Rehan Ahmed could make his debut in the third Test against Pakistan as England look to complete a 3-0 series sweep.Ahmed, the 18-year-old legspinning allrounder, would become the youngest debutant for the men’s team if selected. After being added to the squad during the pre-tour camp in Abu Dhabi, he has not been directly involved in the first two Tests but has been a regular substitute fielder, in particular in the Rawalpindi Test when Liam Livingstone suffered a tour-ending knee injury.
Ahmed came close to the XI for that first Test when left-arm spinner Jack Leach’s participation was thrown into doubt after he was struck down by a virus that infected half the squad. Leach pulled through and, along with the offspin of Joe Root and Will Jacks, has provided the slow-bowling options on two flat pitches.
Livingstone’s injury, however, means that Ahmed is the only wristspinner in the squad. His work in the nets continued at Karachi’s National Stadium on Thursday, when he and the other alternates underwent a training session while those who played a part in the series-sealing 26-run win in Multan were given the day off to rest or play golf.Speaking on Thursday morning at the team hotel, Test captain Ben Stokes revealed Ahmed was under serious consideration for the final match of 2022. Changes to the XI are expected in Karachi, with Ben Foakes set to return behind the stumps to allow Ollie Pope to focus on batting at No. 3, but Stokes insisted that handing Ahmed his first cap would be a decision based on ability rather than an act of charity.
“We’ve been thinking about it,” Stokes said. “We can’t go into too much detail until me and Baz [Brendon McCullum] have had a look at the wicket.
“When we spoke about having Rehan into the squad, it was more than just bringing him in and integrating him into the squad. We did speak about us having no issues with selecting him if we felt it was the right option. I don’t think this is a case of, if he was to play, of giving caps away. We picked him in the squad not just because of his talent, but because we thought it would be a good opportunity to play if we thought it was necessary.”
A maiden international cap would end a breakthrough year on a high for Ahmed. It began with 12 wickets during the Under-19 World Cup in February as England finished runners-up to India. A first-class debut in Division Two of the County Championship came in May, and he ended the summer with a maiden five-wicket haul and century against Derbyshire. In between whiles, he training alongside England’s white-ball squads during their series with India and South Africa, and played five matches for Southern Brave in the Hundred.Though Ahmed was not originally in the 15-man squad selected for this first series back in Pakistan since 2005, but his addition was not as last-minute as it seemed. The prospect had been floated in the initial selection meeting with two primary takeaways: the importance of insulating Ahmed from outside pressure, particularly from the media, and that head coach McCullum wanted to see and work with Ahmed first before taking him on tour.
That opportunity came during the training camp, and McCullum was suitably impressed by both Ahmed’s ability and mentality. Though he did not enjoy the best time with the ball in the England versus England Lions warm-up match, conceding 73 in eight wicketless overs, he provided a snapshot of his pluck with the bat, striking 26 from 10 deliveries for the Lions.
He has continued to make an impression over the last few weeks. And it was instructive that, when asked of what he has made of the youngster, Stokes admitted he isn’t sure which of Ahmed’s two suits is his strongest.
Ahmed was an integral member of the England team that reached the Under-19 World Cup final this year•ICC via Getty
“I’m struggling to work out what he is, whether he’s a batter or a legspinner, which is I guess good, because it shows how much talent he’s got. We got snippets of what he can do with the bat in that warm-up game briefly.
“But having a wrist-spinner is always exciting, especially for England, but it’s not getting too carried away with the potential that he has, because he is only young, and you’ve still got to nurture talent, even how exciting it is.”
It is worth noting that, if Ahmed is selected, he will be the first player from a minority background selected under Stokes’ captaincy. All nine XIs selected so far have been exclusively white.
English cricket is currently enduring a period of introspection around race, with Azeem Rafiq saying the sport is in denial about racism during his DCMS committee hearing on Tuesday. The new year will see the delayed Cricket Discipline Commission hearing into allegations of racism against Rafiq’s former county, Yorkshire, along with recommendations to the ECB from the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) to improve equality around race, gender and class.
A lack of diversity around the England team is primarily a reflection of issues further down the chain. When asked about the issue, Stokes said he believed cricket was an inclusive sport but acknowledged Ahmed could inspire future generations.
“Whenever I have been asked about this, I have always felt cricket is a very inclusive sport,” he said. “Certainly, in my time in the England team you have been selected on your skills as a cricketer first and foremost. That still should be the way going forward regardless of your beliefs or what you look like or anything like that. If you’re good enough to represent this country, you’re going to get picked.
“Players especially like Rehan, he could be an unbelievable example to set to younger kids who want to come up. They may have maybe heard about what’s happened in cricket recently [but] he can be seen an example of ‘no, we’ve got this 18-year-old hopefully a potential superstar, why can’t I be that?’ But English cricket to me has always been if you’re good enough, you’re going to get selected and I don’t see it being any different going forward.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo