Rehan Ahmed’s only ambition 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 provided many moments to develop, but the most important lesson is a simple one: nothing compares with Test cricket.
“I used to see it as a boring game,” says the 18-year-old. “It’s a long game, it’s the hardest game. But now I see it as the most fun game and take the most joy from it.
“One hundred per cent the joy I got from playing a Test match and winning a Test match was unmatched. I don’t know if anything can match that.”
Ahmed’s Test debut, which was just his fourth first-class game, could hardly have gone any better as he took a five-wicket haul in the second innings in Pakistan, the country where his father Naeem was born. Naeem was in Karachi, gushing with pride.
“The only thing, not that I was scared of, but I knew I’d be most nervous about was Test cricket, and I was,” says Ahmed. “When I was bowling to Azhar Ali, my first ball, I couldn’t feel my forearm. But I loved that feeling. It took two or three balls for it to go. When I was hit for my first boundary, I just thought: ‘It’s a normal game now.’
“Test cricket was the highest level of pressure I’ve ever played in. That was a different type of intensity. This [his white-ball debuts in Bangladesh] was very hard, but Test match was physically, mentally so much harder.”
Ahmed has watched that five-wicket haul back once, with Rahim Ali, his mentor, who had also been in Pakistan watching the Test.
“He’d obviously seen everything live, but came home and was like, ‘I can’t believe it!’ – so we turned the TV on and watched it again,” Ahmed says. “It’s weird because I felt when I was watching myself, I knew exactly what I was feeling at every single ball.”
Second to his Test debut has been playing with Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, his childhood heroes, in the white-ball sides. He admits that, at times, he has been “starstruck” around colleagues and opponents. In white-ball cricket, his success was not quite as instant, but he has not looked out of place, save for a dropped catch in his second T20.
“To see the way they have played all those years for England was an inspiration, not just for me but my brothers,” Ahmed says of Rashid and Moeen. “We always spoke about it: imagine if you played with Mo or Rash. And I’ve played with both of them! Whenever they played I made sure I watched, especially when Rash bowled.”
Leg-spinners Rashid and Ahmed bowled in tandem in Bangladesh, a highly unusual occurrence for England. “We are both leg-spinners but we are two different leg-spinners,” says Ahmed, who bowls quicker and aims for the stumps, while Rashid is “more traditional, a Shane Warne or Stuart MacGill type” who bowls slower with more pronounced variations.
Ahmed says he wants to bowl more like Rashid, but the senior man “tells me I’m my own bowler and to focus on what I do well”. 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 just need to do half a thing right and the batsman does half a thing wrong.”
What comes next after a winter as extraordinary as this? Ahmed has a meeting this week to map out his summer, but it will start in the County Championship, which can be unforgiving for a young spinner in early season. He promises, though, that will not affect his outlook. This winter, he says, has made him “take back a more positive attitude to everything”, and he is always keen to remind people that he is not just a bowler. “I enjoy my batting so much more than my bowling,” he smiles; he did make a century in his last Championship appearance, after all.
Ahmed wants a balanced diet of cricket this summer. He wants 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 been in touch plenty this winter. “Brothers obviously are brothers,” he smiles. “I got a wicket off a short one [in Bangladesh] and my older brother said: ‘I didn’t know it was that easy to get wickets in international cricket.’”
Ahmed seems at peace with the fact that he might have to wait some time for his next international action.
“I still dream of it [playing in the Ashes or World Cup this year],” he says. “But at the same time I take each day as it comes. If I play, I play. If not, then I don’t. The thing is with England, if I don’t play I love watching it. So when I was 12th man in Pakistan, it wasn’t just me being 12th man. It was me actually watching England cricket live and it was like the best day of my life.”
He is at peace, too, with the idea that all his records this winter will be broken at some stage.
“It’s a huge achievement playing at such a young age but I’m sure there’ll be someone even younger than me that’s coming through that’s even better than me,” he says.
What if that happens to be his brother, Farhan? “Oh no, not him!”