Rehan Ahmed visa error not reflective of elite environment – England need to look at themselves

Ollie Robinson and Rehan Ahmed sit together during a nets session in Rajkot on February 13, 2024
Rehan Ahmed (right) and Ollie Robinson have both suffered visa issues while with England - Getty Images/Gareth Copley
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The latest visa error to blight the England tour was a mistake of their own making – Indo-Pakistani politics cannot be blamed this time.

For Rehan Ahmed to leave the country on a single-entry visa and to reach immigration in Rajkot before anyone noticed is not suggestive of a high-performing sporting environment where nothing is left to chance.

Even if Ahmed is cleared to play in the third Test, the fact he was even temporarily in limbo is unforgivable when the England and Wales Cricket Board was put on notice about these issues just three weeks ago when Shoaib Bashir was denied entry to India.

At that point, checks and balances should have been put in place to avoid another problem when the squad left the country for the break in Abu Dhabi. Ahmed’s visa was issued for the World Cup in October when he was placed on standby. Because he was not called up, he was able to enter India without a problem last month.

There are however different visa categories. Single, double or multiple entry permits are issued on a case-by-case basis. Many of those following the England team tour stayed in India last week while they went to the UAE because they had only a single entry in their passport and would not be allowed to return without applying for a whole new visa, which can take weeks.

For England to let Ahmed leave the country without this check is amateurish given the amount of travel between the two countries undertaken every year by cricketers from the United Kingdom.

England are lucky they landed in Rajkot. They flew from the UAE on a chartered, private plane so they did not have to connect in Mumbai or Delhi. The England charter was the first international flight to land in Rajkot.

It meant a temporary immigration desk had to be set up with officials brought in from Jamnagar, a two-hour drive from Rajkot, to oversee the England squad’s arrival. The visa staff would have struggled to know what to do with Ahmed and were highly reluctant to be the ones who stopped an England player entering the country.

Unlike Mumbai or Delhi, with its highly experienced visa officials, there are not multiple daily flights from Rajkot to London on which to send him back home to apply for a new visa.

After a flurry of phone calls between Rajkot officials and those higher up in the immigration services, Ahmed was granted a temporary two-day visa, a let-off unlikely to be awarded to travellers who are not international cricketers.

Stokes left the bus to be with Ahmed

In the middle of all this was a teenage spinner and the England management on the ground. The rest of the team were on the bus waiting to go to the hotel while Ahmed was detained. Ben Stokes, when he realised what was going on, tapped head coach Brendon McCullum on the shoulder and both left the bus to be with Rehan while it was all sorted out.

Everyone else departed for the hotel, a 45-minute drive away, although because of the traffic, it took the squad an hour and a half. None of this was a mess caused by Stokes or McCullum and it is another example of the captain’s empathy that he did not want to leave a 19-year-old on his own to face the problem.

The ECB largely escaped criticism over the Bashir visa issue. It was blamed mainly on the Indian government’s heavy-handed approach towards visitors with Pakistani heritage.

This time however, the Indian officials would be well within their rights to deny Ahmed entry and put the blame firmly on England, who should have applied for a new visa when he was picked in the Test squad. The UAE break was, after all, organised months ago.

There has been another narrow escape on this tour. Ollie Robinson filled out his visa application incorrectly, the wrong initial was put on his form. He received his visa only on the day the team travelled from Abu Dhabi to Hyderabad for the first Test.

The cricket operations department at the ECB has been in a state of flux. For two decades former Middlesex player John Carr led cricket operations but he retired last year. His replacement, former Irish rugby union international David Humphreys, left the job after a few months.

Stuart Hooper, another ex-rugby union player, joined the ECB at the start of January and was landed in the middle of the Bashir issue within a few days of beginning his job.

Cricket tours are complex, and pretty unique in sport. They are long trips, often to countries that do not host very high-profile international teams from other sports and some have very strict visa regulations. Hooper, new to the sport, is having to learn very quickly about the mechanics of the role.

It is not the only time England have been caught out in India. They did not realise at the World Cup that they had to finish in the top eight to qualify for the Champions Trophy, something that was blamed on the handover between Carr and Humphreys.

This Test team are exhilarating to watch, they do not deserve to be let down by paperwork.

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