Surrey's England graduates inspire Amar Virdi to set sights on higher honours

Amar Virdi leaps in jubilation after taking a wicket Getty Images

Given the poor health of cricket in state schools, it is hardly any wonder that a public-school background is seen as a major plus on the CV of any aspiring young player.

Take Surrey's famous four - the quartet who made history in 2017 by becoming the first four teenagers to take the field as team-mates in a County Championship match since the war.

Sam Curran was educated at Wellington College, Ollie Pope at Cranleigh, Ryan Patel at Whitgift, all schools in the independent sector, all with a reputation for providing excellent cricket facilities and coaching. Over the years, Surrey have found them to be a good source of talent.

The other member of that quartet was Amar Virdi, the offspinner. Virdi stands out, and not only for the turban and full beard of his Sikh faith. He is the only one of the four who was not privately educated. In fact, when given the chance to attend a private school, he turned it down.

"I was offered scholarships by some private schools - Reed's and Hampton School - but I chose not to go," Virdi said.

"I didn't want to board and I also wanted to play adult cricket. I have been playing first-team cricket since I was about 13."

Instead, he attended the state-maintained Guru Nanak Sikh Academy in Hayes, within easy travelling distance of the family home in Hounslow, while continuing to play for Sunbury, and left after his A-levels to focus on his cricket.

It is difficult to argue that it was a poor decision. Virdi, currently on his second tour with England Lions, ended his first full season playing Championship cricket with 39 wickets, the most by any English-born spinner in the competition.

"I was lucky enough to play all the Championship games for Surrey and that was an opportunity to show what I am capable of, what ability I do have," he said.

"I was lucky in that some of the surfaces were quite helpful and I was given a lot of overs to bowl. When a team puts their trust in you in that way it gives you a lot of confidence as a young spinner."

Virdi can trace his family roots to Punjab, although his parents are both from East Africa. His father, Raj, moved to London from Kenya when he was 18, to study at university. His mother, Harmeet, arrived in altogether more traumatic circumstances, when her family had to flee the military dictatorship of President Idi Amin in Uganda.

"My mum was thrown out, if you want to put it that way," he said. "My grandad had quite a lot of business there at the time. The Asians had a lot of wealth in Uganda so they were the first people to leave. They don't go back, because of the memories."

Amar grew up, therefore, in West London, the middle one of three brothers. His father played tennis - he represented Kenya as a junior - and it was his older brother, Gursimran, who introduced Amar to cricket.

"He would take me along and, because they thought I had something about me, they asked him to keep bringing me. That was where it began."

Virdi joined the historic Indian Gymkhana Cricket Club in Osterley, not far from his home, and from there moved to Sunbury, where his talent soon had him pushing for a place in the senior teams despite his young age.

He has been playing alongside Pope and Patel since they were in the Surrey Under-13s team together, with Sam Curran coming along a couple of years later. Seeing Curran and Pope making their England debuts encouraged his belief that he might one day join them.

"These are people I have been playing with since we were 14 and we are quite strong as a team at Surrey, a very tight unit," he said. "They have done very well and we are proud of them and hopefully we can be all together in the England side at some point."

"I did go a bit crazy but as a youngster winning the Championship in my first full season, I think I might have had an excuse"

Virdi, who counts his fellow British Sikh, Monty Panesar, as an inspiration, but Gareth Batty and Saqlain Mushtaq, in whose footsteps he is following at The Oval, as his major mentors, is a character of contrasts.

Speak to him about his future and he is steady, measured. "For me it is important to develop good basics, good techniques and not try to climb the ladder too fast, because you can go the other way just as quickly," he says.

Yet on the field he is known for impassioned appeals and for wheeling away in exuberant celebration when he takes a wicket. When Surrey won the Championship at Worcester in September, it was Virdi who was leaning over the players' balcony, leading the Surrey fans in their victory songs.

He smiles at the recollection. "People looking at me thought I'd been drinking, but I don't drink," he said. "I did go a bit crazy but as a youngster winning the Championship in my first full season, I think I might have had an excuse.

"It is also because we have a lot of supporters. At Surrey, we are a big family and it is important to show that they are part of that. Without them there would be no club.

"That's why I celebrate the way I do when I take a wicket.

"It is not necessarily a fake celebration. But a lot of people come to watch you play and it is important that they go away feeling they have been entertained.

"I don't think some batsmen like it too much [when I celebrate] but people have said to me 'we love your celebrations, they're amazing' and such, so I just do what feels right at the time."

As England's nurturing of young talent becomes more efficient, there seems every chance those celebrations could one day become a familiar sight in the Test arena too.