Rehan Ahmed is a cricket freestyler. He injects a child-like joie de vivre into the England setting, which is, of course, quintessential Bazball. It was Jimmy Anderson who likened Bazball to playing sport as a kid, fearlessly having a go, wanting to be involved in every element of the game.
Bowling and batting are barely enough for one with Ahmed’s enthusiasms. He’d keep wicket to his own bowling if he could, though he accepts Ben Foakes is pretty good.
Ahmed is 19 and living his best life. That means no golf when the team arrives in Abu Dhabi for five days of R&R before next week’s third Test in Rajkot. “Not sure how anyone plays that sport. Shocking sport. If you go to Top Golf in Dubai it’s not bad. I hold it like a cricket bat. Keysie (Rob Key, director of cricket) told me to smack it and I missed it by that much.”
The theme of England’s mid-series, mini training camp, is no training, which suits Ahmed just fine. It’s not that he is resistant to hard work. We are talking about an inveterate shadow-batter here, though he is trying to wean himself off the practice.
“Do you know what? This tour I’ve done a bit less shadow batting. I usually have a bat in my room but this tour I have left my bats in the changing room. I love cricket, a lot of people know that.”
Ahmed is now a veteran of three Tests, which makes him the most experienced front-line spinner on this tour, edging Tom Hartley (2) and Shoaib Bashir (1). As a leg spinner Ahmed is the impact option, the kind of risk/reward jack-in-a-box that epitomises the ethos of skipper Ben Stokes. The captain is all-in for wickets, fitting Ahmed’s profile entirely.
In the field Ahmed bombards Stokes with constant telepathic prompts, urging him to throw the ball his way.
“Every time he looked at the scoreboard behind me (in Visakhapatnam) I was like (gestures with a look).
“When he gave the ball he was like, ‘do I need to say anything to you?’ And I was like, ‘please give me the ball.’ Obviously Stokesy will always put the team first. It’s not about making me happy. If he believes I will get a wicket at a certain time he will put me on.”
It did the trick in Visakhapatnam with Ahmed returning match figures of 6/153 in 41.3 overs. Ahmed feels about batting the same way. Hence volunteering for the nighthawk role, vacated by Stuart Broad, when Ben Duckett fell shortly before the close on the third day.
“I don’t know where I got that confidence from. But I just felt it was a good time to go in and I’ll take any opportunity I get to do that. So yeah, I went straight to Stokesy and Baz and was like ‘let me get the pads on’ and they let me as well, so that was cool.
“I kind of just went with the flow. I thought if the spinner pitches it up, I’ll try and take him on. Just the way I want to play. It was the first time India had the field up to me. I thought I would try to nick a couple of boundaries here. It made sense. I managed to do that, got a couple in the last over. Hopefully they will keep the field up a bit more.”
It helped having his hero Kevin Pietersen in his ear every morning. Pietersen, working as a pundit with TNT, would be in the outfield doing pieces to camera whilst Ahmed was warming up. “KP being my favourite, I always wanted to smack it with the bat and bowl as quick as I can and make something happen. I spoke to KP quite a bit. He spoke to me yesterday and said right, I just want to see 6s. I said I would be trying. I didn’t get one. It’s the thought that counts.”
It is the support of the leadership group and the consequent freedom to express himself with bat and ball that distinguishes Ahmed’s experience from his predecessor’s in the leg spin slot, Adil Rashid, who was repeatedly overlooked by the Test team. Rashid made his England debut in 2015, playing only 19 matches in a four year-spell. He did, however, prosper in white-ball cricket winning 133 ODI caps and 104 caps in T20.
Rashid is still turning his arm in T20 franchise cricket, currently in South Africa, and is an important, if sometimes reluctant sounding board for Ahmed. “Every time I try to talk about cricket it’s like, ‘let’s chill bro,’ Ahmed said. “We have had a couple of conversations since the last (first) Test. He makes it clear we are two different bowlers.
“Rash was in England cricket at a different time to me. Leg spinners were always felt to be not the controlling ones. He’s had a huge influence on a lot of players where I’m from, done so much for me in cricket.
“Obviously he would have wanted to play more Test cricket but the time he played didn’t allow that. He always says do what you do best and if you want extra advice just ask.”
Amid the jocularity and lightness of being, there is a serious point to be made about Ahmed’s thrilling contributions. They are facilitated by an inclusive regime that celebrates difference and promotes tolerance.
England likes to think itself a multicultural nation, but often fails to achieve integration. The England dressing room is a paradigm of the good life, a safe space where all feel they belong.
In the case of Ahmed, and his fellow British Pakistani, Bashir, this manifests itself in religious expression. “Stokes is so good with that. I remember a time in Abu Dhabi where there was a team day out on a Friday. We had Friday prayers. Obviously, me and Bash were there. I messaged Wayno, (Bentley, team manager), asking if we could miss this day because we need to pray.
“Stokes messaged me straight away and said, ‘come to me whenever you want about this kind of stuff, I understand it fully.’ And yes he’s stuck by his word. Every time I pray he is so respectful, very understanding. Everyone is on this tour.”
The results are obvious. Ahmed has emerged as a totem of the Bazball project, a man boy of absurd talent and maturity. Pietersen began his career as a part-time off-spinner batting at eight and ended it arguably the most precocious batsman in the English game. Don’t discount a similar progression in this fella. With bat or ball. It’s all the same to him.