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Zafar Ansari: “I’m happier now than when I played cricket”

An Exclusive Interview with Josh Bartholomew, Online Editor

Zafar Ansari is talking about his new job. “On a day to day basis I think I’m a happier person, so in that sense, I don’t regret making the switch”, he says. It’s a startling, inconceivable assertion, and I don’t believe him. How could any job make you happier than earning money to do what you love and receiving the adulation of millions for it?

But by the end of our 30-minute conversation, I know the answer and find myself bowing to Ansari’s effortless, modest intellectual superiority.

My preconceptions about his decision have been swept aside with grace and enviable style. I shouldn’t be surprised – this, after all, is a man who named Malcolm X, Rosa Luxemburg, Chimamanda Adichie and Angela Davis in his fantasy slip cordon. Rather than wishing to line up alongside the hackneyed fleet of reality stars and footballers as many of his fellow professionals did, Ansari opted for a cordon of political activists and philosophers.

In 2016, when on England duty in India, instead of pondering the merits of bowling over the wicket to Virat Kohli, Ansari was concerned by the worrisome developments coming from America on the day of the Presidential election.

In his playing days, Ansari was an all-rounder, but he didn’t take the swashbuckling path that Ben Stokes, Ian Botham and a myriad of others choose to trample down. Ansari was an elegant opening batsman and a tidy spinner, with little chutzpah to his game but endless style.

When describing Ansari, the word ‘all-rounder’ is a fitting one. Off the pitch, he had as many strings to his bow as he did on it. When he broke his finger and was subsequently ruled out of England’s tour to the UAE in 2015, one suspects that struggling to play the piano with his affliction would’ve caused him equal pain as his missed opportunity did. I make it sound as if he was spending his time counting down the days until his recovery – he wasn’t. He spent the winter after his injury writing a 40,000-word dissertation on American civil rights in the 1960s.

“I felt like I needed to keep my academics ticking over. Because cricket is a big commitment when you’re playing full-time and you’re travelling a lot, I felt like the best thing to do was to keep doing things I found interesting and bulking up my CV then when the moment came, I could be pickier.”

Ansari could well have played rugby professionally too. As it was, he opted for cricket, but Ansari guided the 1st XV to their Daily Mail Vase final at Twickenham from fly-half in 2009.

With this image of Ansari as an individual, it becomes easier to sympathise with his decision to retire from cricket at the zenith of his powers, aged only 25.

Ansari’s retirement came as a shock to the cricketing stratosphere, but as he tells me, it was far more considered than one might expect. “I always had it in my mind to stop in my mid-to-late 20s. I probably stopped a couple of years earlier than I’d anticipated, but I did always think I wouldn’t play into my 30s.”

Now, the timing. Why would you retire from a sport where you’ve just represented your national team and are forming part of the core of a Surrey team enveloped in potential?

“Having reached the pinnacle, if it had felt like I could recreate that over again, then I think it would’ve been difficult to stop,” Ansari sighs.

“Having had a difficult experience, the prospect of trying to replicate that for another ten years wasn’t enough to keep me going.”

Ansari isn’t alone in questioning of his future having reached the apogee of his sport. Jonny Wilkinson spent the moments on the field after winning the 2003 World Cup wondering what was next; in 2011, England’s Test team reached the top of the World Rankings, but relinquished their title less than a year later after struggling to progress from their success.

A sportsman’s journey to international recognition is seldom simple, but Ansari’s was bedaubed with misfortune. He received his first call-up to the Test squad in 2015, after a successful season, taking 44 wickets and scoring over 700 runs for Surrey.

The day his selection was announced, during a County Championship game in Lancashire, Ansari dislocated his thumb fielding at gully and was ruled out of England’s tour to the UAE, as well as Surrey’s One Day Cup final later that week at Lords.

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Ansari lies stricken after his injury

The following season, Ansari struggled to regain the form which had led to his international call-up the year before. Despite his woes in 2016, England still recognised his achievements – selecting the spinner for the tour of Bangladesh and India.

After England won a thrilling first Test in Bangladesh, Ansari was picked for the next game in Dhaka. Though his team were outplayed, Ansari shone, and but for England’s characteristic fielding woes he would have ended up with five wickets on Test debut. It would have been some start to his career in the toughest arena of the game. “I think if you take five wickets on debut, you give yourself a lot of confidence and a lot of leeway. Because I went into the second game with two wickets under my belt instead of five, I was significantly less confident.

“I think that it made a big difference, but equally who knows. I could’ve taken all those wickets and performed exactly the same in the next two Test matches; I could’ve injured myself again and that would’ve been that.”

As it happened, Ansari would play only two more games for England, before picking up a back injury which forced him to fly home early.

After returning from India, Ansari trained with Surrey and threw himself into pre-season with typical tenacity, but ultimately found his sporting ambition had waned and retired from cricket. “It happened very quickly. When I came back from the trip to India and Bangladesh my mindset was that I really wanted to be a part of the Surrey team.

“I’d been there for seven years and I’d enjoyed a lot of that. I wasn’t picked for the first Championship game of the season. I was picked for the second one but I really struggled. I just didn’t enjoy being out there on the field, and I really questioned why I was still doing this having played for England, and [I] wanted to do other things.

“It turned very quickly within the space of a couple of weeks. I had conversations with friends and family and I made the decision.”

His decision was met with widespread incredulity, but it speaks volumes of the respect Ansari held in the Surrey dressing room that when he informed them of his decision, players were crying, legendary batsman Kumar Sangakkara spoke about his impact on the team, and Kevin Pietersen – who ordinarily uses his Twitter account as a platform for fomenting condemnation described Ansari as “way too clever to be a cricketer.”

Surrey won the County Championship the season after Ansari’s retirement, and England returned to the sub-continent this winter – a tour he would likely have been a part of – and beat Sri Lanka 3-0. Jealousy would be an axiomatically inevitable feeling, but Ansari insists that he was nonplussed. “I don’t feel jealous. I retired not on the basis of success or failure, or how well I was doing, but based on other factors distinct from cricket.

“It was nice to see Surrey do well and it’s been nice to see England do well and not feel like I wanted to be there day-in, day-out and on the field trying to take wickets and score runs. To some extent, it’s confirmed that what I did was the right thing for me.”

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Ansari playing for England

Many sportsmen struggle with retirement – a BBC survey this year said that half of retired sportspeople have concerns over their mental and emotional wellbeing. Naturally, this was not a problem for Ansari, who went straight from cricket to working at Just for Kids Law, a legal charity supporting young people with immigration, housing or school issues.

Ansari’s role involved advocating on their behalf in different legal sectors, but he has now moved to a different charity called Inquest, which helps bereaved families who have lost relatives in state-related deaths.

In just over a year, Ansari has gone from playing cricket in front of thousands in India to fighting against the most powerful force in the country – the government.

There’s a noticeable change in Ansari’s demeanour as he talks about his new life. His face lightens up at the thought of helping people. Is this new impact on lives the salient factor for Ansari’s career change?

“I think so. As a cricketer, you feel like you’re providing some sort of entertainment and people do get quite a lot of satisfaction out of it, so there is an impact there, but I think that the comparison between that and the effect that you can have on a young person who is really struggling to understand how to gain status in this country is huge.”

There’s a key message hidden behind Ansari’s eloquence: do what you love, and don’t conform to the imagined expectations you set for yourself. It would not be altogether surprising, therefore, if he were now to look back with regret on years wasted playing cricket, but Ansari insists this was not the case. “I think people should do what they want as a profession – what gives them pleasure, what they find interesting. For a long time, cricket was that for me, so I’m glad I did it.

“I’m glad though, that it played out in the way that it did. I was obviously hugely fortunate to play for England quite young so I could say I’ve done that and move on. I think for a lot of people, cricket is the best thing that they could be doing, and for me it was for a period of time, but it stopped being that.”

As our conversation comes to an end, Ansari is reluctant to reflect on his cricket career. He thinks we’ve talked about it enough, I deduce. He’s right. There’s far more to Zafar Ansari than cricket.

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