Fawad Ahmed: Australia's (latest) new Shane Warne?
Pakistani leg-spinner, who's close to citizenship, is content Down Under, he tells Richard Edwards. And there is even talk of a late run at the Ashes
Thursday 21 March 2013
Australian cricket fans could do with some good news after the three weeks they've endured. Three-nil down in their four-match series in India – which resumed this morning with the final Test – and riven by fights over those who have or have not done their homework, the Baggy Green is looking decidedly jaded.
But help may just be at hand in the shape of a new leg-spinner, Pakistani Fawad Ahmed, who is catching the eye as well as taking wickets Down Under, and is being fast-tracked for citizenship under the country's elite sportsman programme.
While Shane Warne gave notice of his arrival on the international stage by delivering "the ball of the century" to a baffled Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993, Fawad announced his in rather more humble surroundings. In November, he was working in a warehouse and waiting anxiously for the outcome of his application to be granted asylum in Australia.
Michael Clarke's side, meanwhile, were desperately looking for a bowler who could help them prepare for the challenge posed by South Africa's Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir in their forthcoming Test series.
One Brisbane net session later and Fawad's future had been turned on its head. "They called me up for an Australian camp and everything has just gone from there," he says. "I got out most of the batsmen over the course of three or four days – but Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting were incredible."
So successful was Fawad's impromptu trial that Tahir recorded the worst figures in Test cricket history in his only match of South Africa's series against Australia and his doppelganger suddenly found himself in demand. Had Australia, who have tried 11 spinners in their Test team since Warne, found the great man's successor?
By the time December rolled around, Fawad had signed a Big Bash contract with the Melbourne Renegades and the Aussies were pondering a most unlikely addition to their Ashes tour party. All of which represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a man whose asylum claim had been rejected by the Australian government back in August – a decision which was ultimately over-turned after a direct appeal to the Federal Immigration Minister.
"We were advised very clearly that despite this being the best avenue, it was also the only avenue available to us and the likelihood of success was virtually nil," says Derek Bennett, the president of Fawad's Melbourne University Cricket Club.
The setback could have signalled the end of Fawad's cricket career but instead it provided the impetus that has propelled him from the warehouse floor to the shop window and after winning his case, he hasn't looked back.
"Back in 2009 I was working as a coach and as a player and also working for a women's development organisation on the border of Afghanistan," he says. "That was enough for me to get death threats from the Taliban.
"I ended up having to leave my country and head to Australia. Now I'm in my fourth cricketing season, I've been so lucky to end up here."
Abandoning his homeland and his family – Fawad's mother, brother and two sisters still live in the troubled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – was a far from easy decision but despite the hardships he has quickly emerged as a potential saviour for an Australian side still desperately struggling to fill the hole left by Warne's retirement in 2007.
Not that this was ever on the minds of those who were instrumental in ensuring that Fawad could remain in Australia. "The prospect of Fawad playing for Australia was never on anyone's radar," says Bennett. "This was never an exercise in trying to find the next Shane Warne. This was a collective effort by the cricket community to help one of our own who had been persecuted because he was a cricketer."
Before his Sheffield Shield bow for Victoria last month, the 31-year-old had played just 10 first-class matches, the most recent of which was in 2009 for Abbottabad – the city which housed Osama Bin Laden until his death in May 2011.
Queensland were on the wrong end of Fawad's magic on his return to first-class action as he recorded the best figures by a spinner on debut since the 1971-72 season as he took 7 for 162, a performance that left Bulls' captain James Hopes in no doubt that he can replicate his form on the biggest stage of all if he's given the chance.
"He's a match-winner," said Hopes. "He's got great control and he's got a good wrong 'un. He would hold his own at the top level, comfortably."
But although Fawad may soon be wearing the Baggy Green, he's never forgotten his roots. "I still love my country and I would still love to play for Pakistan but these things have happened," he says. "I still miss my country, family, friends and Pakistan domestic cricket but I'm happy and comfortable here in Australia. I'm looking forward, now I have a new life and this is a new era.
"There is so much talent in that region and although people are still playing cricket, the issues which forced me to leave are still very much there. The terrorists are targeting the people that are trying to make a difference but hopefully peace is not far away. I hope that one day the schools will flourish again and that the country can recover. For me, the time [before he arrived in Australia] was the toughest. Now I'm pretty sure that the bad times have gone and the good times are here."
After the spell they've had, Australia must hope that the emergence of Fawad means that brighter days are ahead for them, too.
Still looking: Aussie spinners since Warne
42, right-arm spinner legbreak googly
Tests 44 Wickets 208
42, left-arm chinaman
Tests 7 Wickets 17
30, left-arm chinaman
Tests 1 Wickets 3
29, right-arm legbreak googly
Tests 4 Wickets 5
30, right-arm offbreak
Tests 2 Wickets 13
31, right-arm offbreak
Tests 17 Wickets 63
40, right-arm legbreak googly
Tests 1 Wickets 0
30, left-arm orthodox
Tests 4 Wickets 7
25, right-arm offbreak
Tests 21 Wickets 67
24, right-arm offbreak
Tests 1 Wickets 4
28, left-arm orthodox
Tests 2 Wickets 3
Starc sure he will be fit for the Ashes
Australian paceman Mitchell Starc is confident he will be fit for this summer's Ashes in England after undergoing ankle surgery. Starc flew home from the tour of India following the third Test defeat, after deciding to push forward an operation.
The left-armer said he felt he could have coped without the procedure and bowl in the five-Test series beginning in July, but took the opportunity of Australia's early series defeat to confront the issue.
And, while conceding the problem had "got worse" and admitting he had required an injection to play in Mohali, Starc said he was in no doubt he would be available for the showpiece series against the old enemy. "From the timeline that we've spoken about, as long as there are no complications, then there's no reason why I wouldn't be 100 per cent for the Ashes," he said.
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