“I’M AFRAID he was a very normal child.” Khizar Humayun Ansari sounds almost apologetic. It’s not the response you expect from the father of Zafar Ansari. The 24-year-old Surrey all-rounder, who made his Test debut in Dhaka two weeks ago and is expected to play the first Test in Rajkot starting Wednesday, is considered by many as England’s ‘smartest ever cricketer’.
It’s a hyperbolic label but it fits. Three years ago, Zafar completed a double-first in politics and sociology from Cambridge University and recently submitted a 40,000-word dissertation on ‘The origins of African-American armed self-defence and its relationship with the Black Power movement in the 1960s’. He’s a gifted concert pianist, too. He’s also been breaking cricketing records through the age-group levels at Surrey before breaking into the England Test squad last year. In Dhaka, he became the first Cambridge alumni to play for England in 13 years.
But Zafar’s father, an OBE recipient for his educational work in the community for ethnicity and race relations, doesn’t quite see his son as a “prodigy”.
“He won’t accept being called a prodigy, either. He has a pretty balanced perspective on life though, not totally consumed either by cricket or by academia,” Ansari tells The Indian Express over the phone from England.
Ansari is a professor of Islam and Cultural Diversity in the department of history at Royal Holloway, which is a part of the University of London, while wife Sarah heads the department.
Ansari, a cricket fan who idolised the likes of Hanif Mohammad and Richie Benaud in his youth, isn’t surprised though that his son would continue his quest for intellectual stimulation in a cricket dressing-room, and that he is occasionally found with a newspaper crossword.
“Once you feel that your brain needs to carry on working it’s productive and fruitful for it to be kept active. You have become so trained to thinking for long periods of time,” says Ansari. And most days, once Zafar’s done with his cricket gear, he’s off to the theatre or to “dabble and sample life, socially and culturally, to the hilt,” as his father puts it.
Asked how he would be preparing for his debut in Dhaka, Zafar had said that he’d be watching the final of The Great British Bake Off. Back home, the rest of the Ansaris were doing the same. While the father admits that dinner-table conversations in their household are generally “stimulating”, they indulge in discussions over general entertainment, too.
“It could be about debates from Question Time, documentaries by David Attenborough on life on planet earth, costume drama series like Victoria… even James Bond. We talk about ideas, concepts, the past, about heritage and all sorts of things,” says Ansari.
The father also believes that spin bowling is ideal for his son’s approach to life. “With spin, you can think about it when you are waiting to bowl, in the field and between every ball. Spin bowling is something that is conducive to that process of thinking,” he says.
Zafar has often spoken about how playing cricket came about more out of circumstance than choice. “I have really tried to treat cricket as something that I do and not something that I am,” he had said.
According to Ansari, such clarity of thought got enhanced during Zafar’s days at Cambridge, where he realised that success on the field could never be the “be all and end all” of life.
Former India left-arm spinner Murali Kartik has shared a dressing-room with both Ed Smith — the last Cambridge graduate to play for England — and Ansari during his county career. Smith was a teammate at Middlesex while Kartik played the role of an unofficial mentor to a young Zafar, who also opened the batting during his one year for Surrey.
“You could just look at Ed Smith and make out he was well-educated. There was this professorial air around him. Zafar is so quiet and unassuming that you don’t get to know how intelligent he is until you talk to him,” says Kartik.
The England squad in India comprises three Pakistani-origin spinners, including Zafar. But being of Asian descent has never been a consideration during his career, according to Ansari. It doesn’t mean Zafar isn’t well-versed with his heritage and background. He and his elder brother Akbar — another Cambridge alumni who had a brief first-class career — would visit Pakistan every year till they were 17-18 to spend time with the extended family.
“He’d been to India, too, five years ago as part of a cricket tour. He did the golden triangle — Delhi, Agra and Jaipur — and loved it,” says Ansari.
But the only time he sounds like a quintessential Asian parent is when asked about his son’s piano-playing. “There are all sorts of things that he’s dropped by the wayside. He even played the cello for a while. But now he simply doesn’t have the time,” he says.
Despite confessing to be a nervous wreck whenever Zafar’s playing, his father has two good memories of watching him live already, seeing him take a spectacular catch in a T20 game and score a first-class ton at The Oval.
The results of Zafar’s dissertation will be out in the next four to six weeks, by which time the youngster could well have added to his Test tally. But even if his son may be undecided, the father is very clear about the pecking order when asked to choose between a Cambridge degree and a Test cap.
“Cambridge was a special moment. But nobody has got anywhere near Test cricket in our family. Very few have reached that level in England. He’s No.673 in over a century-and-a-half. As a historian, this means a huge amount for me,” says Ansari.