It is such a consuming, mesmerising game that the number of professional cricketers who have retired prematurely is remarkably small. Last week Zafar Ansari, five months after making his England debut, joined a select band, notable for players who are very bright or very rich or occasionally – and nauseatingly – both.
Most professionals keep going until the evidence is overwhelming that they are beyond their peak. Until recently this determination to persevere was not so much for monetary gain but because this crazy sport has the capacity to get under the skin; it is well-nigh an obsession, a guaranteed source of torment as well as the odd tantalising triumph. What sportsman fails so frequently or so publicly as a cricketer? Those failures are there in the papers every morning (well, most of them) in undeniable black and white.
Ansari probably wasn’t consumed by the game; he was challenged by it, determined to improve himself and to discover how far he could go. But he obviously recognised that it was not his primary passion. He has been a very good cricketer and a popular one in dressing rooms as contrasting as Cambridge University and Surrey but the chances of him being a significant player for England were minimal.
He realised that. On tour in the winter he articulated with rare candour how his natural ability could not compare with that of so many of his peers. Hence his decision to retire at the age of 25 is easy to understand and probably very wise. He might have been a very good captain of Surrey but he has so many other talents to explore; moreover the modern cricketer, in contrast to those who had six‑month contracts in the 20th century, has no scope to accommodate two separate careers.
It was reassuring to hear how sympathetic Alec Stewart, Surrey’s cricket director, was to Ansari’s situation. In the short term his sudden departure may be a hindrance to the county’s plans but it was for the best – “a brave and considered decision”, said Stewart.
So Ansari goes the way of Alex Loudon, the doosra-bowling old Etonian, who played one ODI for England before retiring at 27. Jamie Dalrymple, once of Radley and Oxford University, played 30 white-ball internationals; he dallied a little longer – he even tried captaining Glamorgan – but his cricketing career was over before his 31st birthday. He now works as a psychologist. Both seem to have survived the fact that they did not stay in the game long enough to qualify for a benefit.
These types of cricketers were once affectionately known as “clever bastards” and they could be a source of envy. They had choices, which was something of a luxury for anyone pursuing a precarious career as a professional sportsman.
Yet an old team-mate of mine once gave me the alternative view. Peter Roebuck, like Ansari, had a first-class degree from Cambridge yet he did not regard this as a means of reducing the pressure upon him to prosper as a county cricketer for Somerset. True, he had options but he sometimes felt that the burden to succeed was greater given that he could easily have followed an alternative career. He had consciously made the choice to devote himself to the vagaries of hitting – or defending – a red ball hurled in his direction at an uncomfortable speed rather than taking up a more sensible and reliable means of earning a living. He constantly had to justify that decision to himself.
For Roebuck the fascinations and tribulations of playing cricket could not be resisted; it was part of his DNA. And the same must have applied to another of those clever bastards, who was celebrating his 75th birthday on Friday. Mike Brearley also contemplated leaving the game prematurely. By the age of 27 he had scored a triple century in Pakistan and had toured with the senior England side in South Africa in 1964-65 (without making his Test debut) but in 1969 he chose to lecture in philosophy in Newcastle, which meant his appearances in first-class cricket became sporadic.
But in 1971 he was tempted back by this seductive game and by the task of captaining Middlesex. Here was another good decision by Brearley. By the mid-70s Middlesex started winning championships under his leadership and he remained stimulated by that challenge. However not even he could have predicted how his career would evolve: a Test debut at 34, the advent of Kerry Packer bringing about the end of Tony Greig as an England captain and the recall to arms after Ian Botham’s 14 months in charge.
Do not expect Ansari to return to cricket in such a dramatic fashion. The game will be poorer without his idiosyncratic, highly intelligent presence. But we can be confident that this England cricketer will soon be excelling in some other field. Good luck to him.
Fans silenced in race to make T20 noise
Everyone is seeking a new mandate for change, it seems. Colin Graves, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, sounded almost prime ministerial when pronouncing: “We are delighted that such an overwhelming majority of our members [it was 38-3] voted to support the changes to the ECB articles [thereby allowing the new T20 proposals to proceed]. In doing so they have paved the way for an exciting new era for cricket in England and Wales.”
So the ECB manifesto can be construed to have won the argument – except that there has not really been an argument. Dangle £1.3m per annum in front of most county treasurers and there is no room for debate. Middlesex and Essex nobly voted against; Kent curiously abstained. Beyond this trio there was only a handful of clubs with anything like the financial independence to oppose the plans. Surrey and Somerset were once opponents but decided not to jeopardise the prospect of future favours from the ECB.
Many current fans – probably more than 48% – feel alienated by the decision as we sleepwalk towards summers with two T20 tournaments dominating June, July and August, one of which is bound to wither away. But it looks like it is going to happen. So, in the manner of dismayed Europhiles, we can only hope for the best when the details of the plan eventually unfold in 2019.