AOC speaks exclusively to the No.1 spin bowler in the world, who’s been through the ringer only to come out the other side. Opponents of Pakistan and Worcestershire beware. The great Saeed Ajmal is back.
It’s a long road back, that’s for sure. It’s a long road back for a youngster called for chucking, but in the second half of your thirties, a return to the peak of your powers – and what a peak that was – is near impossible, freakish even. But Saeed Ajmal has shown us time and again that he is just that, freakish.
After being called for – and subsequently cleared of – chucking in 2009, Ajmal flummoxed all-comers over the following five years. But 2014 was the year it all came crashing down for the most mysterious spinner of them all. The whispers about his action had never been fully silenced and in September – sat atop the ODI bowling rankings months before a World Cup – he was called for chucking and suspended from international cricket, along with a raft of others as the ICC clamped down. What’s followed is seven months of exhaustive work with all manner of experts to have his action cleared, a goal he’s now achieved.
Meantime, it’s been all go in Pakistani cricket. When, alas, is it not? After a rollercoaster World Cup of spectacular spells and disastrous fielding, wonderful wins and crushing defeats, they’ve gone and lost an ODI series to Bangladesh for the first time. Business as usual, eh. Afridi’s gone, Misbah’s gone, Ajmal’s back and Mohammad Amir will be soon. AOC catches up with Ajmal to discuss all this and more.
The doosra became your signature delivery. How did you originally learn to bowl it?
In the early 2000s, playing for Faisalabad, there was a guy called Aqeel Ahmed who was an off-spinner. He used to make more wickets than I did so would get picked ahead of me. The only difference between us was that Aqeel could bowl a doosra and I couldn’t, so he was getting picked and I wasn’t. I needed to do something about this so I decided I had to learn how. In 2004, I came to England to coach kids at Lancing College in Sussex and spent the summer just watching videos of Saqlain Mushtaq.
I watched his grip, his action, everything. Within those three months coaching, practice and dedication, I learned the doosra. I just watched Saqlain back and forward, then practiced in front of the mirror and in the nets for hours. When I went to try it I could see the ball was turning the other way.
What’s the state of play with your action now, then?
The ICC has cleared every single one of my deliveries at testing in Chennai so I am now bowling all of my variations within 15 degrees. They said my action was not right last year but cricket is in my blood and I knew that I could fix the problem through hard work and perseverance. I have re-taught myself how to bowl my variations and normal delivery, the doosra, quicker ball, they are all legal. I did this because I simply love to play the game of cricket. I work hard to be the best I can and when a set back comes like this I work hard to try to get round it.
Now I have enlisted the help of Paul Hurrion, the ICC’s Head Biomechanics Analyst, to work with me as a consultant on and off the field to ensure I don’t have these problems ever again. He was involved in the testing of my action in Chennai and helped me re-model it so I could pass the tests. We will continue to work together so my action stays legal. I hope we will continue to work together for the rest of my career.
Did you consider quitting the game when you were called for chucking?
That was never in my mind. I would never quit if they told me I wasn’t able to bowl anymore. I couldn’t do the doosra at first, then I learned it. I knew that I could change it, it would take time but I could change it. It took about seven months but I have done it. I’ve worked very hard to get back, the ICC have approved my action and now I want to just get on with bowling and get back to my best.
You’re heading back to Worcestershire this season. What were your impressions of county cricket last year?
It is a great opportunity for any player to play county cricket and it is a great way of learning and playing. It’s a high quality competition and for Asian players it gives an idea of the what to expect in English conditions and weather. County cricket is played at a good competitive level, so you learn lots.
How has it been watching Moeen Ali succeed in international cricket? What it was he like to work with?
I think he is a great allrounder and a great addition to the English team because he can bowl off-spin well and bat too. He is very talented and he will play for a long time. I did an interview with Nick Knight on Sky a few months before he was picked predicting his call-up. Before he played for England we worked together and I taught him how to bowl a doosra and some other variations.
You’re back playing for Pakistan now. Misbah has retired, how was he as a captain? And what of his replacement, Azhar Ali?
Misbah is very humble and a great player. He’s polite, a great listener and a strong cricketer, a great professional. He doesn’t discriminate between seniors and juniors on the team. He treats all the players at the same level and when he chooses his team he has complete faith in them. As a captain he is very supportive and doesn’t talk behind any players’ back, so he creates a good atmosphere that the team enjoys. He will be considered one of the great Pakistan players ever. Azhar is also a very humble and supportive guy, so will do well.
Amir is also on his way back. How you think his return will be received? Will he be able to perform as well as he did before?
Everyone’s reaction is different. He is very talented person and must learn from his mistake. He has served his punishment and subject to performance and his commitment with ICC and the rest of the cricketing world then he is allowed to play again in international cricket and he should be. He can set a great example for upcoming players that even though you are a talented player, if things go wrong or you are offered something bad then you should take great care.