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Ansari well prepared for life beyond cricket

Zafar Ansari's start in Test cricket was tricky, but he could have come again Getty Images

Zafar Ansari has always been a bit different.

During England's tour of Bangladesh, he could be seen reading a copy of the New York Review of Books by the pool while his team-mates played on their X-boxes. He named Malcolm X as a hero and Rosa Luxemburg and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as ideal dinner guests.

That's unusual from young cricketers. And not just because Adichie isn't their favourite Nigerian novelist. As Alec Stewart, his director of cricket at Surrey and a man who has known him since he was 10, put it: "Zafar used to read books in the dressing room; the others would be colouring them in."

Ansari's intelligence and education gave him options. He gained a double-first in politics and sociology from Cambridge, a masters (with distinction, naturally) in history after completing a thesis on the American civil rights movement and learned to play the piano to a high level. He was clear, from the first, that he had ambitions beyond cricket and clear, from the first, that sporting success and dressing room banter wouldn't be enough to fulfil him. It's hard to imagine Stephen Hawking laughing at the deep-heat in the jock-strap gag into a third season, isn't it?

None of that is meant to suggest that Ansari wasn't popular or didn't fit in. Open, interesting and interested, there were no issues there. It's just he wanted a bit more and, in an environment that sometimes seems powered by testosterone and adrenalin, he could appear reflective and studious. Maybe he was always the retiring sort.

For those of us who can only dream of playing international cricket - or even county cricket - his decision to walk away from the game is hard to understand. Think of all those years of training and development: from Surrey Under-13s to the second team, university, Surrey and England. It feels like a waste. But most of us don't have his options - particularly at 25 - and one thing this underlines is that Ansari is, very much, his own man. We probably shouldn't be too surprised.

It's not just options, either. It's obligations. If you are blessed with the abilities of Ansari, you might conclude you actually have a duty to do something a bit more important than play cricket. Mandela, Gandhi, Obama and Blair all pursued a career in Law for a while. Like them, Ansari has bigger fish to fry. We may bore people one day with stories that start "I knew him when he was a cricketer."

It might be tempting to conclude there is an element of disillusionment in Ansari's decision. Tempting but possibly simplistic. It's true that Ansari struggled in Bangladesh and India. And it's true that, having struggled, he sank back amid the pack for those vying for a place. There was little likelihood of him winning a recall this year and it might be telling that he doesn't plan on playing club cricket this year at least.

Might that sense of disappointment - realising that what he had worked towards for so long - was so unfulfilling have precipitated this decision? Might the reality - weeks on end in soulless hotel rooms and being confronted with the broad and mighty bat of Virat Kohli - have doused the enthusiasm of the dream? Of course it might.

But Ansari didn't struggle more than England's other spinners. And, aged 25, he was young enough, strong enough and good enough to come again. He would be far from the first to suffer a tough start and then go on to enjoy a fine international career. It would probably be wrong to think of this decision purely in cricketing terms.

Still, the timing of his decision is intriguing. He told Stewart at lunchtime on Saturday. He was 12th man for Surrey at the time, running the drinks on for his colleagues during a freezing day at a largely deserted Edgbaston. It was the sort of day when most people might question why they were there.

Stewart admitted, too, that Ansari "might have kicked on" had he enjoyed a bit more success at the start of his Test career. He suggested, too, that had he a bit more experience on Lions tours or in the England environment, things might have been a bit easier for him. Ultimately, though, Stewart didn't think it would have made too much difference.

"I think he would have made the same decision even if he'd taken a five-for and scored a century in that game," Stewart said. "I know he wouldn't want anyone thinking this decision has been accelerated by not being in the side. I could never fault his commitment. He was a popular member of the side but I knew he was never going to be one to play to 30 or 35."

The timing of the decision - three weeks into a new cricket season - surprised Stewart, but not much else.

"He threw himself into pre-season," Stewart explained. "But he knew something was missing. A bit of the hunger had gone. He thought his time was up and once he thought that, he didn't want to be cheating himself, his team-mates or the game. Something had gone. Something was missing in his enjoyment of the game. It wasn't a major part of his life. He's pretty unique.

"It was a considered decision and it's a brave one. He had been thinking about it for six weeks and, I think, it had been in the back of his mind for about 18 months.

"He had two years left on his contract but we'll cope and we'll manage. We have a couple of other good young spinners and this will open up opportunities for them. There was some emotion in the dressing room when he addressed his teammates and we're sorry to see him go. But we respect his decision and we wish him well. I think he had the potential to be an England regular."

There's another aspect to this. Ansari is a graduate of the MCCU system - the scheme that allows players to pursue both their cricketing and their academic futures without having to choose between them - and, as such, is well prepared for life after cricket. He goes into the 'real' world with the experience and confidence gained from a career in professional sport. He was one of seven players (Toby Roland-Jones, Sam Billings, Tom Westley, Jack Leach, Nick Gubbins, Josh Poysden, were the others) involved in various England squads over the winter.

Not so long ago Paul Best (who has also gone into law) was also grateful for the scheme when he was forced to retire from cricket horribly prematurely, while Chris Jones, who learned of his First from Durham the day he scored a century against the touring Australians, decided to leave the game early to pursue a career in accountancy.

Despite all the obvious benefits - despite the young men and women it allows to pursue their sporting ambitions instead of giving them up to concentrate on their studies and despite those it has helped bridge the difficult transition after playing careers finish - the scheme is currently under review. It would be an abomination - a dangerous abomination that we will come to look on as a failure in the duty of care towards young players - if it was scrapped.

Not everyone is suited to further education but it has to be positive that the likes of Best and Ansari have the tools to go on and enjoy fruitful careers outside the game. The history of cricket is littered with examples of those that could not make the transition. Ansari, bright, brave and independent minded as he clearly is, probably won't be one of those and the MCCU scheme is, in part, responsible.