By Peter Della Penna
It’s not often you see a football being thrown around at cricket training, but such was the case a few weeks ago in Minneapolis, Minn., at the USACA Western Conference Tournament for anyone following the champion Central East squad. More than likely, it was Talha Zamir who had the ball in his hand. But don’t worry. The 18-year-old freshman at the University of Illinois is not about to try out as a walk-on for Ron Zook’s Big Ten gridiron team anytime soon. Instead, the off-spinner has his sights set on getting to the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand next January as a member of Team USA.
“You see so much international cricket being played there and for us to just have international exposure such as playing on an international field, I think that would be a dream come true and definitely an experience that I would remember for the rest of my life,” said Zamir.
In his debut match this past July at the ICC Americas U-19 Regional Qualifier against Argentina, Zamir took 4 for 21 in USA’s nine-wicket win.
“He’s a very good off-spinner,” said Akhtar Masood “Chik” Syed, the Central East Region representative on the USACA Board of Directors. “When I saw him first, I said, ‘Look at this, who is this who looks like Saqlain Mushtaq?’ He’s got very good control of his bowling.”
“It’s hard to play him,” said Abhijit Joshi. Both Joshi and Zamir are part of the USA U-19 team, the Central East Region Men’s and U-19 squads, and Chicago club team Youngsters CC in the American Cricket Conference. “He also bats too, a good fielder as well, a very good attitude and I just love being around him. We both learn from each other and it’s good playing with him.”
Zamir came to the USA in 2004 when his father, Zamiruddin Ahmad, and mother, Nasira, moved their three kids from their home Karachi, Pakistan to the suburbs of Chicago. It was with the intention of giving daughter Zoya, and sons Talha and Hamza, a chance at a better education. While there were some anxious moments early on, everyone has benefitted, especially Ahmad’s oldest son.
“I was really worried. They used to live in very posh area there, a very decent, very nice area there,” said Ahmad. “I really worried about how they would adjust themselves here. But my children they are really wonderful here.”
“At first it was kind of different, moving to a whole different country,” said Zamir. “I started going to school here and just kind of adjusted, taking in the environment as it comes. Then when I started seeing people playing cricket here, that’s when I got to meet a lot of people and meet new friends. I think cricket played a big role here in me just getting used to the environment here. Then I started playing baseball. At first it was different, then as you hang out with people, new friends, school people, you just kind of adapt to it.”
Zamir played baseball for his first two years at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Ill., located about 35 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. While some parents are keen to see their children maintain cultural identity from their homeland, Ahmad couldn’t have been happier and encouraged his son to get involved in the local baseball community.
“He loved sports. He said, ‘Dad I’m going to take up baseball because there is no cricket.’ I said okay, and I liked it. I was very happy that he took up baseball in his school,” said Ahmad. Still, Zamir couldn’t quite shake off his cricket habits. “His style of batting, sometimes the coach used to joke with him and say, ‘Talha, you are playing cricket. Don’t play cricket. Don’t hit like cricket… Hit like this, don’t hit like cricket. You’re not playing cricket, you’re playing baseball.’”
The summer after his sophomore year, Zamir was practicing as a member of the varsity baseball squad. However, he was also starting to excel in cricket. Despite playing only tennis ball cricket at school in Pakistan, Zamir started playing regular cricket in Chicago well enough to be selected as a member of the USA U-15 squad in 2006. In 2007, he was named to the Central East Region’s U-19 squad. At that point, a decision had to be made to focus on one sport while still being able to devote time to his studies. Zamir’s dad then gave him a piece of advice.
“I said I would still like you to play baseball, but then if you are fond of cricket and want to switch to cricket I won’t say no to you, but whatever you do, you must do well,” said Ahmad.
Zamir hasn’t just done well, he’s been superb. He went on to be selected for another two years to the Central East Region’s U-19 squad in 2008 and 2009. In 2008 at the National U-19 tournament in Florida, Zamir’s stunning performance in the final against New York saw his stock rise. He took four wickets in a losing effort. “We almost won the game because of him,” said Syed.
Another strong performance for the Central East in 2009 at the National U-19 Tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y., earned Zamir selection as an U-19 First Team All-American. Just as impressive though is his family’s continued commitment to his education.
Ahmad laughs as he recounts the story of a club match in Chicago in which former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin was playing. Zamir came on to bowl to Azharuddin and after a few overs, Azharuddin walked down the pitch to talk to Zamir.
“I asked him, ‘What did Azharuddin tell you?’ He said to me, ‘Dad, he patted me and he said that you are doing very well and keep on playing well and one day you will be a great cricketer.’ I told him, ‘No, you should have told Azharuddin that, ‘I am not to play cricket here as a profession.’ Your aim is to study here and do good in the studies, not in cricket.’”
At Illinois, Zamir plans to major in accounting, something that goes along with his hobby of studying economics.
“I’ll read books like Naked Economics, Freakonomics, The Economics Naturalist,” said Zamir. “I’ve always had this math related touch in to me. So I was involved in all these figures in math. That was always my strongest subject…. When I realized what major I wanted to go in, I started reading books in economics and those actually seemed really real to life. You can actually learn a lot from economics. When I took a macro class in high school, you learned things about a real market economy.”
As the USA U-19 squad gets set to play in the ICC U-19 World Cup Global Qualifier next week, spin bowling will be one of the keys to success on the slow turning wickets of the Maple Leaf Cricket Club in King City, Ontario. If Zamir and his teammates can be economical with their bowling performances, it will go a long way toward ensuring that his dream of playing in New Zealand will become a reality.