“If I’m going to play cricket I’m going to do it because I enjoy it. There are other things in life that I can do, I don’t have to play cricket, I could do something else.”
These are the confident words of Surrey cricketer Zafar Ansari, an all-rounder in all senses who, despite not wanting to be ‘defined by success’, has experienced more triumphs than tribulations in his 23 years.
The former Hampton School head boy’s career so far has seen him achieve academic excellence, embarking on post-graduate studies, and demonstrate sporting prowess at international level.
Zafar cruised through the Oval scene from the age of seven, joining England’s elite junior cricketers at 15 when he became the youngest ever player to be awarded a Telegraph Bunbury Scholarship.
Further records tumbled – he established a new school record of 1,111 runs in one season, including 179 in 50 overs at Eton, consigning the 574-year-old establishment to their second-largest ever defeat.
Since his Surrey debut in 2010, Zafar has established himself as a reliable all-rounder.
He notched his maiden first-class century when he opened the batting in June on his way to more than 1,000 runs last summer, securing himself a three-year contract and a place on the plane to Sri Lanka with the England Player Performance Squad.
But for Zafar, with so much to offer outside the boundary, cricketing dreams will never become his master.
“Surrey are aware of that, at the moment I’m enjoying my cricket but there’s no guarantee that will continue,” he said.
“To stop doing it would be very hard – at the same time, I have really tried to treat cricket as something that I do and not something that I am.
“It doesn’t define me, it’s still my job. I do have other potential options or talents, so why confine myself to cricket just because it seems like the right thing to do.”
It’s not often you hear that from a sportsman, but Zafar is not your standard sportsman – that much is clear – although with his success comes a drive to stave off mediocrity.
When adapting his game the Surrey man yearned to learn from the greats who grace the Oval dressing room.
The slow left-armer admires the spin of Gareth Batty and with bat in hand who better to lean on than South Africa’s premier Test side number three Hashim Amla.
“He is ridiculously relaxed before going out to bat, whether he got runs or not he was so calm,” Zafar explained.
“He plays the ball late, doesn’t try to over-hit it. He is quite a big influence.
“What is interesting when you speak to these people is how little they know about what they’re doing, often. He scored 300 against England but he wouldn’t be able to explain it.
“He’s very aware that a certain set of factors have to come together to produce an innings like that and you don’t know what they all are.
“Most great players accept that a lot of it is luck – they don’t really know what they’re doing half the time. If you can accept that you don’t get too fussed if you do great or not.”
So what of lady luck? She smiled kindly on him last season, forcing fielders to drop him in three separate innings on his way to big scores.
“That set me up for the year and it was on the back of those that I had the confidence to get more runs,” he added.
“You can’t put that down to anything other than luck. I can’t say I have made my own luck there either just because I have put in the hours – they just dropped me.
“When it gets hard you just have to remember that you’re hitting a ball. It’s just a game with a ball and no one is going to suffer if you don’t get better. When it gets to that situation you could think, who really cares.”
In this world of stars paid fortunes to entertain, tribal allegiances and cathedrals of the game, Zafar Ansari certainly has his feet on the ground – after all what are a few ducks?
If not success, what does define him? I can’t put my finger on it. He’s just Zafar Ansari.
Image courtesy of Surrey County Cricket Club, via YouTube, with thanks