• Surrey allrounder made his England Test debut in Bangladesh in October
• ‘I have always maintained that cricket was just one part of my life’
Zafar Ansari, the Surrey all-rounder, announced his immediate retirement from cricket on Wednesday aged 25, six months after making his Test debut for England, citing a desire to explore “other ambitions” away from the sport.
“Way too clever to be a cricketer!” was the reaction from his Surrey team-mate Kevin Pietersen on hearing the news – one of a number of congratulatory tweets in keeping with the widely known fact that Ansari, for all the ability that brought him 129 wickets and 3,009 runs in 71 first-class matches, had always been weighing up his career in professional cricket against outside options.
The left-arm spinner and middle-order batsman, who in a statement released by Surrey said he is now considering a move into law, had studied throughout his playing career and was awarded a double first from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in social and political sciences in 2013 and then a Masters in history from University of London’s Royal Holloway college last year.
That Ansari’s decision to call time comes now, three weeks into the county season, is something of a surprise, not least since he had two years left on his contract and toured with England last winter, making his Test debut against Bangladesh in Dhaka before playing the first two matches of the series defeat in India that followed.
Explaining his retirement, Ansari said: “I have always been clear that, when the time was right for me to move on, I would and that time has now come. I have always maintained that cricket was just one part of my life and that I have other ambitions that I want to fulfil.”
Surrey’s director of cricket, Alec Stewart, said the timing was not ideal but holds no ill-feeling towards the all-rounder, who returned from a slightly chastening first tour in which he picked up five wickets in three Tests and threw himself into pre-season to see if he still wanted to continue, only to realise his sporting ambition had indeed waned.
“It’s a brave and considered decision,” said Stewart, who was told of Ansari’s intentions last weekend. “It’s been at the back of his mind for six weeks but, realistically, perhaps 18 months or so. He was always open and honest about it. It was always going to happen. It was just when. I didn’t see him playing into his 30s, maybe only up to 28.
“He’s enjoyed his career but realised there’s something missing in his enjoyment and wants to use his intelligence and degrees to explore other avenues. He is a unique individual when it comes to my experiences of intelligent cricketers. There are some where cricket is still a major part of their life but for Zafar it was just a part of it.”
While Stewart acknowledged Ansari’s academia set him apart from team-mates – “when Zafar was reading a novel, the rest of our boys would be doing a colouring-in book” – he was a popular member of the Surrey dressing room since his senior debut in 2010, with the squad “emotional” when they were told the news.
His thoughtfulness certainly came across during his maiden tour, where he spoke with self-effacing honesty about not believing himself to be a natural cricketer compared with his team-mates and on the subject of being one of four British Asians to play in the same team along with Haseeb Hameed, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid – a figure that, for the first time, meant the England team represented the ethnic make-up of the recreational game in the UK. “As a collective, as a group of four British Muslims, there is something in that,” Ansari, who father is from Pakistan, said after the first Test in Rajkot. “There’s no doubt that’s really exciting and something we’re proud of. A lot of people outside the group clearly care about that and value that a lot. And that is a good thing in our society.”
On hearing of Ansari’s retirement Moeen tweeted: “What a great guy and a pleasure to have toured with him. Wish him the best.”
Ansari’s Test career, which ended after England’s defeat in Visakhapatnam last November as back spasms forced an early return home, was meant to have begun a year earlier when he was called up for the series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates following the 44 wickets and 771 runs that helped Surrey secure the Division Two title.
The left-armer, who made his one-day international debut earlier that year against Ireland in Malahide, suffered a dislocated thumb on the day of the call-up while fielding at Old Trafford – an injury that required complex surgery – and did not return until the following summer, claiming 22 wickets as the county consolidated its top-flight status.
The recruitment of Scott Borthwick over the winter gave Surrey a second spin option alongside their captain, Gareth Batty, and Ansari played one Championship game – he went wicketless against Lancashire at The Oval – but Stewart said the retirement was not in response to an expected struggle for selection.
Stewart said: “Even if he’d got five wickets and a hundred he’d have still come to the same decision. He made his mind up a while back but wanted to check that was definitely the case. It was a tough decision but 100% the right one for him.”
On Twitter, Surrey’s head coach, Michael di Venuto, wrote: “It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know and working with this remarkable young man. Exciting times ahead for Zaf to chase his dreams.”