing bodies are becoming increasingly conscientious with their duties to its ex-pros, and the sport is moving attractively towards creating more opportunities for life after the game. Middlesex Cricket Club, crowned Division 1 Champions in 2016, have recently enrolled no fewer than ten of their players onto an innovative Business and Sports Management degree at the University of Hertfordshire, composed of bespoke seminars and online sessions paralleling cricketing commitments. The club has also moved to host sponsor days, in which its players are able to build relationships that will hopefully stand them in good stead with a view to the future. As the Club’s Director of Cricket Angus Fraser told CricInfo last month, “there are also some unpleasant statistics that follow the game as far as post-cricket lives go.”

Given the clear financial insecurities unavoidably attached to the game then, it would be misjudged to expect a prospective professional cricketer to forfeit the opportunity of an Oxbridge education. But in fact, the Oxbridge environment is no longer conducive to the development of outstanding junior cricketers.

 In days gone by, The Parks and Fenner’s played host exclusively to the finest International cricketers and their adopted County sides, and any player who excelled in such environment, whether scoring runs or taking wickets, was courted extensively to join the professional ranks; earmarked as a future County captain. Oxford MCCU played two fixtures against County opposition this month, versus Surrey and Somerset, but not a single player from Oxford University was involved, and the setting for one of the fixtures was even away from The Parks itself, down at Taunton. The situation is reflected at Cambridge.

 Now, only one of cricket and academia can win at the prestigious institutions. Zafar Ansari is an incredibly impressive individual, and thus he was able to prolong the decision. But for others, the decision must come earlier, and at Oxbridge, however intuitively, there is an obvious outcome. “There is the expectation at Cambridge that everything you do is dedicated towards your academic work, which is on a pedestal. Getting back to cricket after you’ve been there is a challenge. My director of studies, David Runciman, was very interested in cricket but with some of my other tutors, if I said I have to go and play this game, there was a sort of skepticism about it, asking me “why in a world-class academic institution I was playing a game that doesn’t really matter.” Ansari, in speaking to Cricinfo in 2015, was clear about the effect of the environment on his decision-making. It is more than likely that his exit will curtail Oxbridge’s rich cricketing history.

The environment – a certain disdain for sport – stems from the top of the hierarchy, and flows through right to the very bottom. There are, of course, anomalies, those who instead relinquish their students from the shackles they are expected to impose, but it is widespread enough. There was a time not too long ago that Brasenose Grounds, and indeed many others, were awash with budding cricketers, congregating for regular sessions of all day cricket. Now, scheduled games are unobtrusively shortened from a prescribed 40 overs aside in order to fit with the stringent contact hours of many, and a raft of the 22 players are swapped continually throughout the innings. It is not too difficult to imagine tutorials and classes being scheduled specifically so they prohibit access to the game.

Like a game of whack-a-mole, the giant hands charged with maintaining Oxbridge’s stern brow parade around a 3×3 grid perforated with student cricketer-sized holes. Each time one pops up, they are met with the sharp reflex of a blunt hammer stroke. In this game, there are even extra points for hitting over the head those who have particularly strong ambitions in the game. The environment of Oxbridge is winning, and cricket here is dying a slow death. It is a real shame, and eventually, they will stop popping up.

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