Spinners August 29, 2008

Thanks for the memories, Mushy

Mushtaq Ahmed does leave behind unparalleled memories for fans of his country and fans of his county—and there can be no bigger compliment

Mushtaq Ahmed will have bid a sad farewell to county cricket. It was an arena that saw him achieve great personal and team success at a time when his international career had run into the sand. Indeed, county cricket rescued his career when the Pakistan Cricket Board had churned him up and abandoned him.

There were, of course, brief flirtations with an international recall and an attempt by Bob Woolmer and Inzamam-ul Haq to create a role for Mushtaq as assistant coach of Pakistan, but his career summary would fit any number of Pakistan players of his era: a talent part fulfilled but somehow unfulfilling.

Over the last two decades, Mushtaq transformed much as a person. In the beginning we saw a young, boisterous, mischievous cricketer, carefree in spirit and behaviour. Some of those elements remain but he is now a deeply religious man, caring as much for the afterlife as for the here and now.

Mushtaq’s place in international cricket owes much to Imran Khan’s passion for attacking bowlers, particularly legspinners, in one-day cricket. Abdul Qadir was a major role model, and Mushtaq looked to be taking over from where Qadir left off. The range of deliveries—especially googlies—has always been impressive even though he has suffered from a lack of natural drift and a lower delivery arm.

The 1992 World Cup introduced Mushtaq to the world, and the image of him growing in stature during the landmark tournament for Pakistan cricket and joyously celebrating each wicket is an iconic one for Pakistan fans.

His Test career developed rapidly too, with early suggestions that he might even be able to rival Shane Warne. But those ambitions never matured although Mushtaq did become an influential foil for Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Much of the 1990s was taken up with Mushtaq twirling away from one end, while the Two Ws alternated from the other. Pakistan had a formula that threatened world domination but never achieved it.

Ironically, it was the rise of one-day cricket that put the heat on Mushtaq’s international career. Pakistan took a liking to Shahid Afridi’s all-round potential but more importantly Saqlain Mushtaq’s devastating one-day form saw him displace Mushtaq as Pakistan’s premier spinner—and the Test formula, as it was, only allowed scope for one twirler.

The match-fixing controversy of the 1990s also damaged Mushtaq and later became a reason for him to lose his job as assistant coach. Some said his religious bent was inspired by a desire for redemption but the same has been said about numerous Pakistan players of Mushtaq’s era, and this adoption of piety has been a general phenomenon unconfined to cricketers.

County cricket, however, rejuvenated Mushtaq. Here he was a match-winner, a destroyer, while he had become almost impotent on the international stage. When he joined Sussex, the right man had joined the right county at the right time. Mushtaq’s achievements in county cricket have become legend, a testament to his dedication to cricket and his love of bowling. But they also highlight the gulf between England’s domestic game and the international arena.

In the final reckoning of Pakistan leg spin bowlers, Mushtaq stands behind Qadir but above Danish Kaneria. He does, however, leave behind unparalleled memories for fans of his country and fans of his county—and there can be no bigger compliment.

A furrowed brow, a bouncing angular run that ends in a fast twirling arm, a plea to the powers that be on heaven and earth, and an ecstatic, grinning, racing celebration with arms outstretched. This same routine brought about World Cup glory and county cricket supremacy. It could have been more but who would argue that it wasn’t enough for an unworldly boy from Sahiwal?

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here