Abrar Ahmed and Alf Valentine share spectacles and a place in Test history
Abrar took 11 wickets in his debut Test [Source: Associated Press]
The English know a thing or two about heroic defeat. Herculean effort but ultimate failure is in our DNA. Think of Scott, Livingstone, Shackleton or the Charge of the Light Brigade. We are far from unique though. The US might easily point to Custer at the Little Big Horn or James Bowie and Davey Crocket at the Alamo.
In English sport, look no further than every men’s football tournament after 1966.
Defeat with honour, having performed over and above expectation and still fallen short, is a part of both life and sport. Meeting triumph and disaster and treating those two imposters just the same is to be celebrated, for without it, sport itself would not exist.
For England’s Test team though, a year that looked set to be an annus horribilis after another Ashes mauling and limp failure in the West Indies, has been transformed to an annus mirabilis under the twin forces of Ben Stokes’ inspired on – field leadership and Brendon McCullum’s clarity of vision.
The series victory sealed at Multan was yet another example of England following that vision with singular purpose, being prepared to risk defeat in order to win. It worked again in thrilling fashion, but the risk so central to England’s approach was tested to the limit by Pakistan and by debutant mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed in particular with his eleven wickets.
Abrar seems a level headed young man and will, very soon, win Test matches for his country. An indignant feeling that eleven wickets had a right to win this one, undoubtedly fuelled his determination with the bat too in Pakistan’s second innings as, smartly promoted up the order by Babar Azam, he pinch slogged rapid runs in vain. Ultimately the man winning his first Test cap was foiled by an opponent in Jimmy Anderson earning his one hundred and seventy seventh. There is no shame in that.
When time has passed the studiously bespectacled Abrar Ahmed will be able to reflect on just how good his debut was, his mix of leg brakes, googlies and carrom balls a constant threat to England’s aggressive and attacking batters. Spectacle wearers everywhere can delight in the fact that the only other Test debutant to take five wickets in the first session of a Test was none other than Alf Valentine.
Abrar’s Jamaican bespectacled spinning predecessor was four years younger when he took five of his 8 English wickets before lunch at Old Trafford in 1950. Where Abrar Ahmed finished off Crawley, Duckett, Root, Pope and England’s man of the moment Harry Brook as his pre-lunch amuse bouche in Multan, Valentine wolfed down a rich assortment indeed comprising Sir Len Hutton, Bill Edrich, Reg Simpson, Hubert Doggart , Norman Yardley and Tom Dollery.
Both still had space for more after their lunch too but whether Abrar Ahmed will be immortalised in song as Alf Valentine was, only time will tell. To help keep his feet planted on the ground, he will probably know that when it comes to a huge haul of wickets on debut in a losing cause, there are no less than thirty-nine efforts above his eleven, so whilst painful, he is far from the first to suffer.
What may not be a surprise is that the top two of that list were both in India against India. As recently as last year, New Zealand slow left armer Ajaz Patel took no less than fourteen Indian wickets at Wankhede but the Kiwi’s never came close to a win, losing by 372 runs. In 1999 at Eden Gardens, Indian quick Javagal Srinath knocked over 13 Pakistan wickets in a much closer encounter, Pakistan triumphing by 46 runs.
As far back as 1902, England’s Sydney Barnes also took 13 wickets at the MCG on his debut, Hugh Trumble, Victor Trumper and Monty Noble amongst them, but it wasn’t enough as Australia secured a 229-run win.
Abrar Ahmed can take both solace and encouragement from knowing that above him on that list of takers of eleven or more Test debut wickets in a losing cause are the likes of Daniel Vettori, Hugh Trumble, Wasim Akram, Ian Botham, Murali, Derek Underwood, Harbhajan Singh and perhaps the most august of all, Shane Warne.
He may just look at Warne’s 708 wickets or indeed Murali’s 800 and reflect that losing and winning are but two sides of the same coin. If he is equally motivated by both the thrill and disappointment of his Multan debut, then he, Pakistan and indeed cricket as whole will be the richer for it.