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The Spin | Amar Virdi: 'British Asians can make it, it's knowing how the system works' | Sport

While England’s Test squad for Sri Lanka may suggest a paucity of spin options at present, an offie who can be filed under “one for the future” is currently with the Lions in Australia looking to reignite a career that stumbled a touch last year.

Amar Virdi may be only 21 but is already a title winner, having been an ever-present in the Surrey team that was unstoppable in 2018 and contributed 39 wickets to the cause. It is not just the patka and beard that made this young Sikh so eye-catching; this is a finger spinner who gives the ball a proper rip.

But the strains of that breakout campaign led to a stress issue in his lower back and while it did clear up over the winter, Virdi was then omitted for the first nine matches of last season because his overall fitness had fallen below an acceptable standard.

Alec Stewart, Surrey’s director of cricket, spoke of a player in need of some “tough love” and after a spell with Darren Veness, the club’s hulking great fitness coach, a more slimline Virdi returned in July with a bang, snaring 14 Nottinghamshire wickets in a spin-fest at Trent Bridge.

Though most eyes at the time were on the mind-bending World Cup final at Lord’s, and his season was more quiet thereafter, it was the type of performance that highlighted why Virdi has been talked about as a future international since he first started playing first-XI club cricket aged 13.

Now in the Lions set-up for the three-match tour that begins against a Cricket Australia XI in Hobart on Saturday – albeit sitting behind Dom Bess, who after an encouraging recall in South Africa bounces on to Sri Lanka – Virdi is determined to show the coaches how much he wants truly wants it.

“Last season was, well, different. I was pretty sad and upset at missing games after the year we had before but I think good comes from bad,” Virdi told the Guardian before his departure for Australia, spinning an apple in his hand by force of habit.

“I know I have to be in the best possible shape. I don’t want to let my teammates down by not being able to make a catch or bowl 50 overs in a match.

“So yes, it hurt. But I want to play Test cricket and be in the best shape come the fifth day to win the game for my team. I’ve been training hard and watching what I eat. It’s been a case of getting into the mindset of a professional athlete. I want to make sure that it’s not spoken about again.”

The Lions tour follows Virdi’s attendance at a pre-Christmas spin camp in Mumbai, where along with Bess and Mason Crane, he worked with Rangana Herath. That experience opened his eyes to the smarts required on the subcontinent, chiefly the varied use of the crease and release points that brought the Sri Lankan great 433 Test victims.

Virdi is rightly patient at present, knowing he remains raw, but also serious about his Test ambitions. “I’m sure it will come.” he says. If so, he would be only the third Sikh to do so with England after Monty Panesar and Ravi Bopara. It was, however, two other cricketers who fired his imagination as a child.

Virdi said: “Saqlain Mushtaq was a role model for me and I have been lucky to work with him for the past six to eight years with Surrey and England. And I loved watching Harbhajan Singh as a kid. It was his charisma and his energy – and the fact he ragged it square.

“And it was also his style. He was almost like someone doing a painting – it was like artwork, the way his arms glided. It looked effortless but with so much control.

“And there was also his relatability. As a young Sikh boy, there was Monty Panesar in England but not many others. So it was exciting for me, seeing a guy who looks like me bowling off-spin in Test cricket.”

Monty Panesar was an early inspiration for Amar Virdi.

Monty Panesar’s prowess encouraged Amar Virdi: ‘It was exciting seeing a guy who looks like me bowling off-spin in Test cricket.’ Photograph: Paul McFegan/Sportsphoto/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Virdi describes himself as “blessed’ to be born into the Sikh faith and speaks of his appearance as a “uniform” that comes with responsibility. With this comes a desire to show other Sikhs, and the British Asian community that makes up a third of the recreational game, they too can make it.

The son of immigrants from East Africa – his father, Raj, came to the UK from Kenya to study, while his mother, Harmeet, was part of the Indian exodus from Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda – Virdi first turned out for Indian Gymkhana in Osterley before moving to Sunbury CC at the start of his teens.

That type of switch, instigated by his father, was one that Virdi believes other British Asians must be open to. Though he turned down private school scholarships to stay at the state-funded Guru Nanak Sikh Academy near his family home in Hounslow, Virdi fancies the move from a predominantly Asian club to one with more established county connections was key to being spotted.

Virdi said: “In terms of the Asian conundrum – or whatever it is called these days – there needs to be more education for parents, I think. We have seen Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Monty Panesar, Ravi Bopara – it’s not that British Asians can’t make it through, it’s more knowing how the system works.

“My dad was very switched on and could see what I needed to do. Sunbury was a club that Middlesex and Surrey both look at and they have had 10 or so professionals come through. Sometimes guys are reluctant to leave Asian clubs. And it can be daunting.”

Virdi’s mature outlook likely comes from being immersed in adult cricket so young, such that he is not a cricketer who looks for excuses even when, for example, his trade as a specialist first-class spinner must be performed in the spring then autumn competition that is the County Championship.

He added: “Pitches don’t bother me. I’ve played games at the start of the season where it has spun. This tour of Australia with the Lions, they say off-spinners don’t thrive there but I’m looking forward to some hard surfaces and bounce. You are always learning, you’re never the finished article.

“The journey can take time or be fast. I just want to be ready when it comes and show the world what I can do.”

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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