Ashes-focused Australia in a spin over Pakistani refugee
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Mired in gloom following a test drubbing in India, Australian cricket has turned to Canberra's halls of power for succour, asking the country's top immigration official to act as a de facto selector ahead of back-to-back Ashes series this year.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Australia's bid to secure a passport to England for Fawad Ahmed, a 31-year-old Pakistani refugee with just 13 first-class matches under his belt, has underscored the anxiety felt Down Under as the national team prepares to do battle with the 'Old Enemy'.
While Australia's humiliation in India, their first 4-0 series loss in more than 40 years, was stinging enough, defeat by England in one or both of the Ashes series would be simply unforgivable.
Embittered cricket lovers in the once-mighty test nation have waited over two years for vengeance after England's 3-1 thrashing of the hosts in the 2010-11 series on home soil, which followed a 2-1 loss away in 2009.
Hence, the determination to leave no stone unturned, and in Ahmed, the resource-rich nation hopes to have unearthed the rarest of commodities Down Under - a world class spin bowler.
Born in Swabi, a rural district fringed by the Hindu Kush mountains and the Indus river, the legspinner has taken 39 first class wickets at an average of 32.20 since making his debut for Abbottabad in 2005.
The modest resume has not discouraged Australia's cricket board, however, who are petitioning immigration minister Brendan O'Connor to fast-track Ahmed's citizenship and allow him to be available for selection before the first Ashes series gets underway in July.
Without the minister's sign-off, Ahmed could still play a part in England, but would not become eligible until August 18, according to cricket's global governing body, the ICC.
That would be three days before the fifth and final test at the Oval - too long to wait for Cricket Australia.
"Biomechanically, he is like an Anil Kumble who really spins the ball," former Australia test spinner Stuart MacGill told local media this week, referring to the tall Indian spinner who captured 619 test wickets in a brilliant career.
"I had (former test batsman) Damien Martyn face him and he thinks he's the best Australian spinner he's seen since Warney.
"I think he is definitely worth a place in the Ashes squad."
Shane Warne retired with 708 test wickets after helping Australia whitewash England 5-0 in the 2006/07 Ashes series.
Australia have lost both Ashes series since and have searched in vain for a successor to the peerless blond legspinner, churning through 12 slow bowlers and discarding almost all of them quickly.
The 11th, Nathan Lyon, has more or less cemented his place as Australia's leading spinner and is expected to be named in the Ashes squad for England after taking 15 wickets from his three tests in India.
Selectors will take a second spinner, however, leaving the door open for Ahmed to complete a fairytale entry into test cricket only eight months after being granted asylum in Australia.
"I'm not sure whether the process is going to be solved but (Cricket Australia) are definitely helping me and we are pretty hopeful we will get through," Ahmed told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Ahmed's journey to the cusp of international selection has been an unusual one, arriving in Australia in 2010 on a short-term visa to play cricket in Yoogali, a remote rural town in New South Wales surrounded by vineyards and orchards.
Ahmed ended up in Melbourne and applied for asylum as a refugee, claiming he was subject to death threats from Islamic extremists for being involved with a Pakistan-based NGO promoting women's rights.
"The main aim was to educate (women) and to help people get clean and clear water for drinking and (give them) vaccinations," Ahmed said of the NGO. "There were some (threats) and I applied for that reason.
"I have family over there. I miss them badly, they mean everything to me. But Australia's now my country and I'm happy here and my family and friends are all happy for me as well."
Ahmed made a big impression playing club cricket in Melbourne but his initial application for asylum was rejected last year, leaving the player facing deportation.
An appeal backed by Cricket Australia to then-immigration minister Chris Bowen secured Ahmed's permanent residency in November, paving the way for him to play in the top-flight leagues, including first-class cricket for Victoria.
Ahmed caused a stir by capturing 7-162 against Queensland in February, the best debut by a spinner for Victoria in over 40 years and his stock rose further in subsequent weeks as Australia's slow bowlers were flayed by India's test batsmen.
Ahmed is proud of his birthplace in Pakistan, where archaeologists claim to have found evidence of conqueror Alexander the Great's campaign along the Indus valley.
He hopes to carve his own swathe through England's batsmen despite having never faced them, nor bowled on English pitches.
"I've never played there but I'm pretty sure that throughout the history - I watch cricket all the time - most of the spinners really perform there, especially Shane Warne, MacGill, Kumble," he said.
"And I'm pretty hopeful if I get a chance, (I'll) at least try to do my best and perform outstandingly."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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