A lot of fuss is being made about Fawad Ahmed, the Pakistan-born leg-spinner, who yesterday joined up with Australia A as their tour of the British Isles continued in Edinburgh.
Last Wednesday, Ahmed’s application for Australian citizenship was fast-tracked in the House of Representatives, and, pending the Senate’s approval, he will be able to join up with Australia’s Ashes squad before the First Test begins in Nottingham in a month’s time.
The bill is expected to be fully passed by the end of June and it will allow passports to be granted in exceptional circumstances that cover sportsmen and women who could represent Australia.
Current rules would only see Ahmed granted a passport on August 18th, 3 days before the start of the final Test at the Oval. Australia’s severe shortage of spinners, which led to Nathan Lyon being named as the only tweaker in the Ashes squad, saw a campaign in Australia to get Ahmed’s citizenship fast-tracked.
The 16-man squad was one short of the usual number, so Ahmed was immediately bandied around as a potential candidate to fill the final spot.
So how did Ahmed end up in Australia in the first place? Until 2010, the 31-year-old had been playing first-class cricket in his native Pakistan, before he left his homeland for Australia having received death threats for supporting women’s rights.
From there, Ahmed settled first in rural New South Wales, then in Melbourne. His application for asylum was initially rejected, before Cricket Australia spotted an opportunity. As recently as 12 months ago, Ahmed was working in a warehouse. He is able to represent Australia A already as the ICC’s eligibility rules do not apply to ‘A’ teams.
Many have backed Ahmed’s ability - not least Shane Warne - the man for whom Australia still seek a successor. Many have been keen to weigh Ahmed down with the responsibility of being Warne’s successor.
His captain at Victoria, Cameron White, described him as "one of the better legspinners - if not the best - I've seen in first-class cricket outside MacGill and Warne" - high praise indeed. When he appeared for Victoria towards the end of last season’s Sheffield Shield, Ahmed took 16 wickets at an average of 28.37, very solid figures, but not spectacular, certainly not Warne-esque.
But it is Ahmed who was quick to calm these comparisons as he faced the media at the MCG last Thursday ahead of his departure for the UK. He attempted to remind the press that he has played just a few first class games in Australia and that his mind was firmly on the Australia A tour, not the Ashes.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has welcomed the new bill, but it has not been greeted with delight in all corners of the political spectrum. In a country still getting to grips with immigration and with large questions swirling about what it means to be Australian, Ahmed has found himself at the centre of a controversial row. Bob Katter, an outspoken MP from Queensland said of Ahmed: "No disrespect to this gentleman, I'd prefer to lose with an Australian team than have fly-ins from overseas".
What is for certain is that Ahmed now has two matches on the Australia A tour as an audition for the Ashes, whether he is thinking about them or not. He will be joined in A team by the incumbent spinner Nathan Lyon and the young left-armer Ashton Agar.
What is also certain is that Australian cricket needs some good news: the last three months have brought with them a whitewash in India, “Homework-gate”, the worsening of Michael Clarke’s back injury and ODI troubles culminating in being bowled out for 65 by India in a Champions Trophy warmup last week. All these have combined to make England overwhelming favourites for the upcoming battle for the Urn and perhaps Ahmed provides a little chink of light at the end of the tunnel for Australian fans. Ahmed’s story is a feel-good one, and Australian cricket certainly needs a few of them right now.
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