As Rehan Ahmed walked off the field with a beaming smile, the spinner’s habit kicked in. With his teammates applauding in the distance, his father, Naeem, watching on emotionally from the stands, Ahmed’s joy was represented in a simple, innocent act. He flicked the ball up into the air, from one set of fingers into the other, that smile still very much intact. He held the ball aloft briefly to take in the adulation of the crowd, but resorted once again to tossing it up a couple more times before he finally crossed the boundary.
In this moment, the greatest of his brief career, Ahmed had to do what he has done all his life, what had taken him to a Test debut at 18 years of age, what had resulted in this historic five-wicket haul. He just had to give the ball another rip.
This was a stirring arrival from the teenager. In receiving his cap on the opening morning, he became England’s youngest men’s Test cricketer. By the evening, he had dismissed Saud Shakeel with a leg-break and Faheem Ashraf with a spitting googly.
That would have sufficed as a fine debut, but the fun continued. He crucially intervened in Pakistan’s second innings, seizing on a poor batting display. There was luck in the way Babar Azam smashed a long-hop straight to Ollie Pope at midwicket, but skill, too, in the side spin that found the edge of the prodding Mohammad Rizwan. In removing Agha Salman to complete Pakistan’s collapse, Ahmed became the youngest men’s Test debutant to take five wickets in an innings, knocking Pat Cummins off top spot.
There is no question Ahmed has lots to learn. Like any young wrist-spinner learning the nuances, the lines and lengths can go haywire, with a freebie lurking close by. While his googly takes you on a wild ride past the left-hander’s outside edge, his leg-break needs a lick of paint. England’s administration has been clear that he is a work in progress.
“We know he’s not the finished article,” said Brendon McCullum when Ahmed was called into the Test squad, and Ben Stokes echoed those remarks after victory in Karachi on Tuesday. Even the mavericks, the ones who picked a kid with three first-class appearances, are urging caution.
This throws up one of the most intriguing subplots of the Ben & Baz era. Under the leadership of Stokes and McCullum, the role of spin has taken on a new lease of life. Jack Leach had been discarded, dropping in and out of the XI; Since Stokes was appointed captain, the left-arm spinner has played every game, been urged to attack and has grown in belief. Stokes seems to appreciate slow bowling and after a soft launch that has gone better than expected he also has a raw but gifted leg-spinner to work with.
This is not a situation English cricket has handled well in the past, having been locked in an uncomfortable relationship with leg-spin, befuddled by how to make best use of these magicians. Just take a look at Adil Rashid, who somehow ended up playing 19 Tests when his talents demanded so many more.
Stokes, with his current inability to do anything wrong, may find a way to make things right this time round, but how he protects and develops Ahmed in the short-term remains something of a mystery. Leach is rightly locked in as the first pick and England’s next Test assignment is in New Zealand, where spin support will not be required. It could be that we did not see Ahmed in a Test shirt again until England’s tour of India in January 2024.
The orthodox answer is to let Ahmed return to the County Championship and Leicestershire and fine-tune everything at Grace Road. But this route comes with a warning sign. The domestic game can be a treacherous place for a young spinner. If conditions are against you, which they often are, you will be the first person out of the team, forced into a bib to carry the drinks.
Even international recognition does not save you. Take Dom Bess, who was England’s first-choice spinner a couple of years ago while second-choice to Leach at Somerset. He had to leave for Yorkshire to get a run of games at county level. Ahmed’s batting ability – which could trump his bowling in the future – means he will get games. Whether he gets the right amount of overs is the key question.
How do England play this? McCullum has already stated his encouragement for Ahmed to continue his development on the franchise circuit; The IPL auction takes place on Friday and it is in the mix. Another option worth considering is fast-tracking him into the white-ball setup as Rashid’s understudy, to come in and play the odd game, to learn all of the tricks from the veteran.
The main thing here – for everyone – will be to stay patient. It’s worth taking note of that Cummins record; the Australian quick took seven wickets on debut against South Africa in 2011 as an 18-year-old and was an electrifying prospect. Then his body broke down. It wasn’t until 2017 that he returned to the Test scene, finally capable of handling the physical demands of the red-ball game. For Ahmed the challenge will be a different one: to keep refining his skills before he gets his next shot. It could be a long time until he is truly ready for Test cricket.
There will be difficult days ahead, ones where the sixes keep falling, the lines go awry, and luck doesn’t go his way. For now, though, it’s worth letting Ahmed enjoy this undeniably wonderful moment in time. Somewhere out there, he is probably flicking that match ball from one hand to the other, still beaming.
This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.