Isabelle Westbury considers what we can learn from Zafar Ansari’s retirement about the direction cricket is headed in.
Bookish, academic, reflective. Not often words associated with today’s era of professional sportsmen and women. While Zafar Ansari’s sudden retirement from professional cricket, aged 25 – and just six months on from his Test debut – initially came as a surprise, many have since observed that perhaps this wasn’t as unexpected as it first appeared.
“He’s a highly intelligent individual. He’s got more degrees than most of us put together,” explained Alec Stewart, Surrey’s director of cricket. “He wants to utilise the stuff that he has learned at university and at school, and he’s going to do that. If it had been someone else I might have thought that he’d just woken up and decided, but I know that Zafar examined it [his decision to retire] very thoroughly – all the options, the upsides, the downsides, and we had a very healthy conversation about it.”
Ansari presented a quiet, demure character, was forthcoming in admitting that cricket was “part of his life, not his whole life”, and remained conspicuously absent from any form of social media, to the extent that the Surrey allrounder felt obliged to share through his club’s Twitter account a quick note to convey his expression of thanks to those supporting his decision.
Taken together these attributes – for these are undoubtedly what they are – sit incongruously, almost jarringly, in today’s world of professional sportsmen. Amusingly, at a club like Surrey, the paradox appears even more profound. The glitzy, glamorous and unashamedly gregarious Instagram accounts of the likes of Tom Curran, Jade Dernbach and Jason Roy seem a world away from Ansari’s understated nature. No tattoos, hot tubs and man-buns here. Ansari, a thinker, an introvert, yet for years holding an earnest love of cricket, was always it seems on a divergent path from the flashy, extroverted nature that the game is quickly veering towards.
Would Ansari have remained had cricket not developed in such a way? Perhaps not, his ambition arguably had always lain elsewhere. As Stewart conceded, Ansari was “never going to be one of those cricketers who was playing cricket at the age of 30 or 35.” Yet could cricket do more to attract, and to retain, the Zafar Ansari’s of this world to what it can offer? Undoubtedly so.
Throughout its existence one of cricket’s main attributes has been that it is different to most other sports. The delight of the cricket cognoscenti explaining to those less familiar with its idiosyncrasies, that matches at times last five whole days and between the same two teams, was almost a hobby of its own. Cricket is different, and thrives on being so. Yet the demands of modern professionalism, obeisant to a world of developing technology, fast-moving consumerism and shorter attention-spans, have forced it to conform. No doubt an outgoing nature, overflowing confidence and a craving for the limelight help propel many a modern cricketer to great feats, but it does not work for everyone, nor for every form of the game.
The introduction of one-day, then Twenty20 cricket, have necessitated cricketers that are exciting entertainers. As Sam Billings, very much one of the new breed of short-form showmen, observed in a BBC interview last week, “at the end of the day, it’s entertainment really.” And yet the paradox is that long-form cricket, and that much coveted Test cap, remains the most highly regarded form of the game. This irony was present as England’s new official kit supplier, the American multinational corporation New Balance, launched the international season with a bold but slightly confusing campaign headlined ‘Dear 677’ – that being the number of England’s next male Test player, whomever he may be. A clash of cultures if ever there was one.
It is true of course that cricket changing rooms have long yielded stories fuelled by a culture of beer, banter and boyish behaviour. Yet there was always room for the quieter, more reflective players, recognised as integral parts of the team, without whom the more expressive players would cease to function.
Bruce Mitchell, Jim Laker, Rahul Dravid, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were all masters of the long-form game, the latter dubbed “the great wall of Guyana” for his many feats of concentrated endurance. These were cricketers who could hold their own out in the middle for days on end, yet behind the scenes were more comfortable in the company of their own thoughts, which suited and supported both them and their game. These days, tales of the former England captain slipping away to the family farm to sheer sheep in rural Bedfordshire make headlines simply for contrasting so acutely to the off-field hobbies of his cricketing colleagues. If golf, Xbox and Instagram aren’t your thing, you’re already apart from the pack.
There is no need nor use in reflecting on a golden amateur age, as to do so is to furnish a fantasy. We would do well however to remember that in order to achieve success in the Test arena, the pathway which supports this needs to attract those whose heart is not necessarily set on striding out in gold-coated pads, while chatting simultaneously to millions of viewers through an embedded microphone in front of rows of scantily clad cheerleaders.
For this reason, schemes like the MCC’s university-linked cricket academies, MCCUs, are integral not just as a means to lay the foundations for a post-playing career, but to offer a way to engage minds off the pitch, so as to help focus them on it. For Test cricket to survive it must also continue to ensure that there is incentive enough to pursue a career in four-day red-ball cricket instead of aiming for the big bucks of foreign Twenty20 leagues, a battle it is currently struggling to win. Above all however cricket needs to remember that in an age of faltering numbers taking up the game, while the sport must continue to adapt with the times, it must not neglect to broaden its fan base, and its fan base don’t all have Instagram.