Rehan Ahmed: I am working on Shane Warne’s ‘flipper’ to add to my armoury in India

Rehan Ahmed bowling for England during their Twenty20 series in West Indies

Rehan Ahmed missed Brendon McCullum’s call. Instead, a WhatsApp message from the Test coach told him: ‘you got picked’.

It was an apt way for Ahmed to learn of his selection to tour India. While Ahmed is a 19-year-old English leg-spinner, his ascent has been so prodigious that his presence, in any format, is now almost accepted as a mundane fact - except by the player himself. “I still get shocked when I get picked,” he says. “It’s Test cricket, it’s a big thing, I think about it every day. It is the hardest game ever.”

India is the land that even Shane Warne could not conquer; the greatest-ever leg-spinner averaged 43.11 in Tests there. “I’ve accepted it’s going to be hard,” Ahmed says. “I’ll try my best. That’s all I can control. I’m just looking forward to playing Test cricket again.”

But after the five Tests in India, Ahmed will not return to the country for the Indian Premier League. With the security of a two-year England central contract, he opted out of the auction. Ahmed will use the period to have a well-earned extended break, and to hone a new delivery.

“The least I could do is make sure I’m fully ready for whatever I can be for England. There’s a lot of time for IPL and stuff if I get the chance again, and if I don’t get the chance to do it, I’m fine with that as well.

“I spoke to a couple of people - if you want a long career, you don’t want to burn out too soon. Just being ready for England is my main priority.”

With Warnian mischief, Ahmed explains his plans to expand his repertoire. “I don’t like focusing on new things while in competition - I keep it as simple as I can. But I’m sure when I have two or three weeks off I can put my head down and work on something special.”

Warne, of course, loved to proclaim such things, which were mostly a mirage: once, he even claimed to have invented a mysterious ‘disco ball’. Now, Ahmed intends to try to master one of Warne’s most celebrated deliveries: the flipper, which skids on straight and quickly, often scuttling under the bat.

“It could be a flipper,” he discloses. “I think the flipper’s a nice ball to have, especially in T20 cricket - even Test cricket, the way it’s going right now. Flipper’s a nice ball to have, seeing Warney the way he used to bowl it as well, the way he used to set batsmen up.”

For now, Ahmed’s armoury comprises four deliveries: “leggy; slider-ish, not a full slider yet; googly; top-spinner.” Adil Rashid, meanwhile, “has got about seven different leg-spinners … Rash is just different level.”

In England’s pre-Christmas Twenty20 series in the Caribbean, the two leg-spinners, 16 years apart, bowled in tandem.

“I speak to Rash a lot about bowling,” Ahmed says. “I don’t like when I get told loads of technical things. I’m more tactical, so about field placings and plans. I get more talking about that than talking about footwork and front arm.

“We both understand I’m not the bowler he is, he’s not the bowler I am - completely different, which makes it more interesting.”

One difference is that Ahmed can bowl quicker. “I will try and hold my speed a bit in India: with the wicket doing what it does, less time to react is the best way to go.”

Rashid’s best advice is: “Just be yourself, you’re here because of what you’ve done, not because of what I’ve done.”

When Rashid made his international debut, in 2009, England’s understanding of leg-spin resembled a toddler’s grasp of Latin grammar. By educating English cricket about wrist spin, Rashid has created a more fertile climate for the new generation.

Ahmed said: “Rash went through a lot, I think, when he was younger: he got picked and then he didn’t play for England for six, seven years. And then he came back and became the best in the world. So he’s made a pathway for us.”

This age’s focus on empowering players is ideally suited to a teenage leg-spinner. When Ahmed became England’s youngest-ever Test cricketer, marking the occasion with seven wickets in the match in Karachi in December 2022, Ben Stokes encouraged him to set his own fields. “I just genuinely believe if I was in a different Test team, I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable,” he said.

Ahmed’s greatest debt, though, is to his parents. From about “three weeks” old he played cricket with a plastic bat at the family house in Nottingham. As Ahmed’s progress continued, his parents ferried him around the country. “Mum’s probably been the busiest of all of us. Dad basically sacrificed his life for us - working, training us, taking us to training. It’s nice to see that he can travel and just watch cricket now.

Rehan Ahmed and his father Naeem on his Test debut in Pakistan
Ahmed is congratulated by his father Naeem after winning his first England Test cap in 2022 - Getty Images/Matthew Lewis

“We’d go down to Surrey or up to Manchester and I’d get out for a golden duck. Coming back home, at times it felt like a pointless journey, but my dad always did it.”

Aged 11, Rehan asked if he could have a console. “My dad said to me, ‘Do you want to play console games? Or do you want to play cricket?’ I wanted to play console games, but I said cricket. After that, I just fell in love with the game.

“My dad was like, ‘You can’t be the best at something if you’re not fully committed to it’.”

To this day, Ahmed does not own a console.

Instead, Ahmed embraced Cavaliers and Carrington, the Nottingham Premier League club where he plays alongside his two brothers. Raheem, a 20-year-old left-arm all-rounder, is “the most naturally gifted out of all of us” and hopes to break into the professional game after two injury-ravaged years. Farhan, an off-spinner who is about to turn 16 - “he thinks he’s Nathan Lyon, but he doesn’t like showing that off” - is now in South Africa for the Under-19 World Cup, accompanied by their father. Last year, Ahmed still found time to play two games for Cavaliers as a specialist batsman alongside his family.

“I love cricket,” Ahmed said. “Playing club cricket makes me like playing international cricket more as well. I think if I just play internationals it might feel like a job. But the fun you get from club cricket, playing with your mates, playing with a club you’ve played at for years, and all the jokes - it’s all a big part of it. I’d always try and be available as much as I can for club cricket.

“I just want to be on the field with mates and stuff - brothers, Dad, friends... The Cavaliers group is like a family.”

When he bowls, Ahmed’s approach befits his club’s name. “I just freestyle it really - it depends how I feel,” he said. “If I know someone will try and whack me, obviously I’ll try and set a plan in place. But apart from that, I just go on my gut feeling.”

He normally decides what delivery to bowl “very late, unless I know, this guy can’t hit this ball”. Across all three formats, with bat and ball alike, Ahmed’s approach is similar: “Play your own way, but be smart about it. So that’s the basic message.”

For all the claims that Ahmed will ultimately be a better batsman than bowler - he has a first-class average of 32 and hopes to eventually bat “six or seven” for England - he has yet to make an impact with the bat in international cricket. In 11 innings, Ahmed’s top score is 15.

“I don’t feel that I’ve performed the way I should,” he said. “I’m still trying to slog every ball for six for now. But hopefully in the India tour, if I get a chance I make it count.” Ahmed admires India’s Suryakumar Yadav, “The way he smacks it is proper”.

Ahmed’s belief that “technique’s very overrated as long as you see the ball and try and hit it” is in keeping with his hero, Kevin Pietersen. He admired “the way he went about everything, his aura, his presence”. In a different era, “he still played the way he wants to play”.

Before Ahmed’s Test debut, he told Rob Key that Pietersen was his favourite cricketer. “I got a message from him later that night, which was nice,” he said.

For all the changes in his life in the 13 months since, the core of Ahmed’s world has remained unchanged. His Muslim faith “keeps me sane”, Ahmed said. “It’s the most important aspect to my life, it’s why I’m here. Everything is secondary - family, cricket, everything - after faith.”

When not travelling the world to play cricket, Ahmed still lives at home in Nottingham, staying in his boyhood room. “I like that room, it’s all good. I’ve got the hardest bed in the world - it’s like a rock.”

Here, as a boy, Ahmed dreamt of playing for England. Now, he dares to imagine something even better. “Hopefully we have all three Ahmeds playing,” he said.

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