“We don’t even know that Rash isn’t here,” joked Liam Livingstone after England’s series-levelling victory in the second one-day international in Antigua. It was no slight on Adil Rashid, simply a testament to how Rehan Ahmed has slotted in to replace a man 16 years his senior: “There’s an exceptional talent that we’ve got coming through.”
It is not a judgment that anyone who watched the two one-day internationals at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium would dispute. No art in the game is more fickle than leg spin. And yet on Wednesday Ahmed delivered a mirror image of his figures on Sunday: 10 overs, one maiden, 40 runs and two wickets, once again bowling with excellent control against right- and left-handers alike. It is consistency of an ilk that is rare for leg-spinners – let alone those who are only 19.
Rashid is not yet in the Caribbean, instead rested until the Twenty20 series. And yet his imprint is still unmistakable – not just because of his extensive work with Ahmed but also because of how he changed the culture of English leg-spin.
Before Rashid, the history of English white-ball leg-spin was easily told: there was not any. When Rashid made his debut in 2009, only one leg-spinner – Ian Salisbury – had taken a wicket for England in one-day international; Salisbury mustered only five.
Initially, Rashid struggled to overcome this cultural distrust of leg-spin. When Rashid was given a solitary over in a T20 in 2009, Mickey Arthur, South Africa’s coach, called England’s handling of Rashid “criminal”. His 5½ years in international exile before the 2015 World Cup emphasised that England could not be without a leg-spinner. In 50- and 20-over cricket alike, Rashid has been that man ever since.
Rashid’s triumph has not just been to help England win World Cups in both formats. It is also to change the entire English attitude to leg-spin in white-ball cricket. From being a reckless indulgence, leg-spin has come to be seen as an essential facet of any side – along with high pace, the best way to dismiss batsmen when set in the middle overs. Awareness of leg-spin’s new worth to England drove Livingstone to develop his leg breaks, switching between those and off-spin; the delivery that clean bowled Shai Hope on Wednesday attested to his development.
During his prodigious rise through England’s youth set-ups, Ahmed was identified as Rashid’s potential long-term successor – even if he has claimed that his batting will be stronger than his bowling. Taking seven wickets in the match in Pakistan a year ago, when he became England’s youngest ever Test cricketer, confirmed the arrival of a rare talent.
In a sense, Ahmed’s two ODIs so far in the Caribbean have been even more impressive. Watching Ahmed now, the sense is less of heady exhilaration of a leg-spinner so young playing for England, but expectation that a terrific cricketer will do his job. The immediate coverage of the second ODI barely referenced Ahmed’s bowling. His achievement has been to make two for 40 from 10 overs from a 19-year-old English leg-spinner seem almost mundane.
These games have showcased Ahmed’s relish for bowling to left-handers. Unusually, he spins his googly notably more than his orthodox delivery, as Alick Athanaze could attest after being flummoxed by the variation to fall for 66 in the opening ODI. Across his four ODIs, he averages 17, with four wickets, against left-handers, compared with 25.6 against right-handers; Ahmed is also over half-a-run-an-over cheaper against southpaws.
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It invites the tantalising question: could England field Ahmed and Rashid together in the same team? With Rashid significantly more economical against right-handers, Ahmed’s preference for left-handers makes for an ideal complement. The fine googlies that both possess make a pair of frontline leg-spinners altogether harder for opponents to plan for than a side picking an off-spinning duo. Should Ahmed’s batting continue to develop, it will also create further scope to select him alongside Rashid. In Bangladesh in March, the two played alongside each other in both formats.
When Rashid joins the squad for next week’s T20 series, England are likely to experiment with pairing the two together once again. In next year’s T20 World Cup in the Caribbean, used pitches are likely to offer appreciably more turn as the tournament progresses. Rather than have to make an unpalatable choice between Rashid and Ahmed, England might just dare to pick both.