The Investec Ashes 2013

Fawad and the uneasy burden of expectations

Fawad Ahmed's journey is one of Australian cricket's most remarkable feel-good stories, but it is important to keep his potential Ashes contribution in perspective

Brydon Coverdale

June 6, 2013

Comments: 19 | Text size: A | A

Fawad Ahmed bowls during a media session in Melbourne, June 6, 2013
The Australia A matches will be a near Ashes audition for Fawad Ahmed © Getty Images
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In less than a year, Fawad Ahmed has gone from warehouse worker and relatively unknown asylum seeker to the catalyst for a change in Australia's citizenship laws. Cricket administrators and political figures have been working feverishly to introduce legislation to parliament that would allow Ahmed's Australian passport to be fast-tracked, with the express hope of making him available for the upcoming Ashes tour. Assuming the Senate rubber-stamps the bill as expected, they have been successful.

On Thursday, Ahmed was at the MCG to face the media after the national selectors decided to rush him to the British Isles to play in two Australia A matches, effectively an Ashes audition. The press conference was staffed by at least seven Cricket Australia employees. Also present were two Cricket Victoria media officers and dozens of journalists, camera operators and photographers. Michael Hussey's retirement announcement in Melbourne in December struggled to attract such a turn-out.

Of course, after a miserable Indian tour and an all-out 65 in a Champions Trophy warm-up match this week, Australian cricket is desperate for good news stories and Ahmed's is a feel-good tale of the highest order. He fled Pakistan's north-west region in 2010 in fear of his life and was initially rejected for asylum in Australia, until Cricket Australia took up his cause. Nobody can begrudge the organisation a touch of celebration at helping Ahmed to achieve a better life.

But his story has gained such momentum in the wider Australian media that there is a growing belief that he will be the next Shane Warne, that 20 years on from the ball of the century, another legspinner in the baggy green will bamboozle England. That Ahmed will singlehandedly win Australia the Ashes. After all, why else would parliament change the laws of the nation to accommodate him? Ahmed is a fine bowler, but it is important not to expect too much too soon.

He was outbowled by fellow legspinner Bryce McGain in Melbourne's premier cricket in 2012-13: McGain took 54 wickets at an average of 13.50 and a strike-rate of 27.35, compared to Ahmed's 36 wickets at 16.00 and a strike-rate of 32.22. That is not a truly fair comparison, for McGain has been playing for 20 years on those pitches against those teams, and Ahmed spent the first part of the summer distracted by his uncertain future. But nor was his record much better than those of James Muirhead and Brenton McDonald, also legspinners.

Even after he became eligible to play for Victoria, the state initially picked the 19-year-old Muirhead ahead of him. When Ahmed did get his chance in Sheffield Shield cricket late in the summer, he collected 16 wickets at 28.37. They are good figures without being spectacular. Of course, judging a cricketer's potential is about more than just statistics and Ahmed's control, variations and unflappability make him an appealing Test prospect.

But Ahmed himself was a voice of reason at Thursday's press conference, where there were questions about the Ashes and potentially bowling to England's batsmen. "I have just played a few first-class games here in Australia," Ahmed said. "I need to perform at that level to prove myself, that I can bowl well. I'm definitely more concentrating on the Australia A level [than the Ashes]."

At least somebody is. Ahmed does not seem the type to get carried away with hype, which is a good thing, as there has been plenty of it over the past few months. Damien Martyn faced Ahmed in the nets earlier this year and thought he was the best spinner in Australia since Warne. Stuart MacGill, who has worked with Ahmed in recent months at the Centre of Excellence, believes he is "a potential Test match-winner today".

Cameron White, Ahmed's captain at Victoria, said he was "one of the better legspinners - if not the best - I've seen in first-class cricket outside MacGill and Warne". James Hopes, the Queensland captain who played against Ahmed late last summer, said he was "a match-winner" and "the best wrist-spinner in the competition [Sheffield Shield]". This week, Warne said he thought Ahmed could be "a real surprise element for Australia" in the Ashes.

Of course he could be, for not since Warne's last Test series in 2006-07 have Australia entered an Ashes series with a quality wrist-spinner. But then again, Warne is the only legspinner to have averaged less than 30 against England in the past decade, while others like Danish Kaneria, Amit Mishra, Imran Tahir and Shahid Afridi have all struggled for impact. The assumption that England's batsmen don't like facing legspin is not right; they just didn't like facing Warne.

It would also be difficult for Australia's selectors to justify dropping the incumbent spinner Nathan Lyon, who took nine wickets in his most recent Test appearance. Perhaps the final two Australia A matches against Ireland and Gloucestershire will be a bowl-off of sorts. If Ahmed significantly outperforms Lyon, he could be the man for the first Test at Trent Bridge. He would add variety to Australia's attack but no amount of brilliance from any of the bowlers will matter if Australia's batsmen keep faltering.

Ahmed's story is special and Australian cricket is better for his involvement. He is a superior spinner to some who have earned baggy greens in the past few years and over the next few weeks with Australia A, he can press his Test case even harder. His triumph over adversity should be celebrated. But it should not be assumed that he will be Australia's Ashes saviour.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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Posted by   on (June 13, 2013, 8:38 GMT)

@poms_have_short_memories:

"Swann, (avg over 30)"

Swann - 222 Test wickets at 28.50. Do the reading.

Posted by Meety on (June 12, 2013, 0:56 GMT)

@landl47 on (June 11, 2013, 5:37 GMT) - so, when you say "...noticeable that the pitches are much dryer than normal at this time of year....Coincidence?" - are you suggesting this maybe by design? Nearly a year ago - Lord Dexter was saying that the ECB should prepare spinning tracks for the Ashes. I would be dissapointed if this is what England have done. It is very rare that Ashes tests have ever had any manipulation of the pitch from curators.

Posted by Beertjie on (June 12, 2013, 0:50 GMT)

@landl47 on (June 11, 2013, 5:37 GMT), excellent points about the spin conditions and Aus LHBs. I believe keeping a decent length is one of his attributes, but against that is his lack of experience in English conditions (unlike Tahir). The anticipation just builds, but unless the Aussie bats can come to the party the balloons will be seriously deflated in no time.

Posted by landl47 on (June 11, 2013, 5:37 GMT)

Imran Tahir, with far more credentials than Ahmed, took 8 wickets @47.25 against England last year. The year before the Indian legspinner Mishra took 0-170 at the Oval in a game in which Swann took 9-208. Of course Warne dominated England as he dominated everyone else, and if Ahmed is even half the bowler Warne was he'll be a handful, but is he?

It's noticeable that the pitches are much dryer than normal at this time of year. Swann already has a 10-wicket bag against NZ in the second test of the Summer. Coincidence? With Australia having a side full of left-handers who can't play spin? I don't think so. Lyon is a decent bowler, but he's an offspinner and England has only one left-hander in the top 7 and that's Cook, who scored 3 centuries in 4 games against Ashwin and Ojha in India. Ahmed might be very valuable IF he can bowl line and length, which Tahir couldn't.

It's a great story and makes for another fascinating Ashes issue to watch.

Posted by whoster on (June 10, 2013, 21:43 GMT)

Nice to see the human angle covered in this article, and I'm sure everyone wishes Fawad well. Aside from that, it's no wonder so much expectation is being heaped on him. It does seem a desperate measure by CA to put so much effort into getting him eligible for the Ashes. Assuming he qualifies, and as long as he does ok in the Aus A games, it looks like the Aussies will elbow Lyon to make room for him. The post-Warne spin selection policy has been to try absolutely every spinner available in the hope of him being another Warne, and unless Fawad IS another Warne, he'll get discarded too. England were terrified by Warne for 14 years, but as the article says, no other world leg-spinner was a problem for England over that time. The Aussie public shouldn't expect miracles, but with all the hoo-hah surrounding Fawad's selection, they're bound to. The best the Aussies can hope for is that he helps them get less-thrashed than they would've without him.

Posted by   on (June 10, 2013, 9:49 GMT)

i do hope Ahmed does well and gets a better deal than Khwaja has got over recent times.It is a sign that australian cricket is "opening up" like english cricket to people from different countries and from different backgrounds. The fact that he is rated so highly is an indication of the bareness of the australian cricketing cupboard.Lyon is a good steady bowler, but he is not going to win a test match for you . Ahmed may be a good , unknown weapon giving the english "love " for leg spin. Australai will have a very potent attack whichever pace bowler is chosen and ahmed will be a good addition. But who is going to score ? The answer to that may well determine the ashes score line . Ramanujam sridhar

Posted by BillyCC on (June 8, 2013, 2:10 GMT)

I think we need to keep expectations for the full side realistic, not just in the bowling/spin department. Apart from Clarke, every other batsman is in poor test form.

Posted by NeilCameron on (June 7, 2013, 23:55 GMT)

Ahmed might be a great bowler, but Australia does have a spinner who has played more first class matches and has taken more wickets at a lower average and is a few years younger than Ahmed. It is an absolute indictment that Steve O'Keefe hasn't been selected and given a good run in the national team. Ahmed is in the running for the Ashes but O'Keefe isn't even playing for Australia A. It's my belief that players should be selected on merit, not some nebulous set of unquantifiable characteristics known only to a privileged few. I am hating the way Australian cricket is heading and I am quickly losing interest while players who should be selected are ignored completely. Another example is Steve Magoffin - a brilliant bowler in England and yet ignored. Why?

Posted by Meety on (June 7, 2013, 2:14 GMT)

@blink182alex on (June 6, 2013, 12:25 GMT) - well said. You should compare Lyon's first tour of India with Swann & Panesar's first tour. Lyon's was miles better. I would say @ 25, Lyon is a superior spinner to Swann AT THE SAME AGE (i.e 6 yrs ago). Swann is the premier "classical" offie, in the world, IF, the NSP sick with Lyon - he could develop a similar resume to Swann - he isn't that far off.

Posted by Mitty2 on (June 7, 2013, 1:18 GMT)

Very very good article, well done Byrdon.

I think it's a brilliant story, and some of its brilliance has been lost on the commentators of the actual news piece - including me to some extent - who preferred to mention that it is a "terrible desperate" move and a reflection of the state of Australian cricket to fast-track someone's citizenship.

I saw one of his interview's on Cricket Australia's website and it is almost inspiring; something to promote multiculturalism in Australian sport in which has recently been shocked with the Indigenous round and the Adam Goodes saga (as a lifelong Collingwood supporter, I apologise). A writer said that: "it will stand as a beacon to all that good, decent people who play by the rules - regardless of their station in life - can win." and that "his passion for his new home will demonstrate to a whole new audience the inclusive role sport can play in our society." And to be honest, it's hard to disagree.

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Brydon CoverdaleClose
Brydon Coverdale Assistant Editor Possibly the only person to win a headline-writing award for a title with the word "heifers" in it, Brydon decided agricultural journalism wasn't for him when he took up his position with ESPNcricinfo in Melbourne. His cricketing career peaked with an unbeaten 85 in the seconds for a small team in rural Victoria on a day when they could not scrounge up 11 players and Brydon, tragically, ran out of partners to help him reach his century. He is also a compulsive TV game-show contestant and has appeared on half a dozen shows in Australia.
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