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Ajmal vs Saqlain: Fair comparison?

December 18, 2012

saeed ajmal, saqlain mushtaq, brian lara, virat kohli, inzamam, misbah, pakistan vs india 2012, pakistan india odi series, pakistan india t20 series, pakistan india cricket, pakistan india coverage
When Ajmal goes to India, he should carry with him the fortitude of the world number one bowler. -Photo by AFP

Eighteen required off the last over for Australia to stop Pakistan from reaching their third consecutive World T20 final.  Michael Hussey calls for a drink but is stranded at the non-striker’s end. Mitchell Johnson makes space, but Saeed Ajmal fires it on to his pads; leg bye and Hussey is on strike; 6,6,4,6 - game over.

There was a time in cricket when it was unheard of for an off-spinner to regularly bowl during the climax of a limited over contest. Under the captaincy of Wasim Akram, a young Saqlain Mushtaq changed that notion and arguably became the first spinner to be a specialist ‘death bowler’.  The inventor of the magical ‘Doosra’ baffled many men expecting turn and trying to slog sweep him in the final overs of a game. Most perished against the guile of the wily wizard.

Fifteen years later an entire generation of bowlers have emulated the Doosra, conjuring up their own versions of the delivery. Howbeit, it is Ajmal that makes one reminisce most of Saqlain’s legacy.

There are many parallels that are rightly drawn between the two. Both are extremely difficult to read because of their wonderful disguise, have a bagful of variations in flight and pace and often outthink their opponents more than anything else. However, what might seem to be a good case of similarity in the two men, it is the disparity of their careers that brings forward the stark difference in the bowlers and more importantly the people they evolved into.

Saqlain was almost 19 when he made his international debut after barely playing a season of first class cricket. He was genius from the get go and lived up to a reputation that got him an early breakthrough in life. He went onto become the fastest bowler to get 50 and then 100 wickets in ODIs, he was the best spinner in the world at the age of 20 and the best bowler at 21. He quickly got a county contract with Surrey where he was an instant success, life was good.

Saqlain was a part of a bowling lineup that featured the matured pair of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, an express Shoaib Akhtar and a young and nippy Abdul Razzaq. Mushtaq Ahmed and Shahid Afridi also supported the spin department. Bowlers often hunt in pairs but these men hunted in packs and still, Saqlain managed to stand out amongst some very big names.

While he was doing wonders on the field, it was the Pakistani dressing room that had caught the match- fixing plague. Unfortunately the young boy got diseased but was cleared by the one-man inquiry commission convened under Justice Qayyum. By the 2003 World Cup, the high flying Pakistani team of the nineties had hit rock bottom. A cleanup of affairs by Chief Selector Aamir Sohail saw Saeed Anwar, Inzamam, Wasim, Waqar, and Saqlain amongst others being dropped under the captaincy of whistle-blower Rashid Latif.

However, Inzamam soon made a strong comeback under a wave of Islamic reform and redemption; for the next four years he became the undisputed supreme, and by some accounts the spiritual leader of a team, with a history of shuffling captains. Saqlain too followed religious suit but never managed to earn a spot under Inzamam’s new reign; he had already played his last ODI for Pakistan at the age of 26.

The retirement of Inzamam in 2007 saw another round of musical chairs of Pakistani captains. While trying all available options, the unlikely candidate, Misbah-ul-Haq found himself in the hot seat. The 34- year-old skipper had been extremely prolific in domestic cricket for years but had not been able to successfully transfer the act into the international arena. Interestingly, he too played only three ODIs under Inzamam and not a single Test match, a trade he was best suited for.

In the one-off game that Misbah captained in 2008, another seasoned domestic performer, Saeed Ajmal, made his debut at the age of 30. Unlike Saqlain, Ajmal played under five different captains and bagged only 44 ODI wickets in his first three years at an average of over 30 apiece.

In 2011, due to a string of unfortunate events, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) yet again ran out of options and Misbah-ul-Haq was made captain by default, this time a more permanent one.

Very different from the star studded team Saqlain played with, Ajmal found himself amongst lesser talented, hard working cricketers. The golden age of Pakistani fast bowlers seemed a distant memory and in contrast the entire burden was on the spin arsenal. Ajmal being the spearhead has seldom had the luxury of bowling to a rattled top order and instead is often given the task to dislodge them on his own.

In a tenure that has now lasted over 19 months, Ajmal has taken 54 ODI wickets at an average of 18.07 under Misbah-ul-Haq’s leadership. Deserving so, today he is ranked as the best bowler in the world.

Ajmal made his Test debut five years after Saqlain played his last Test for Pakistan. They seem to be bowlers from two different eras. Ironically, both men are now of the same age, 35. It makes one wonder what would have become had the two been operating in tandem. Would Pakistan have gambled with two attacking off-spinners in its Test and ODI sides?

It is only natural to compare two men with seemingly equal genius, so it would no doubt have made for great viewing if Saqlain were pitted against someone like Virat Kohli and Saeed Ajmal, perhaps, against the pure class that was Brian Lara.  Saqlain played a total of 36 ODIs and 4 Tests against India, arguably the best players of spin, picking up 57 (24.38) in the shorter format and 25 (28.28) in the five-day version. Pakistan and India have not played a bilateral series for a long time, which has meant that Ajmal has zero Tests against the subcontinent rivals and only five ODIs in which he has accounted for nine batsmen.

It is inappropriate to give King Solomon an ascendancy over King David. Similarly, at the peak of their powers it is unjust to decide the better bowler between the two magicians. However, like Solomon, Prince Ajmal is fittingly the legitimate heir to the throne of King Saqlain. Both Pakistani men have enjoyed being at the very top of the hierarchy.

Their own different version of the mythical ‘Teesra’ has not had an impact on their careers. However, it is the over use of the Doosra that had made Saqlain a little predictable. Alarmingly, Ajmal has also lately been accused of the same offense.

This year, Ajmal had a below par series in Sri Lanka but found his rhythm versus the Australians in UAE. He will perhaps have his toughest test in limited over cricket against better batsmen of spin on the tour of India later this month.

The finest moments of Saqlain’s career came in India on the tour of 1999 which was coupled with the Asian Test championship. On Indian soil, Saqlain took 20 ODI wickets at an average of 20.70 in 9 games and 24 wickets at 20.95 apiece in just three Test matches. Extra ordinary figures those, but they hardly illustrate the enormous glory and shame at stake in an India versus Pakistan encounter.

A short cut to the road of greatness can just take that one delivery in Chennai or two in Calcutta. Similarly, it just takes a six in Karachi to permanently stain a career forever. In both countries, such moments are etched in the minds of millions and retold on dining tables through generations. How many years will it take to forget Aamir Sohail pointing his bat to Venkatesh Prasad or Javed Miandad hitting Chetan Sharma for a last-ball six? Like many before him, Ajmal will also get the opportunity to become a hero or a villain.

Saqlain tragically ended his international career by coming under the hammer of a blistering triple-hundred by Virender Sehwag on a lifeless Multan pitch in 2004, registering figures of 1/204. His comeback lasted just that one match and the knee injury that followed only added to his misery, he became a shadow of the bowler he had been in his youth.

All five balls bowled by Ajmal in the last over of the 2010 World T20 semifinal were flat and fast, most of them well over the 100 km/h mark. What would Saqlain have done against Hussey in similar circumstances?

Good spinners despise being hit for big runs but are never afraid of it, in fact, great spinners enjoy the company of an aggressive batsman, inviting them to hit outside the park. Hypothetically, Saqlain might have slowed the pace and given the ball some air. Confidence does wonders for a sportsman giving them invaluable heart and courage; traits that Ajmal too has displayed over the last year and a half.

When Ajmal goes to India, he should carry with him the fortitude of the world number one bowler. True greatness is achieved by triumphing over the best in their own backyard, just like Saqlain did when he toured India in 1999. The coming fortnight will significantly impact his perspiration, how he responds to this pressure might determine how he will be remembered most.