April 1, 2014

Haunted turns hunter

Saeed Ajmal was written off after Michael Hussey smashed him for 18 runs in an over in a World T20 semi-final. But he bounced back and how

Saeed Ajmal: Pakistan's premier bowler across formats and a master at the death © AFP

Going into the 1950 FIFA World Cup, hosts Brazil were confident that it was their tournament to win. The 1940s had seen a deterioration of football in Europe (due to the Second World War), and Brazil had become the top dog in South America. A year earlier they had hosted and won the Copa America, beating Paraguay 7-0 in the final. The European empires were wrecked. The second half of the 20th century was going to be South American and Brazil was going to lead the way. Thus new stadia were built with the aim of capturing the attention of the world and showing them that the country was about to begin its golden age, starting with football.

In the final match of the tournament, Brazil needed a draw against Uruguay to win the title and were up 1-0 soon after half-time; but then the best laid plans of men and mice went awry. Brazil lost 2-1, Uruguay were crowned world champions for the second time. The ghost of Maracana - newly built for the World Cup, with nearly 200,000 spectators crammed in for the match against Uruguay - was born. And Maracanazo lives to this day.

The novelist Nelson Rodrigues described it: "Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950." As is customary, the Fateful Final became a metaphor for Brazil's failure to achieve their potential. Alex Bellos, describing the national psyche in the aftermath, said, "Brazil's downfall is its lack of moral fibre. The opposition is irrelevant. Brazil is always playing against itself, against its own demons, against the ghosts of the Maracana."

Six decades and five World Cup victories on, Brazil still grapples with those ghosts. After that final they changed from their white shirts to the now iconic canary yellow and became the only team since the Second World War to win back-to-back world titles. The team moved on, even if the nation didn't.

It is a feeling that other sports fans will be quite familiar with. One failure - no matter how glorious - is still remembered and pondered over. While fans may never be able to move past those heartbreaks, players - at least the best of them - have the ability to conquer those demons. Some, like the Indian cricket team of the 1990s and the Pakistani cricket team of the last decade, have shown how a millstone can drag you down. Others, like the post-1950 Brazilian teams, have shown that even if the general populace doesn't move on, the team can.

There is one player in the current Pakistani team who has shown the ability to not let the albatross around his neck drag him down. He, of course, was the one who suffered the most in that loss in St Lucia.

It was the semi-final of the World T20, and Pakistan were on course for their third World T20 final for 90% of the match. But they had lost momentum and their composure by the time Saeed Ajmal came on to bowl the final over. With Australia requiring 18 to win, Michael Hussey took the spinner apart in a way that damaged the psyche of a fan base that had still not recovered from his Sydney heroics.

Hussey's assault in St Lucia also seemed to signal the end of the first phase of Ajmal's international career. He struggled over the course of that year, averaging over 35 in both ODIs and Tests (with an economy rate over 5 in ODIs), and his T20 form tapered a bit with it too. By January 2011, Ajmal was no longer in Pakistan's first-choice XI in both Tests and ODIs.

Claims that Ajmal is a mystery twirler with little art have been answered by his running battles with the best in the world, battles that he often wins

A year later he was the star as Pakistan clean-swept the best side in the world. Ajmal could easily have fallen away after 2010 - just another mystery spinner lost to the sands of time, a poor man's Ajantha Mendis. Instead, he came back a better, more orthodox and subtle spinner, and one with immense mental strength. Not that his mental fortitude should ever have been in doubt since he played for a decade in first-class cricket, forever holding on to his dream of playing for the national team, even when the selectors didn't rate him. Hussey may have damaged him but he didn't break him.

Until the start of 2011, Ajmal averaged 39 in Tests and 31 in ODIs; since then his corresponding numbers are 24 and 20. He countered a fallow year, followed by being reduced to being part of "bench strength", by becoming the best spinner in the world. Claims of being a mystery twirler with little art have been answered by his running battles with the best in the world, battles that he often wins.

His first over in the World T20 match against Bangladesh was perhaps the clearest example of his subtle art. He got hit off the first ball for four by Anamul Haque, but instead of changing his plans he continued to bowl a middle-and-leg line, only varying his length and spin slightly. And all it took was three more balls before he was rid of Anamul. In the great tradition of the art of spin, Ajmal doesn't mind the batsman going after him, even in T20s.

It is that cerebral power that comes to the fore every time the captain tosses him the ball with the team requiring a game changer. The fact that he bounced back from St Lucia is evidence enough, but it has been even more apparent twice in the past six months. First, there was the ODI against South Africa in Port Elizabeth where he had been eaten alive by AB de Villiers. Instead of collapsing in his mental prison, like some other bowlers are wont to do after being smashed, Ajmal conceded only 12 off his last three, bowling at the death in a match where South Africa needed less than a run a ball from the last six overs.

This mental strength manifested itself against Australia in Mirpur - he tossed aside the assault by Glenn Maxwell to bowl what was essentially the match-winning over - one run conceded in the 18th over of a big T20 chase. It continued his remarkable record against Australia; since the semi-final in St Lucia, Ajmal has played seven T20Is against Australia and has 14 wickets at an average of 11.

The final over against Australia last week might have been the best of the lot. Much like during de Villiers' blitz in Port Elizabeth, Ajmal had seemed toothless during Maxwell's initial burst, but when the opportunity presented itself to right his wrongs, Ajmal responded. The contrast in his death bowling in Mirpur versus the over against Hussey is obvious - out of the five balls he bowled to Hussey, four - bowled at different lengths and speeds - were dispatched to the boundary. In Mirpur he bowled from around the wicket, sticking mostly to straighter ones and doosras that landed on a good length, challenging the batsmen to hit him against the spin. No longer was his brain scrambling to formulate a plan before every ball; instead, he came up with a plan, putting the onus on the Australian batsmen, who failed to meet his challenge.

The plaudits were eventually shared with Umar Akmal, Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul, but it was Ajmal, who decided the match. That is why, four years on from that World T20 semi-final, he is Pakistan's premier bowler across formats, and one of the best death bowlers in the world. Even as the fans struggle with the ghost of St Lucia, Ajmal has conquered it without ever asking for any acclaim.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here