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Ajmal vs Saqlain: Fair comparison?

Published Dec 18, 2012 02:20pm


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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.


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Comments (41) Closed

syed Dec 19, 2012 01:11pm
Yeah you are forgetting that it was Saqlain who lost you the final against India in Dhaka .... And kanitkar hit him for plenty in that last over. Read about it if you have time. And by the way if you are suffering from memory loss.....Saqlain was already a shadow of his past before he played that game in Multan. He was not exactly setting the world alight after 2001. That Multan game was the last nail in the coffin. I am a huge fan of both but you were bent to prove your point hence did not have the courtesy to quote the Dhaka example. By your standards even Waqar was a lesser bowler because he got spanked by Jadeja. And mind you it was not like Ajmal was bowling to some tailender, he was bowling to one of the greatest batsmen of the last few years, Micheal Hussey. Give credit where its due.
caramelizedonionUsman Dec 20, 2012 05:03am
Or Rabrri with Halwa?
Clive Clements Dec 19, 2012 08:44am
A good time for Ajmal to show his class against the Indian sitting ducks. But Pakistan must make sure that Ashwin does not take more or else Ajmal's reputation will be doubtful.
haris Dec 19, 2012 01:18pm
I don't think either of such things affected the careers of these players. As like Inzi, Yousuf continued to play well for some years and remember he set the record of highest run maker in a calendar year after his conversion to Islam. He was also an active member of Taleeghi jamat in that record-breaking year. Saeed Anwar, Mustaq, Waqar all passed their prime when they joined the Jamaat. So blaming Islamization or Jamataization is not legitimate.
Raza Dec 19, 2012 04:51pm
Excellent article Shaan :) What to talk about having pack of bowlers, Pakistan currently does not have even a bowling pair.Depending wholly on Saeed Ajmal will be a disaster in India.
Vinay Dec 19, 2012 04:03am
debate over dubious action of ajmal leaving him behind saqlain who had purest action of a offy..yu know how Murali was accomodated by changing rules and later many took advantage of degree relaxation...
Irfan (@shaikhirfanb) Dec 19, 2012 09:03pm
Here we go. Can you substantiate your claims with facts and dont just come up with Multan test only where sehway was dropped off Saqi!
sohail abbas Dec 19, 2012 06:07am
It wasn't Islamization, rather it was "tableeghi-jamaitization" and lack of discipline and commitment to cricket-career that doomed their careers!!
Fen Dec 19, 2012 06:29pm
Still bottom line is Ajmal,Rahman ,Hafeez led Pakistan to 3-0 victory against mighty England against whom India are beaten at home 2-1 and in England 4-0.Look who is superior.These spinning duo is living legend of spin bowling.
SAEED MASOOD Dec 18, 2012 08:32pm
I hope the best is yet to come for Pakistan cricket....Go Ajmal get it for you country.... You play a good game...we will pray. Excellent article.
Abdullah Dec 20, 2012 04:24am
Great info. But Comparing Saqlain with Ajmal is like comparing a teacher with a student
Saleem Dec 19, 2012 02:47am
Its happened to best of bowlers, doesnt mean they were or are not good.
Irfan (@shaikhirfanb) Dec 19, 2012 09:22pm
Well done Ashraf Agha...once they started praying they lost focus on cricket??? You gotta kidding me. Have you ever asked them? Yusuf broke world records as a practising Muslim, Muhstaq broked countless county records and still doing so, Inzi played for so many years, Anwar played such a great hundred vs India coming back in the world cup, Afridi, Waqar all played great after being parctising Muslims. As for Saqlain, do you even have his record of his last year playing for Pak? It was the great PCB and the great so called cricket literate fans of Pakistan who abandoned Saqi at 26 refusing to support him for a double knee surgery!
azhar Dec 18, 2012 07:15pm
ajmal is gonna rock in india
Jehanzeb Idrees Dec 18, 2012 08:25pm
Another big reason for Saqlain's undoing was his arrogance and the over-confidence with Doosra, which led to his eventual predictability as a bowler as you rightly pointed out. With Ajmal, I feel that he has more variation with his length as compared to Saqlain and I think this is the hallmark of a great spinner which doesn't allow the batsmen to read the ball well along with all the doosras and teesras.
Fen Dec 19, 2012 06:25pm
Forget about Ajmal,Rahman,Hafeez,one of them alone is enough for sitting 11 ducks of Indian team.Monty and Swain have proved Indians are not only weak in playing fast bowlers but even equally weak and brittle against spinners.Gone are days of Dravid and Laxman,this Indian team is weaker than even Bangladesh.
syed ashraf agha Dec 18, 2012 07:52pm
Hey Shaan, well compared. Only that, what Ajmal started to do in his 30s, Saqlain did it in his 20's. He had a long way to go but lost his way through politics in Pak cricket and of course Islamization came in the way of professionalism of many like Inzi, Md.Yusuf, Mushtaq Ahmed, Saeed Anwer, Saqlain, and also Afridi, and now Waqar. None can compare to the Muslim Amla is. He is a professional first, then a Muslim. Our guys got it the other way around.
Farooq Mogul Dec 20, 2012 03:31am
I'm a keen cricket follower and glad to read such a quality article here, enjoyed every word of it. Would like to read more from the same author in future, particularly regarding Pak-India series in coming days. Good work Shaan. Saqi was a gifted, genius, there won;t be another Saqi. Introduced the world with a new bowl and his legacy will remain for very long. Achieved great success, all over the world at a very young age, due to sheer talent. Ajmal, also a great blower, probably equally effective at his peak, a simple and extremely hard working individual. Achieved all his success from sheer hardwork and being the only match winner bowler in the team and not able to play in his home country, is also a great achievement. He still has some way to go before achieving Saqi's greatness, but really a man to respect for what he is doing for Pak cricket, single handedly.
ali Dec 19, 2012 12:09am
Ajmal still has a long way to go.
Salman Dec 19, 2012 10:04pm
brilliant read ... nostalgic and tragic at the same time.... excellent flow... keep them coming Mr Agha !! Dawn has a class of its own.... has always had one .... Pakistan need this win in India more than India needs it .... Cricket seems to be the only common denominator left in the country... Pakistan Zindabad.. Good Luck Team Pakistan !!
Abdul Hasan Dec 18, 2012 06:34pm
Solomon might have been a greater King but David brought him in this world. If there was no Saqlain, there would have been no Ajmal. In fact without the doosra off spin would have been a dead art. Good Article ...
Ahmad Dec 19, 2012 02:49pm
Very well written. Listed the right facts to bring in the comparison
Obaid Dec 18, 2012 05:49pm
2-great bowlers-unfortunately under utilized by corrupt management and selfish captains.....a loss for Pakistan cricket.
Joy Dec 18, 2012 05:19pm
saqqi is a legend, a pioneer, someone who shines smart among the best in the world. Sattqlain, Shane and muttiah are the breed alike. Ajmal, Swan, (if u think he is qualified) are just good to emulate their shadows. teesra chautha...........whatever
waseem Dec 18, 2012 04:39pm
very reasonable,intellectual,good comparison.Unfortunately saqlain had been hammered by board and changing captains
:) Dec 18, 2012 04:15pm
Goose bumps!
Irfan (@shaikhirfanb) Dec 19, 2012 09:37pm
well done Shaan Agha for reviving memories of a legend hardly given due credit by either our most incompetent PCB or the so called all knowing cricket fans. I just dont agree @saqlain_mushtaq lost it at the end unless your support it with facts. He might not have been very prolific but I can easily recall great bowling moments even in his last years with pakistan e.g. he got Gary kiristen in Jan 2003 test match in South Africa in exact same fashion as the previous ball was no-ball, he got a 7 wicket haul against a formidable Zimbabwean team in those days just a couple of months back! Its a shame that you didnt brought that up and equally for not acknowledging the fact that the great PCB didnt support him an iota with his career threatening double knee operation or the fact that he played the Multan test with pain injections in his shoulder on a pitch where Kumble's figures in 1st innings were prerry similar and Kaneria playing in later matches also had similar figures. The greatest question yet to be asked around is why Saqi with such a great enviable record in ODIs wasnt even given a single ODI appearance in that 2004 series despite being in the squad. I think it was to do with another legend's egoistic views, Javed Miandad whose ODI approach is still follwed as a text book by Misbah ul Haq of leaving everything at end!
Hassan Dec 20, 2012 02:58am
A good example is Amla who is Muslim as well as professional. He refused to wear shirts having alcohol company's label. Islam is a way of life which encourage professionalism, dedication and devotion in life. Unfortunately, illiteracy of Muslims about Islam and lack of hard world have made them thinking that following religion is hindrance in achieving their goals or illiterate and unsuccessful Muslims used it to cover up their lack of achievements.
Irfan (@shaikhirfanb) Dec 19, 2012 09:17pm
Sorry jehanzeb but I couldnt resist commenting again on this type of comment. Saqlain was arrogant? Give me a break. The sorry state of Pak cricket is not just because of what happens at PCB but similar nature of cricket fans.
Irfan (@shaikhirfanb) Dec 19, 2012 09:23pm
Sohail abbas, I wish you had guts to state facts than play the blame game.
Banaras Dec 18, 2012 02:53pm
Very good read but the article is littered with grammatical errors.
Nabil Khan Dec 18, 2012 02:38pm
wow, excellent article...
Afif Dec 18, 2012 02:37pm
Parallels between the two? Doesnt 6,6,4,6 tell them apart?
Asad naqvi Dec 18, 2012 02:38pm
Saqlain is a legend and with the most purest of actions.The best thing about him was he was always innovating.
Clive Clements Dec 19, 2012 08:47am
A class apart really. Saqlain was an innovator. Ajmal is just a follower
Meesam Abbas Dec 19, 2012 02:01pm
Saqlain was a legend who performed well all around the world and againt all Opposition but Ajmal till has to prove his mattle against India,it should be noted that Ajaml ha been thrashed all around the Park by Kohli in the past, long way to go still for ajmal
common dude Dec 20, 2012 09:56am
very goos write but do keep in mind that Saqlain's knees were the actual cause of his career end. it is sad that at least 2-3 boards have used his services but PCB refuses to do so. Same case with Mushtaq, he has turned the Poms spinners around.
Alihasan Dec 20, 2012 10:12am
Only Dawn has such educated and critical analysis. Completely unbiased. Though i feel Saqi would have also bowled it flat and fast to Hussein, that is how he operated in odds. Also at the time he got a lot of wickets with his doors a cause few understood it. Now there is no mystery behind his invention. . Anyway kudos to the writer !
zeus Dec 21, 2012 10:33am
i usually dont comment. but this article made me. beautifully written friend. i look forward to your future articles and analysis . great job (Y)
zafar Dec 23, 2012 04:51pm
yap man u r true but i will definately say saqlain is all time great as it is very easy to follow than leading by examples
Habib Dec 25, 2012 09:14pm
Habib London, We have done well today against India today, but I feel our batting still needs to improve by miles. As our top order had no answer for the newcomer Kumar. If Hafeez guided them to play him, we may have seen that they have learnt a lesson. But everyone of the top order fell to Kumar's swing one by one (Shocking).