Fawad Ahmed: from refugee to baggy green?

Date: March 29, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Australian cricket has had few positive news stories in the past few weeks on the back of a disastrous tour of India, both on and off the field.

But while the Michael Clarke led outfit was struggling in the sub-continent an Ashes aspirant with a far from conventional background was plying his trade in the Sheffield Shield competition.

The player in question is not a young tyro who has made his way up through the grades in Australia but rather a man who has faced a rocky road on the path to what he hopes will be an international career.

Pakistani leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed arrived in Australia on a short-term visa in 2010.

He hails from the northern Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – formerly known as the North West Frontier – which borders Afghanistan and is affected by the current war in the north-west of the country.

He made his first-class debut in Pakistan in 2005, playing for Abbottabad – the city in which Osama bin Laden was located and killed by US troops in May 2011.

By the time he left Pakistan he had played ten first-class matches, claiming 23 wickets.

Ahmed was a strong supporter of a non-government organization that worked for women’s rights in the region while he also played and coached cricket.

Unfortunately those pursuits were seen as promoting Western values which resulted in him receiving death threats from militant extremists.

With that in mind, Ahmed applied for refugee status not long after he arrived in Australia.

Initially, his application was denied but in November last year he was granted permanent residency after the Immigration Minister at the time, Chris Bowen personally intervened.

After arriving in Melbourne, Ahmed started playing for Hoppers Crossing, a member of the Victorian Turf Cricket Association, where he claimed an association record 58 wickets at an average of just 11 in 2011-12

This season he progressed into Victorian Premier Cricket, the state’s elite club competition.

After an impressive start to the club season – 20 wickets at 12 – he was signed by BBL franchise, the Melbourne Renegades almost immediately his permanent visa was granted.

It was the first step towards a possible dream debut for Australia.

Shortly before the start of the Big Bash series he was flown to Brisbane to bowl in the nets to the Test team after it was recognized that his action had similarities to South African leg-spinner Imran Tahir, who they were about to face in a three-Test series.

It seems the Australians learned a lot about how to handle Tahir after their duels with Ahmed as the Proteas’ spinner returned match figures of 0-260 from a mere 37 overs in his only Test of the summer.

Ahmed ended up playing just the one BBL game, debuting against the Sydney Sixers in Sydney in early January, returning figures of 0-34 from his four overs.

Three weeks later he was playing for the Prime Minister’s XI in Canberra against the West Indies, a sign that the national selectors already had him on their radar.

Last month he made his Sheffield Shield debut for Victoria against Queensland in Melbourne.

It was a triumphal return to first-class ranks with figures of 2-79 and 5-83.

On the back of that performance Queensland skipper James Hopes sang his praises.

He closed out the Shield season by capturing a further nine wickets in the final two games, ending with a three match tally of 16 wickets at 28.4.

Everyone who faced him in those three first-class outings rated him highly.

We witnessed during the India tour that the country’s spinning stocks are currently very lean.

Off-spinner Nathan Lyon, despite his omission for the second Test in Hyderabad, is still the squad’s number one slow bowler.

Xavier Doherty’s performance in India has cruelled his future at Test level while Glenn Maxwell showed that whilst he has talent he needs greater exposure at domestic level before returning to the Test side.

Ahmed turned 31 last month and there is no doubt he is in the frame for national representation with chairman of selectors, John Inverarity admitting as much earlier this week.

Australia’s next assignment is the Ashes tour of England with the first Test at Trent Bridge scheduled for 10 July.

Currently, Ahmed is not eligible to play for Australia until 18 August – three days before the fifth and final Test at The Oval – unless he is granted a passport beforehand.

For that to happen, the current Minister for Immigration, Brendan O’Connor may have to step in as his predecessor did in the initial granting of Ahmed’s residency status.

There have been precedents of fast-tracking passports for elite level sportsmen who have moved to Australia in the past – most notably the case that involved five Eastern European weightlifters ahead of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Cricket Australia’s hopes that Ahmed will be eligible to be considered for the Ashes truly underlines the dearth of quality spin in this country, especially the leg-spin variety.

For the bulk of his career, Shane Warne was said to have influenced many an Australian youngster to try his hand at wrist-spin.

For whatever reasons, very few have graduated to first-class ranks.

If the next to reach Test level is Fawad Ahmed it will be a remarkable story.

Going from Pakistan to Australian residency, via refugee status, and then going on to wear the baggy green would be a tale like few others in world cricket.

It would also be a wonderful good news story for a sport in Australia that has had few to boast about of late.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 28 March 2013

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