MATT REIZENSTEIN falls for the rising star of cricket, Zafar Ansari.
Zafar Ansari is in no way a normal Cambridge student. For some, the pressure of Tripos is enough to contend with for most of the year, the bottle is the best way to escape that pressure, and playing for their country is merely a dream. Not for Ansari.
Laying into the Oxford side
Having won a professional contract with Surrey County Cricket Club, Ansari has grown used to balancing professional cricket with politics essays: ‘They help each other, really,’ he suggests, ‘I train for a couple of hours a day and work that much harder to make up. The cricket makes me focus when I work. Thankfully, politics is only one lecture or so a day so I can train before it in the morning.’
It is certainly an unusual schedule he keeps. Having played against Somerset in May, Surrey asked him to travel and play Scotland two days later. He said he’d better get back to Tit Hall: ‘Five days away would have meant I’d miss too much.’ His feet are firmly grounded.
Ansari is not quite the typical cricketer either. ‘I get ribbed a bit when I get caught with the crossword out in the dressing room.’ Perhaps it’s not surprising, but he thinks there’s ‘an aura around people who go to Uni, particularly somewhere like Cambridge.’ Did this help when he first started training with the Surrey first team? ‘Performing well in my first few games helped earn people’s respect’, as did having played in the County’s academy with other first-teamers.
Ansari is very optimistic about this year’s Blues: ‘We have a really good side. It would probably compete with a county reserve side. There’s a very good core.’ In 2011, the Light Blues beat Oxford in the 4-day game, in the 50-over match at Lords and in the Twenty20, and this year ‘we should win the respective matches. Oxford are a decent side but lack the depth and if we win all three matches, that’d assert our dominance over Oxford.’
Ansari does admit that it’s quite hard to keep stepping between university cricket and the professional game. After playing for Surrey, ‘the motivation isn’t quite the same’ but the history of the Varsity match gets his adrenaline flowing. In any case, he says, ‘you’re doing it for your friends [when you play] for the Blues because you know them much better.’ Does he feel more pressure when playing for the Blues? ‘I feel less nervous playing for Surrey. As a young player, you feel freedom to express yourself. There are more expectations when I play for the University or for the MCCU [the combined team of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin].’
Man of the Match in his debut against Essex
Ansari, however, is nothing if not ambitious. ‘I am planning to play international cricket. That’s certainly my aim.’ Having seen players just a bit older than him like Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow break into the England team, he feels it’s ‘not that far away. When you see players you’ve played with and know personally, you feel very close.’
Yet despite the great leaps he has made towards his goal in the last year, Ansari doesn’t ‘feel very different to how I felt this time a year ago.’ He recognises that it’s going to be difficult to break into the first-class team for Surrey. ‘There are six or seven top-class batsmen ahead of me whenever I play. The aim is to play as much one-day cricket as possible and take all the opportunities when they come.’ In the winter, Ansari toured South Africa with the England development squad and obviously he wants ‘to maintain that position. To be in the England set-up is great.’
Ansari started playing early at aged six or seven with his older brother Akbar, who has returned to Cambridge to do an MPhil (and to play Blues as well). He is surprisingly modest about his success – although he thinks he was ‘pretty outstanding’ when he was young, he reckons he’s ‘kind of declined since then.’ He puts sporting success down to hard work and luck, ‘with an emphasis on the luck. There are plenty of people of similar talent who’ve missed out because of a lack of opportunities. It’s like Cambridge in that way.’ With daddy Ansari having played professional cricket in Pakistan and England, a wealth of opportunity and talent were always open to him.
Calm, collected, modest yet ambitious. Zafar Ansari’s my new hero. Who knows, one day he might well be a national one too.