Professional sport is scarred by stories of ageing athletes clinging to faded glory, or by bleak tales of their struggles in retirement, and so Zafar Ansari stands out in shimmering contrast. Ansari played three Tests late last year, his debut in Bangladesh and two in India, picking up five wickets and grinding out a highest score of 32. It was a start in the hardest arena of cricket and so Ansari’s retirement in April, at the age of 25, seemed unusual.
Of course those who knew him felt no shock. Alec Stewart, the director of cricket at Surrey, for whom Ansari had played since the age of eight, was supportive. “It’s a brave and considered decision,” Stewart said. “He was always open and honest.”
Stewart alluded to Ansari’s academic background, for the left-arm spinner had obtained a double first in social and political science from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, as well as a subsequent MA in history. “When Zafar was reading a novel, the rest of our boys would be doing a colouring-in book,” Stewart said in his homespun way. Kevin Pietersen, who played with Ansari at Surrey, tweeted amusingly: “Way too clever to be a cricketer!”
Over the last six weeks I have got to know Ansari a little better. It is striking to receive some beautifully written emails from a sportsman, whether young or retired, about subjects stretching from I Am Not Your Negro, the recent James Baldwin documentary, to Ansari’s encouraged and flowing analysis of Labour’s unexpected election results. Books and writing have been at the heart of our exchanges, from Hisham Matar’s The Return to Norman Mailer’s The Fight.
It seems fitting that Ansari suggests we meet at the National Theatre, rather than The Oval, so he can talk for the first time in detail about his reasons for leaving cricket. After we have chatted for an hour he relives the quietly dramatic moment when he told his Surrey team-mates he was retiring a month into a new season: “There definitely were a few tears. I was choking up, and eventually crying. Other guys were also in tears. Alec Stewart choked up and Kumar Sangakkara said some lovely things. A physio I’ve known a long time was crying his eyes out. It was tough.”
Ansari smiles at his bittersweet memory. “It’s difficult when you don’t have a Twitter account, and are reserved in your public output, because these are very hard decisions you spend hours talking about with your family. But once you stop playing it’s natural there are lots of things you’ll miss. So it was reassuring it felt difficult.
“It would actually be inhuman to think that you’d just forget. You can’t move away from something you did for so long without an ache. But I’m fortunate this is my choice – rather than a decision forced on me by injury or age. It happened over a long period as my competitive instinct was diminishing – and there was a fundamental sense I needed to be not only obsessive about cricket but obsessive about constantly improving my game. I started to tire of the complete immersion demanded by cricket.”
Ansari’s involvement with England’s Test team underlined that consuming focus – while making him regret the way in which international sport isolated him from real life. “I don’t want to make it sound negative but being an England cricketer requires a single-mindedness about cricket I lack. At Surrey, having lots of disparate things in my life helped my cricket. But this approach was not appropriate with England. The standard of cricket and the intensity of being abroad for 12 weeks, with the press around you, meant I could not be myself. I was missing out on things that are authentic to me.”
He was proud to have become a Test cricketer and Ansari knew he should be thinking more about bowling to Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli than worrying about Donald Trump. But such a restricted worldview did not make sense. “It was a very politically significant time. Trump was elected on the first day of our opening Test in India. I was batting at 10 and we weren’t allowed our phones in the dressing room. I was getting snippets of information from security but I felt so disconnected from something I would have been hyper-connected to here. The combination of playing very difficult cricket, while missing things that mattered so much, made me think more clearly about my future.
“I heard the news about Trump at the end of that day’s play. We got our phones and it was a shocking moment. I expected [Hillary] Clinton to edge it and found it difficult to accept. I’ve since focused most on the policy – like changes to healthcare provision, the attempted Muslim ban, as well as the ramping up of immigration and deportations – rather than just thinking of Trump as the clown he often appears. It’s important to be less hysterical about the person but more hysterical about the political implications.”