Rehan Ahmed’s only aim for 2022 was to make his first-class debut for Leicestershire but this winter he has become England’s youngest male debutant in Tests, ODIs and T20s.
A steep learning curve has offered many development moments, but the most important lesson is simple: nothing quite compares to Test Cricket.
“I used to see it as a boring game,” says the 18-year-old. “It’s a long game, it’s the toughest game. But now I see it as the funniest game and enjoy it the most.
“The joy I got from playing a test match and winning a test match was 100 percent unmatched. I don’t know if anything can match that.”
Ahmed’s Test debut, in only his fourth top-flight game, could hardly have gone better as he won five wickets in the second innings in Pakistan, his father Naeem’s country of birth. Naeem was in Karachi and brimming with pride.
“The one thing I wasn’t scared of but I knew I would be most nervous about was Test cricket and I was,” says Ahmed. “When I bowled after Azhar Ali, my first ball, I couldn’t feel my forearm. But I loved that feeling. It took two or three balls to get going. When I got beaten for my first limit, I just thought, ‘This is a normal game now.’
“Test cricket was the highest level of pressure I have ever played. That was a different kind of intensity. The [his white-ball debuts in Bangladesh] was very tough, but the friendly was so much tougher physically and mentally.
Ahmed once watched this five-wicket retriever with Rahim Ali, his mentor, who was also in Pakistan watching the Test.
“He obviously saw it all live but came home and said, ‘I can’t believe it!’ – so we turned on the TV and watched it again,” says Ahmed. “It’s weird because I felt like watching myself, I knew exactly what I was feeling on every single ball.”
Second after his Test debut, he played with Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, his childhood heroes, on the white ball teams. He admits that he was sometimes “starstruck” in the presence of colleagues and opponents. In white ball cricket, his success wasn’t quite as instant, but he didn’t look out of place save for a drop catch in his second T20.
“Seeing how they have played for England all these years has been an inspiration, not only for me but also for my brothers,” says Ahmed of Rashid and Moeen. “We’ve always talked about this: imagine playing with Mo or Rash. And I’ve played with both! Whenever they played, I watched, especially when Rash was bowling.”
Leg spinners Rashid and Ahmed bowled in tandem in Bangladesh, highly unusual for England. “We’re both leg spinners, but we’re two different leg spinners,” says Ahmed, who bowls faster and aims for the stumps, while Rashid is “more traditional, a Shane Warne or Stuart MacGill type” who is slower and more pronounced bowling variations.
Ahmed says he wants to bowl more like Rashid but the senior tells me to be my own bowler and to focus on what I’m good at. So Ahmed’s mantra is simple: “Whether it’s a red ball or a white ball, I just want to keep the stumps in play, so I only have to get half right and the batsman gets half wrong.”
What’s next after such an extraordinary winter? Ahmed has a meeting this week to plan his summer, but it will start in the County Championship, which can be unforgiving for a young preseason nutcase. However, he promises that this will not affect his prospects. This winter, he says, has caused him to “become more positive about everything,” and he’s always keen to remind people that he’s not just a bowler. “I enjoy my batting so much more than my bowling,” he smiles; After all, he was a century behind him when he last played at the World Cup.
Ahmed wants a balanced cricket diet this summer. He would like to play for Leicestershire, Southern Brave in the Hundred and also for his club, Cavaliers and Carrington in the Nottinghamshire Premier League alongside his brothers, Seamer Raheem, a 19-year-old who has played for Leicestershire Seconds, and Spinner Farhan, who at 15 is considered the next big thing at Trent Bridge.
The trio have had a lot of contact this winter. “Brothers are brothers, obviously,” he smiles. “I got a wicket from a short [in Bangladesh] and my older brother said, ‘I didn’t know it was that easy to get wickets in international cricket.’”
Ahmed seems comfortable with the fact that he may have to wait some time before his next international cap.
“I still dream about it [playing in the Ashes or World Cup this year],” he says. “But at the same time, I take every day as it comes. When I’m playing, I play. When I’m not, then I don’t. The thing about England is, when I’m not playing, I like to watch it . So when I was a 12th man in Pakistan I wasn’t just a 12th man. I actually watched England cricket live and it was like the best day of my life.”
He, too, is content with the idea that all his records will eventually be broken this winter.
“It’s a great achievement to play at such a young age, but I’m sure there will be someone younger than me, even better than me,” he says.
What if that happens to be his brother Farhan? “Oh no, not him!”