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Demystifying the Saeed Ajmal anomaly

January 20, 2012

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.