Shoaib Bashir | Surprise package


Shoaib Bashir’s eyes welled up when he was told over the phone by England coach Brendon McCullum that he had been selected for the tour of India. His uncle Saj, a former wicketkeeper-batter who played a key role in his cricketing career, was overcome with emotions too, Bashir told The Guardian.

Saj told Bashir that he was living his dream through him. For the 20-year-old, getting selected to the England team, that too at a time when it is playing a revolutionary brand of Test cricket called Bazball — the fearless, attacking style named after McCullum’s nickname Baz — must indeed have felt like a dream.

But days before Bashir was scheduled to travel to India for the five-match Test series, that dream turned into a nightmare. He was stranded in Abu Dhabi, while the rest of the squad and the support staff boarded the plane to India.

Preparatory camp

The England team had chosen to do a preparatory camp in the Gulf nation rather than India, where it was scheduled to play the first Test without even one warm-up match. But that is not unusual during these days of non-stop cricket, with multi-formats and franchise-based leagues around the world.

Bashir was forced to stay back in Abu Dhabi because his visa application had not been approved yet, while that of everyone else was. The issue was his Pakistani origin.

It was not the first time a cricketer of Pakistani origin was having issues in getting the Indian visa. Last year, Australia’s batter Usman Khawaja, who was born in Islamabad, could travel to India only after his 17 teammates did, for the Test series.

Before that, England all-rounder Moeen Ali had to miss the first match of Chennai Super Kings in the IPL in 2022. Another England player Saqib Mahmood had to be withdrawn from the England Lions — the developmental team, like India-A — in 2019 after he failed to get his visa in time.

As England captain Ben Stokes pointed out, Bashir had been announced as a member of the squad to tour India on December 11. That is early enough for a sportsman to get a visa to play what is a high-profile international event, regardless of the country of his origin.

Bashir was born in the town of Chertsey near London to Pakistani parents. His family too was keen that he had a career in cricket and his mother would accompany him to Rajasthan Royals’ academy in Surrey, where he would gladly put in hours of practice, according to his coach. He had made an impression on the Australian spin legend Shane Warne.

But Surrey, his home county, was not impressed enough to keep him, though he had played for the age-group sides. When the county let him go, Bashir considered studying finance at a university.

Professional contact

But, his performances for Berkshire County Cricket Club — not among the bigger ones in England — caught the attention of Somerset, which gave him a professional contract. His plans for a university degree could perhaps wait.

Last October, he made it to the England Lions squad for a tour of the UAE, where he took six wickets in his first match, against Afghanistan-A. Two months later, he became the surprise package in the England team for the Indian tour. The selectors and team management surely must have seen beyond something more than his ordinary record — 10 wickets from six First Class matches at an average of 67 — in the tall spinner to pick him ahead of more experienced players.

They may not have, however, foreseen that he would not get his visa in time to catch the flight to Hyderabad, where the first Test was scheduled to start on January 25. Bashir instead had to fly back to England in order to get his passport stamped by the Indian High Commission.

The incident understandably upset the England team. Its captain Ben Stokes said he was devastated that Bashir had to go through all that.

The incident made headlines in England, of course. Former England cricketer David Lloyd said the team should delay the start of the first Test until Bashir’s arrival. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office said the U.K. expected India to treat British citizens fairly at all times in the visa process and the issue of those with Pakistani origin had been raised with the Indian High Commission in London.

Bashir has since got his visa and is expected to land in India soon. He should have been able to come sooner.

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