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Shoaib Bashir’s heartwarming journey hands England a spin dilemma

Bashir faces a battle for games with club and country behind Jack Leach but the 20-year-old has already validated Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum’s gut-feel selection

Cameron Ponsonby
In Dharamshala
Thursday 29 February 2024 14:20 GMT
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Shoaib Bashir of England celebrates with captain Ben Stokes and Ben Foakes after taking Rajat Patidar’s wicket in Ranchi
Shoaib Bashir of England celebrates with captain Ben Stokes and Ben Foakes after taking Rajat Patidar’s wicket in Ranchi (Getty)

Jack Leach has been England’s first-choice spinner for six years. That could be about to change.

His challenger has emerged from the unlikeliest of places in the bloke who is second choice behind him at his own county: Shoaib Bashir.

“Leachy’s a legend,” Shoaib Bashir told The Guardian in December. “I’m very close to him. We talk all the time about bowling. We go for lunch, grab a coffee.”

Their relationship was clear for all to see when Bashir made his debut in Vizag, itself only possible due to Leach’s absence through injury. Leach presented Bashir with his cap and thanked Ben Stokes for the opportunity to do so. And just seconds later, Bashir placed a Test cap on his head with a nod to the sky and a deep inhale of breath. An exclusive club joined. And a dream that was officially a reality, with the added awkwardness of the apprentice potentially becoming the master.

Bashir’s rise has been well-trodden. An eventually heartwarming tale of being released by Surrey at 17, to being signed by Somerset a year later, with his professional debut arriving last summer. He only had 10 professional wickets to his name when he was selected for the Test squad, but crucially had featured in one County Championship Twitter video. A compilation of him bowling to Alastair Cook. It was spotted by Stokes. Who sent it to Brendon McCullum and Rob Key and now here we are.

Bashir and Tom Hartley have been two of England’s standout performers on this tour. Selected based on a skill set Stokes and McCullum desired as opposed to the numbers they’d racked up, they were a pair of both old- and new-school selections.

Old-school, in that they prioritised gut feel ahead of data, with neither boasting the type of numbers to warrant selection in a pure meritocracy. And new-school in, well, that it was a type of selection that had never been seen before.

Debutant Shoaib Bashir receives his test cap from Jack Leach prior to day one of the 2nd Test (Getty)

Hartley, with 20 wickets, and Bashir, with 12, are England’s leading two wicket-takers of the tour. The quirk being that two cricketers who weren’t always first-choice for their county at the end of the 2023 season, will return in 2024 as Test cricketers.

“Both of those guys have been outstanding this series,” McCullum said following the Ranchi Test. “When we picked Tom and Bash, there was probably a little bit of hesitation from others around it – and from us, there was a little bit of apprehension as well – we thought they had the skills but will they be good enough at this level?

“What we’ve seen is that they are definitely good enough for this level. Opportunities moving forward, whether that’s for us I’m sure they’ll get plenty of those. It will be a slight frustration of ours if they weren’t given opportunities at county level. There’s a very real possibility that might be the case but without wanting to dictate to counties because they have their own agendas, but when you see performances like we have out of those two bowlers, I think you’d be slightly mad if you didn’t give them more opportunities in county cricket.”

A gentle push to the counties to play the lads he wants them to and a commitment to Hartley and Bashir that their international opportunities will not be limited to bi-annual trips to the sub-continent.

Shoaib Bashir celebrates the wicket of India’s captain Rohit Sharma (AP)

There has been no suggestion from England that a shift in the pecking order, with Leach dropping below Bashir and/or Hartley, has occurred. But Dharamshala presents another opportunity for Bashir and Hartley to press their case with Leach again absent through injury. By the time the home summer comes around, Leach will have missed nine of England’s last 10 matches.

To this end, Bashir represents a more like-for-like replacement. The purer bowler of he and Hartley, England have shown in their continued selection of Leach that they’re happy to pick a more one-dimensional specialist in an increasingly 3D age. The temptation to pick a bits-and-bobs spinner who can bat a bit has been resisted by Stokes – and Bashir’s current level and ceiling with the ball appears to be higher than Hartley’s.

His marathon 31-over spell in Ranchi elevated him from Test bolter to a safe pair of hands with the ability to attack and defend in one. Halfway through day two at Ranchi, Stokes had gone to take him off, only for Bashir to insist on continuing. His spell claimed the wickets of four of India’s top five, with all four wickets “proper”. Bowled, LBW, LBW, caught at short leg. There were no freebies here.

“It was excellent,” Joe Root reflected afterwards. “Excellent control and excellent skill… the way he bowls is a good indication of his character and personality. He’s cheeky, he’s funny, a great lad to have around the dressing room and I really enjoy his company.”

An incredibly popular addition to the dressing room, Bashir received a hero’s welcome when arriving in Hyderabad after the delayed arrival of his visa due to his Pakistani origin. Stokes had offered Bashir the option of catching up on sleep, but Bashir knocked it away and was present for England’s historic victory.

For a team that prides itself on finding the fun in cricket, the likes of Bashir remind the seasoned professionals that playing international cricket is the disbelieving dream it should be rather than the everyday it can become.

England bowler Shoaib Bashir celebrates his first test wicket (Getty)

“It was a very special moment on my journey,” Bashir said after his maiden five-fer. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought anything like this (would happen) but that was really special. It was quite emotional as well, actually – I lost my granddad about a year-and-a-half ago and they used to just sit and watch Test cricket all the time. Their wish was to see me out on the TV, I know they’re supporting me from up above.”

History has been cruel to touring spinners of India. Of the six spinners (including three reserves) that England took in 2021, only Leach was included for the 2024 tour. And only Moeen Ali and Matt Parkinson have worn the three Lions since. None of Dom Bess, Mason Crane and Amar Virdi have ever been in a squad again. After Bashir – and Hartley’s – performances here, it looks impossible that history will repeat itself.

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