It is an ironic fact that the summer of 2010 in England began with great hope for Pakistan. They had, at their beck and call, a bowling attack which could be considered the envy of the cricketing world, and after the first Test against Australia at Lord's, a young and dynamic captain who was eagerly looking to make a mark in international cricket. Not many followers of the game would have disagreed with the notion that the pace of Mohammad Amir, the swing of Mohammad Asif, and the guile of Saeed Ajmal had the potential to take Pakistan to the top.
Whilst the Pakistan Test side struggled against England after competing well against Australia earlier in the summer, not many would have anticipated the upheaval that was to come on 28 August, 2010 when the story of the spot-fixing scandal broke, plunging Pakistan cricket into the depths of ignominy.
The tragic events of March 2009 had already dealt a blow to Pakistan cricket due to the fact that no international games could be played on its home soil. The news of its top cricketers’ involvement in nefarious activities was a further body blow that the country could ill afford.
With Pakistan cricket’s reputation now in tatters, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) turned towards a brave and talented group of cricketers to revive its fortunes, with Misbah-ul-Haq stepping up to the challenge and taking on the captaincy of the Test team. His job was decidedly made easier by the presence of another wise head in the shape of Saeed Ajmal, who now had to take on the mantle of the senior statesman in the team, both in terms of his presence as well as his performances on the field.
In a country where throwing youngsters in at the deep end was considered the norm, Saeed Ajmal’s international debut for Pakistan against India in July 2008 at the age of 30 was indeed an extraordinary and belated event.
Whilst his ebullient personality was appreciated by all lovers of the game, doubts were already being cast on his bowling style as far back as in 2009 when he was reported for having a suspect bowling action.
He was subsequently cleared by the International Cricket Council (ICC) and duly helped Pakistan win the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 in England. But, it was only in 2010, in the aftermath of the ‘spot-fixing’ scandal that Ajmal assumed the role of Pakistan’s main bowler. This was a role he accepted with all his heart and enthusiasm, accompanied with a healthy dose of bonhomie which was appreciated by the crowds as well as his teammates.
With a certain spring in his step at being the ‘go-to’ man for his captain, Ajmal’s rise in all formats of the game continued unabated. Batsmen from all over the world continued to be confounded by his frequent use of the 'doosra' delivery and the air of expectancy around the ground when he was given the ball was a sight to remember.
During his 19th Test match in 2012, Ajmal gained the honour of becoming the quickest Pakistani to take 100 Test wickets and it was also no surprise that from November 2011 to December 2014, Ajmal was often ranked the number one bowler in the One-Day Internationals (ODIs). His reign at the top of the rankings eventually came to an end in December 2014, however it was the ban on his bowling due to an illegal action which was enforced in September 2014 that changed the course of his career, as well as his relationship with the PCB.
The fall from grace as Pakistan’s saviour to a non-entity in a period of a few weeks would have broken the spirits of many sportsmen. Unfazed and still in high spirits, Ajmal went to work immediately to fix his action under the mentorship of Saqlain Mushtaq, but that was not enough to get him back to the wicket-taking ways of his prime.
Seeing the writing on the wall and perhaps with a view to conserve his reputation, Ajmal made the painful decision in December 2014 to withdraw his name from Pakistan's squad for the 2015 World Cup. As he was to remark rather optimistically in an interview, “My dream was to play in the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and my dreams were shattered by that ban. However, there was nothing I could do about it. Yes, it was disappointing, yes it hurt, but I have to move on and look to the future and not look back”.
To many admirers of Ajmal’s unending supply of positive energy, it was becoming clear that he was struggling to gain a footing in the now evolving Pakistan side. With a remodelled action, he was cleared once again by the ICC in February 2015 and the PCB, probably more under public pressure, allowed him to make a comeback against Bangladesh, but this proved to be disastrous as the off-spinner ended up with the worst figures of his career, conceding 74 runs in 10 overs, without picking up a wicket.
The Pakistan selectors had clearly decided that Ajmal’s long international spell was finally over. The tour of Bangladesh in 2015 was to be his last for Pakistan. The painful realization that time and public opinion had moved on was a bitter pill to swallow for Ajmal. His various statements criticising the PCB as well as the ICC for their ‘flawed’ policies on bowling actions would now betray a sense of disillusionment with the system that he had served so loyally in the past. The time to move on was nigh.
Ajmal, once the doyen of Pakistan cricket and one of the most feared spinners of his time, was now marking time by playing in the Pakistan Super League (PSL). He represented Islamabad United with limited success taking nine wickets in the 10 games he played in over two seasons of the PSL. His appearances in domestic tournaments were considered mandatory, but to all those who had followed his career, the Ajmal of today was but a shadow of his former self.
The recent announcement of his appointment as the spin-bowling coach for Islamabad United for PSL 3 was probably a signal that he was ready to move to the next stage of his career. It must have been with a heavy heart that Ajmal, a spin-weaving wizard at the peak of his powers, would have accepted this new role knowing full well that it marked the end of his playing career. But then, Ajmal is a warrior at heart and the same never-say-die attitude that drove him to serve Pakistan on the field is likely to push him forward in the next spell of his distinguished career.
He will be remembered as a cricketer who played the great game with a smile on his face and endeared himself to fans all over the world. Forthright, team man, fun-loving, and a great ambassador of Pakistan cricket, the magician will be missed.
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