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'Saqlain acts as our cheerleader' - Ansari

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'Saqlain acts as our cheerleader' - Ansari (2:20)

England bowler Zafar Ansari talks about playing his first game in India and about Saqlain Mushtaq's influence in the team (2:20)

At first glance, Saqlain Mushtaq seems an unlikely cheerleader. At second glance too.

Certainly in the modern sense. He's never been seen with a pair of pom-poms and his dancing days are probably behind him.

But that was the description of his role on England's tour of India offered by Zafar Ansari. It was not meant as faint praise, either. It was meant to underline the unstinting support he has given to England's spinners in his role as coaching consultant and, in a subtle way, it recognises the sensibly soft touch he has taken.

These brief coaching stints are tricky. On one hand, the coach is keen to make as much of an impact as possible in the short period they are with the team. In the case of Saqlain, that was originally only going to be for two weeks on this tour, though it has now been extended to something approaching a month.

On the other hand, such short-term coaches can be reluctant to force themselves on players. One highly respected batting coach who was invited to spend a session or two with the team during the summer departed having hardly spoken to the players for fear of tinkering without sufficient time to make substantial progress.

Saqlain understands this. He understands that, as a consultant, his role is not to completely overhaul anyone's technique and that, going into a game, the worst thing he could do is inject any negativity or doubt into a player's mind.

"He has made it explicit that he didn't want to come in and change anything," Ansari said after England's training session at the not especially catchily named Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium in Visakhapatnam. "He hasn't had time to change our actions and, in the lead-up to Test, the last thing you want to be doing is changing what you're doing.

"He acts as our cheerleader to some extent. He boosts us and makes us feel good about ourselves. And as someone who has been so successful to come in and say 'I think you're a good bowler and I think you can take wickets at this level', that gives you a lot of confidence and that is important for Test cricket."

Saqlain may have learned a thing or two in this regard. During his first stint with the England team, just ahead of the Manchester Test against Pakistan, he mentioned to Moeen Ali that he may like to alter his grip a little in a bid to gain more bounce. But when the result was a couple of head-high full tosses, they both concluded that the time for technical changes is not a couple of days before a Test.

His input is not limited to bowling, either. Moeen credits his improvement against spin bowling in part to Saqlain's comments. So when Saqlain mentioned that Javed Miandad had recently told him how much he admired Moeen's batting, Moeen was thrilled and more receptive to the advice - advice offered many times previously by Mark Ramprakash - that he might like to come down the pitch more often against spin bowlers. Sometimes the source of the advice is just as important as the subject.

That's not to say that Saqlain is nothing but a cheerleader. He also has the experience to offer practical advice. So, while Adil Rashid's Test career has previously been characterised by coaches suggesting that he would need to bowl quicker to succeed in international cricket, Saqlain has recognised that Rashid has several gifts but that speed will never be one of them.

Instead, he has encouraged him to embrace his natural strengths: to give the ball some air, to give the ball a rip and to back his own skills to defeat the batsmen. On the evidence of the Rajkot Test, where Rashid produced probably the best bowling performance of his Test career, it seems to be working well.

"It's more about your approach to bowling and bowling in Test cricket," Ansari said. "How you can maintain your composure when batsmen are coming at you, when the crowd is loud and when you're playing on TV. All these external factors, he brings a certain perspective to that."

Saqlain's background may be relevant, too. Four of this England squad identify as British Muslims and three - including all three of the spin bowlers from the Rajkot Test - have family roots in Pakistan. Saqlain is a man they can identify with, and not just as a cricketer.

Ansari, while reluctant to think of himself as a role model as an individual at this stage of his career, nevertheless celebrates the success of the collective and feels their visible success is "a good thing for society".

"As a group of four British Muslims there is something in that," he says. "There's no doubt. That's really exciting and something we're proud of. A lot of people outside the group clearly care about that and value that a lot. And that is a good thing in our society.

"From a personal point of view, I wouldn't hold myself up as a role model. At least in that way. I'm from a very privileged background. I don't necessarily challenge norms in a particularly obvious way or even in a superficial way. So I wouldn't necessarily characterise myself as breaking down boundaries. But Moeen, Adil and Haseeb Hameed - all of them are doing a wonderful job representing their communities. And that's not an easy role to play."

On a day of optional nets - the seamers from the first Test plus Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow took the opportunity to rest - James Anderson ran in hard and looked as if he was raring to go. But it was Steven Finn who troubled the batsmen most, generating unpleasant bounce from just back of a length. Both are set to be frustrated, though, with England likely to play the same XI that featured in Rajkot.

And that would mean another chance for Ansari. Though he is modest about his own talents - he describes himself as "not a natural ball-player" and seems somewhat in awe of Moeen having spent a month or so watching him at close quarters - he concedes that he is growing more comfortable with the glare of life in international cricket.

"The second game felt easier from a psychological perspective," he says. "Just the attention being removed from you to some extent - as an England player, people are always observing - but that singular attention shifting away is a big thing for the second Test and going forward. It allows you to play the game as a game rather than as an event that you are the centre of.

"I'm not a natural ball-player. I guess it's all relative. I'm probably comparing myself with Moeen or people like that. They work incredibly hard but, from the outside, they have a certain touch that maybe I don't feel like I quite have. But this is just my perspective. Other people might say you're talking rubbish; you're being self-deprecating. But that's genuine."

Ansari's skills are likely to be tested to the full in the second Test. While the pitch at Visakhapatnam currently has some grass on it, the groundsman expects it to turn from day two. It is likely that spin will play a greater part than it did in Rajkot and likely that the toss will, once again, prove important.