Pakistan cricket is famous for producing world-class fast bowlers. Since they started playing cricket, almost every Pakistan team had at least one fast bowler who would be considered among the best in his era. While fast bowling talent has indeed been abundant in the South Asian nation, they have also produced some special spinners that have left a deep impact on the game.
In the 1980s, Abdul Qadir single-handedly revived the art of leg spin with an action that served as a template for many budding spinners trying to bowl a googly like him. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Saqlain Mushtaq got the rare honour of naming a delivery that he invented, the doosra.
When Mushtaq first unleashed the delivery, it was so mysterious that even after watching super-slow-motion replays of his action, commentators could not decipher how an off-spinner can turn the ball the other way. Saqlain’s invention was later adopted by fellow off-spinners Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh among others, granting it some much-needed legitimacy even though some experts were still unconvinced about its place in the game.
Saeed Ajmal made his international debut in 2008 at the age of 30 in what can be termed as the post T20 era. An era in which the only way for an off-spinner to avoid getting hit all over the park was to rely on his variations. Ajmal gave the doosra a new lease of life along, while also bringing with it a whole new set of controversies.
Already a veteran of the game, having played more than a decade of domestic cricket, Ajmal made an immediate impact at the international stage when he bamboozled the Australian batsmen in an ODI series in the UAE. But as Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh had found out before him, you don’t flummox the Aussies with the doosra and hope to get away with it.
Ajmal was reported for suspect action in 2009, but was cleared immediately. The doosra lived on and continued to give headaches to batsmen around the world, for now.
Despite ICC clearance, the doosra and its chief proponent Ajmal continued to face a boycott of sorts from several cricket experts in Australia and England. In 2009, a group of Australian ex-spinners, including Shane Warne, met at a 'spin summit' and collectively declared that the doosra cannot be bowled legally.
Former Test off-spinner Ashley Mallett didn't mince words while speaking about doosra. "I have never seen anyone actually bowl the doosra. It has to be a chuck." The committee also refused to coach it to future generations of Australian spinners. "Until such time as the ICC declares that all manner of chucking is legal in the game of cricket, I refuse to coach the doosra. All at the 'Spin Summit' agreed." A sensitive man, Ajmal must have been hurt by these comments, but the world was yet to see his best.
Ajmal played a crucial role in Pakistan's winning run in 2009 World T20, drying up runs and picking crucial wickets in almost every match. A Test call-up came soon afterwards as Pakistan's most successful spinner Danish Kaneria was dropped from the side due to poor form. As Ajmal grew in confidence at the international level, his personality came to the fore. Ajmal had the Sky Sports commentary team in tatters after he collected his first five-wicket haul in Test cricket, giving an interview that is now part of YouTube folklore.
Ajmal had limited abilities with the bat but he used them to the fullest when he scored his first Test fifty at Birmingham in the same series. Ajmal was never shy of a contest and never far from a wholehearted laugh, and the manner in which he played the game won him accolades back home and nearly turned him into a cult figure.
By 2011, Ajmal was widely being regarded as the best spinner in the game across all formats. He picked 50 Test wickets in the year and also climbed to the top of the ICC bowler rankings in ODI and T20I formats. Like many Pakistani spinners before him, Ajmal saved his best for the English team as he picked 24 wickets in a series in UAE in 2012 against a strong English side. This was a resurgent Pakistani side under Misbah-ul-Haq and Ajmal played a crucial role in building a fortress for them in their adopted home.
Ajmal’s success came in the face of the ongoing witch-hunt from sections of the media and ex-players, who continued to question his bowling action. In 2014, Ajmal decided to go to the centre of the storm as he signed up to play for Worcestershire for his second stint in English county cricket. Ex-England captain Michael Vaughan took a sly dig at Ajmal’s bowling action by posting a picture of his seemingly bent arm while Ajmal picked 7 for 19 against Essex. Stuart Broad joined in the discussion and was later gagged by English Cricket Board (ECB), but the damage had already been done by then.
Later that year, ICC did another assessment of Ajmal’s bowling action, banning him subsequently. The world was shocked to find out that Ajmal was bending his arm by almost 40 degrees. In the same year, ICC booted several other spinners with suspect actions in a cleansing drive. The doosra was then systematically killed along with Ajmal's career.
It did however, lead the cricketing fraternity to debate over the extent to which spinners could flex their arm to lend a balance between bat and ball, as well as allowing deliveries like the doosra to add to the spectacle of the game. That, of course, could never have happened. Cricket always distinguished between bowling and throwing, and even though it allowed some leeway with the 15-degree rule, it would have been unfair to expect ICC to be more flexible.
Ever the fighter, Ajmal fought on as he tried to rebuild his actions. Experts suggested that the burden of carrying Pakistan’s attack in all three forms of the game had lead to the deterioration of his action. Ajmal worked with Saqlain to manufacture a new bowling action that would allow him to extend his career for a couple of seasons, but he wasn’t able to create an impact at the international level.
Ajmal announced his retirement from all forms of the game, acknowledging that a comeback to international cricket is somewhat impossible now. Even in his final statements before bidding goodbye, he expressed his bitterness and hurt at being censured by veteran English pacer Broad.
Very few spinners in the history of the game have managed to terrorize batsmen. When Ajmal was at his best, batsmen dreaded the prospect of facing him, and opposition fans prayed for him to pick a niggle before an important match and miss it. Ajmal has expressed his desire to coach youngsters in his post-retirement life. Pakistan will do well use his services. Cricket will be richer for another bowler who can revive and reinvent the doosra.