Fawad and the uneasy burden of expectations
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