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Demystifying the Saeed Ajmal anomaly


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The English batsmen's failure to read Ajmal’s length more than anything else should be their biggest cause for concern. - Photo by AFP
The English batsmen's failure to read Ajmal’s length more than anything else should be their biggest cause for concern. - Photo by AFP

As Pakistan savour their majestic all-round performance to outwit England within three days of the first Test match, the tourists, especially the English media lick their wounds while teeing off on the luxurious golf courses in Dubai.

Controversy has never been far from a Pakistan-England encounter, but no one expected it to begin as early as it did during the on-going series in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Pakistan, through Seed Ajmal’s artistry, had barely finished delivering an early blow on the morning of the first day’s play in the opening Test, that muted calls of foul-play and doubtful actions started ringing in from London. This time, however, it wasn’t the English tabloids doing the complaining but the highly-respected Sky headquarters – chock-a-block with some distinguished cricketing luminaries – to start the rot.

“The off-spinner has a conventional round-arm (action), and it doesn't seem to be a threat but the doosra is the delivery that the batsmen are all struggling with. The authorities are now allowing these mystery spinners, unorthodox off-spinners, to bend their elbow,” complained a clearly irked Bob Willis.

As the English downfall continued, Willis went on to accuse Ajmal of wearing a long-sleeved shirt to conceal a kink. This latest ‘accusation’ from Willis completely disregarded the fact that play was being held in the middle of winter, and that eight other players were dressed in a similar manner. Matters weren’t helped either when Graeme Swann came on to ball later in the day, wearing the same long sleeves.

With due respect to the “critics” disapproving photographs of Ajmal’s action that are doing the rounds on the web, a little perspective is in order. After all, it is a well-known fact that Ajmal has been cleared by an independent panel of specialists approved by the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Dr Bruce Elliot – a professor of Bio-mechanics, Motor Learning and Development at the University of Western Australia – cleared Ajmal in 2009, when the Australian cricket team were struggling to deconstruct his mystery at the same venue. Elliot revealed that “during a comprehensive analysis it was apparent that the amount of elbow extension in Saeed Ajmal's bowling action for all deliveries was within the 15-degree level of tolerance permitted in the ICC regulations.”

Dr Paul Hurrion, the ICC’s chief biomechanics analyst and consultant, recently explained how these tests were conducted to remove doubts on whether the “conniving” spinner had in fact sneaked his way through the trials. “We use synchronised footage of the player bowling in a match to check that they are not just going through the motions or altering their style. They have to replicate the speed of a delivery from a match, the deviation and the revolutions of the ball. When being tested, the bowler is topless and has reflective markers all over his bowling arm, so the three-dimensional, high-speed cameras can film him from every angle.”

Had the art of spin bowling been given the proper study and credit it deserves, all the hoopla surrounding Ajmal’s action would have been unnecessary. Those who have delved in the deeply enriched nature of spin bowling will know how simplified it has been through the years. The generalisation and viewing of the skill from a very convex lens has led to these recent tirades against innovation.

Spinners, for ages, have been classified into two broad categories: wrist and finger, with leg-spinners being tagged as the former and off-spinners the latter. However, nothing could be further from the truth, since the bowling varieties of several international spinners are incomparable.

First things first: the misconception of wrist and finger spin. There is no form of conventional spin that isn’t aided by the wrist and the reason why leg-spin is wrist spin while conventional off-spin is not, depends on the timing of the wrist action. In normal off-spin the wrist plays an initial part only in transferring the ball to the fingers, while the opposite applies to leg spin. The only true finger-spinner in the game is Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis or India’s Ravichandran Ashwin, especially when he delivers his much-hyped ‘Sudoku ball’.

Ajantha Mendis (left) and Ravishandran Ashwin (right) - the only true ‘finger’ spinners in international cricket (Video grab: TenSports, Photos: Reuters)
Ajantha Mendis (left) and Ravishandran Ashwin (right) - the only true ‘finger’ spinners in international cricket (Video grab: TenSports, Photos: Reuters)

Most conventional off-spinners are forearm spinners, who derive most of the spin in delivery action when they turn their forearm from the palm-side facing downwards to it facing upwards (a position medically termed ‘supination’). Some of the leading examples of this type of conventional forearm spin are Nathan Lyon, Graeme Swann, Nathan Huaritz, Pragyan Ojha and Daniel Vettori.

And then, there is Muttiah Muralitharan – the greatest conjurer of them all. To call him a finger spinner would be nothing short of travesty. Murali’s entire array of deliveries was dependent on an insane amount of work to be done by the shoulder joint, and he was more a shoulder spinner than anything else.

Murali – a shoulder spinner, Swann – a forearm spinner
Murali – a shoulder spinner, Swann – a forearm spinner

The man in the limelight this past week, Ajmal, is another anomaly. He is not a shoulder, finger, or forearm spinner. He has, instead, dug up the buried art of wrist-spin, which is normally confined to leg-spinners and given it a most exciting twist. Most of his spin is not dependent on the fingers or shoulder, but actually on the wrist acting in a manner opposite to how it would act for a conventional leggie.

So, Ajmal, instead of using his wrist to pass on the ball to the fingers, (as Swann, or any conventional ‘offie’ would do) uses his wrist as the major body part imparting the spin. Getting the wrist in position for an off-break takes that extra fraction of a second, which in turn means he has the delayed, jerky action that is so hotly debated.

Ajmal’s wrist-spinning action requires time for the wrist to get into position leading to the ‘jerkier action.’ (Photo: AFP)
Ajmal’s wrist-spinning action requires time for the wrist to get into position leading to the ‘jerkier action.’ (Photo: AFP)

This novel wrist-spinning style is also the reason why Ajmal has been able to stock up his bowling arsenal with a ‘skiddy’ straighter-one, or what he likes to term the teesra.

In reality, the teesra is not a new delivery as it has been part of a leg-spinners bag of tricks for generations. Shane Warne liked to call it the 'slider.' However, as Ajmal bowls it with the off-spinner’s action, it will take some time for the batsman to adjust to this new variation. Indeed, the English batsman should be focusing on picking the doosra, instead of getting ahead of themselves and getting tangled up in the teesra talk.

As Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior exhibited in their short and stable innings, it was patience and assured footwork that England’s other batsmen were missing in their stints at the crease. Their failure to read Ajmal’s length more than anything else should be their biggest cause for concern. Of course, it would serve the number one Test side better if the English media and television pundits were focussed on offering some positive criticism instead of resorting to their age-old tactics of griping and digging up a scandal.

This is not the first time that Ajmal is bowling to the English batsmen. He was part of the Pakistan squad in the 2010 tour, and has bowled to them quite frequently in English county circuit as well. The only difference, of course, being that this time the off-spinner is the major threat instead of a mere clean-up act behind Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. For Pakistan’s sake, it would be better that Ajmal decides to take the lead from the ‘Dark Arts’ tour in the summer of 1992, when the two Ws (Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis) vented their anger via a barrage of banana reverse-swingers aimed at the clueless English batsmen.

The writer has been a player and junior coach in Auckland's club cricket circuit, and has worked with the New Zealand Cricket Player's Association. He is currently working as a freelance cricket journalist.

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Comments (29) Closed

M. Asghar Jan 20, 2012 08:55pm
If Ajmal's inventiveness leads him to put variations on his doosra and teesras, it is an asset for the game. He must not be worried by these arm-chair prickers, beacuse they there for the obvious reason od meaningless denigrement.
Ahmed Jan 20, 2012 10:18pm
Swems like an article full of substance. Thanks for sharing your views.
gabby Jan 20, 2012 11:01pm
Excellent article. The biased TV pundits should do their research before uttering those controversial and discrediting remarks about the bowlers. Actually, jealousy is the biggest factor behind the comments about Saeed's action.
Farooq Jan 21, 2012 05:42am
Nice analysis, look forward to hear more from you in the future.
sars Jan 21, 2012 01:55pm
Thank you from all of us who are not completely sure about the "pehla" never mind the others!!
Muhammad Daud Alam Jan 21, 2012 02:06pm
Beautifully and comprehensively written aricle.....
Dr. Salaria, Aamir A Jan 21, 2012 03:38pm
Talent speaks for itself and real talent speaks more loudly and vividly. The case of Saeed Ajmal is that simple and straight forward. He is a real talent and will keep on performing with distinction as long as he stays commited to the game and its on-the-field activities without any outside distractions or attractions.
Mohammed Sadiq Jan 21, 2012 04:59pm
I am a 71 year old,living in UK since 1960, with divided support for the both countries. I am very upset and hurt,about comments made by Mr Willis'Has Forgetton the fact that Saeed Ajmal was cleared by the cricket authorties,his second point that Saeed was wearing long sleeve shirt, so was Mr Swan.Thirdly Saeed in the past have played for the english counties and nobody including Mr willis have raised the issue. jealous of pakistan,s wonderful vicotry and failure to accept the defeat.
Geoff Plumridge Jan 21, 2012 06:06pm
The two photos of mural and Ajmal tell the biggest story. Both chuck the ball.
Mustafa Razavi Jan 21, 2012 08:50pm
It is an English game, if it is not good for England, it is illegal.
Atiq Jan 21, 2012 10:15pm
You can not judge chucking from a still photo. This claim is purely out of jealousy.
khurram Jan 21, 2012 10:27pm
sour grapes Murali’s Law: which states that the extent to which a spin bowler’s action is a problem is directly related to the number of opponents he has dismissed in the current series.
Prince Mohammed Jan 21, 2012 11:37pm
this are rubbish english media always doing this this is not the first time whenever any asian player perform really well against them so start controversy to pressurize...the person who argument that bob wills the same first remarks against Ajmal when Ajmal give best performance against australia bob wills said ajmal is great bowler so from here you can find the difference...I'm only to say the x player should have big heart to accept talent....
Imran Jan 21, 2012 11:58pm
Murali's testing in Perth involved having a rigid brace being fitted to his bowling arm, and then being asked to bowl. Wouldn't you know it, he managed to bowl an off-spinner, a top-spinner and a doosra. You need to find something else to do with your sour grapes
Farhan Jan 22, 2012 12:18am
you should stick to 'reading' comic books
Tuffail Dar Jan 22, 2012 02:44am
Very well written. Logical analysis. This needs publishing in a sports journal. From Srinagar Kashmir
Atiq Jan 22, 2012 02:54am
You can not diagnose chukking from a still photograph.
Dr Thomas Abraham Jan 22, 2012 04:32am
I am an umpire and official of England & Wales Cricket Board. This Test has made some bold statements: 1. A bowler can almost single-handedly win a Test Match- eg. Ajmal( now), Bob Willis(Headingley), Harbajan singh( Eden Gardens) 2. If Ajmal had returned figures of 1 for 170, no 'critic' would have raised any eyebrows. 3. It was magnanimous of Prior to complement Ajmal promptly. This shows that players like Prior play proper cricket in the true spirit.
John Stewart Jan 22, 2012 06:07am
That is exactly the point that this article is trying to present; that you can not decide about the legality of the ball just looking at the footage or still photographs. You need to read the article again. We should also not forget that when the controversy about Murali was first 'created', extensive testing of not only Murali but also other 'regular' bowlers was undertaken. It showed that bowlers like McGrath actually 'chucked' according to the rules as they bent their elbow close to 10 deg. Other front line bowlers were found to 'chuck' as well. (I am sure if Bob Willis was put throught the test, he would have come out as a chucker too!) So the ICC made a decision based on the advice of the bio-mechanic experts that an elbow bent of 15 deg would generally be not visible by a naked eye and therefore should be adopted as the limit for legal delivery. We should also take a look at the history. When pakistani bowlers introduced the art of reverse swing, they were dubbed as 'cheaters' but when the english bowlers and the rest of the world learnt the trick it became an 'art'. This 'art' reached its new heights in the 2005 ashes series when the entire english team was chewing on a special 'lolly' and using their 'mint' laced saliva to give extra shine to the ball to achieve exagerated reverse swing. But off course nobody talked about it. Even the aussies talked about it mutely and it was never thoroughly investigated. To me the issue is quite simple. There are a few, and i say only a few, 'old school' white cricketers that can never accept the ascendancy of 'non-whites'.
Guru jee Jan 22, 2012 09:11am
And the English batsmen are just as blind and incompetent against the doosra as they were against the reverse swing. Once you guys are able to understand it and your bowlers can bowl the same ay everything will become legit. Pathetic.....
Usman Jan 22, 2012 09:45am
Jealous? Really? Its not like they dont have a world class off spinner in their team too. Maybe they are jealous of the the match fixing magic that the Pakistan team can conjure up anywhere
Abbas Haidery Jan 22, 2012 11:08am
Your comment tell one story 'You didn't understand the article at all which very nicely describes the art of off spin bowling'
Raza Jan 22, 2012 03:50pm
Yes Usman...Really! It is jealousy. Jealousy because this battle was perceived, in the English media, as a battle between Ajmal and Swann to determine who is the best spinner in the world. And Ajmal just ran away with the honors in the first session! Now Ajmal is ranked 3rd and Swann is 4th or 5th.... this jealousy will attain new heights...stay tuned!
Shishpal singh negi Jan 22, 2012 03:52pm
Real test for ajmal will be out of subcontinant, when he will visit australia,england s africa , if he perform there then we can say he is real talent ,
Humayun Murad Jan 22, 2012 04:14pm
Excellent ariticle. The English will accept Ajmal only when Swann learns to bowl 'doosra'. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were cheats until the English learnt the same 'cheating' skills of reverse swing; then it became skill.
Ashar Jan 22, 2012 07:00pm
The wrist position of Ajmal decides in which direction the ball goes after bouncing on the pitch though he spins the ball through his fingers. If the wrist is facing toward him at the time of delivery the ball is a doosra and if the wrist is positioned in lateral direction its a conventional offspin. He has a hybridized bowling action which was in fact invented by Saqlain I don’t understand why the writer has forgotten to mention his name at all.
Muzammal Jan 22, 2012 07:44pm
Beautiful article.
Awais Jan 23, 2012 09:26am
He performed in England in 2010 and had a lot more deviations of doosras than in Dubai. Please do some hard work and watch his 2010 performance in England on Youtube. We should be generous in appreciating the talent rather then putting conditions before accepting it!
sardar arshad Jan 24, 2012 07:20pm
great article .SAEED AJMAL just love what u do with ball..i respect many english commentator like NASIR HUSSAIN DAVID LLOYD ATHERTON and many others so leave the poor guy .