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July 27, 2010
Mushtaq Ahmed, England's spin bowling coach, believes that Graeme Swann has "changed the game" in bringing an attacking outlook back to offspin bowling, and says that he will be England's key weapon when they take on his native country, Pakistan, in the four-match Test series that gets underway at Trent Bridge on Thursday.
However, Mushtaq also warned that Pakistan's levels of confidence and self-belief will be as high as they have been for months after their thrilling series-levelling victory over Australia at Headingley on Saturday, and backed an exciting team with "lots of potential and lots of youth" to give England a run for their money in the coming weeks.
As one of the great legspinners of the 1990s, Mushtaq claimed 185 wickets in 52 Tests and played a key role in consecutive Pakistan series wins in England in 1992 and 1996. However, it is as a mentor to England's slow bowlers that Mushtaq currently makes his living, and in that regard, he believes he is working with one of the best talents in the game.
"Swanny has changed everything in the last year or so," Mushtaq told Cricinfo. "He's singlehandedly won lots of games for England in all different conditions, and played a brilliant role for the art of fingerspin. One thing is for sure, not many offspinners have the potential like he has. You can see his variety - he's a big spinner of the ball but he gets drift, and he has a repertoire of straight balls as well, and that makes him a very difficult bowler from a batting point of view.
"Also, he is a very confident person, and confidence is everything for spinners," added Mushtaq. "He got lots of runs in the Ashes, so he's a good utility cricketer, and he's a lovely man to have in the dressing room. He's changed the game big time as a fingerspinner, and you're going to find that lots of young people are going to follow Swanny and take up bowling offspin."
England's strategy for the first Test is already in place after they named a 12-man squad that included just the one specialist spinner in Swann. However, with hot dry weather expected for the rest of the summer, and the prospect of two spinners playing at certain stages of the Ashes this winter, England may well find room for an extra slow bowler as the series wears on, and should that happen, then Monty Panesar - who now plays for Mushtaq's former county Sussex - is inching his way back into the reckoning with a string of confident performances in the County Championship.
Panesar has not featured for England since last summer's first Ashes Test at Cardiff, when his bowling was off-colour but he helped save the match with the bat. He was omitted from the winter tours of South Africa and Bangladesh, and even left out of the England Performance Squad at the beginning of 2010. But according to Mushtaq, the time on the sidelines was an important part of Panesar's personal development.
"We have had some communication with him, but overall it is good for people to go and find out their own game sometimes," said Mushtaq. "It's important for them to learn for themselves what they are lacking, basically. Monty has gone back to Sussex, where he's in good hands with an excellent coach in Mark Robinson, and where Michael Yardy is a friend and his captain. The last time I saw him he was happy and enjoying his cricket, and that's why he's performing."
Though he was reluctant to be drawn on the merits of Pakistan's chief legspinner, Danish Kaneria, against whom he is doubtless helping England develop gameplans, Mushtaq was more forthcoming on the subject of Mohammad Aamer, the 18-year-old left-arm paceman who has been living up to his billing as the next Wasim Akram with a series of eyecatching performances against Australia. Wasim himself believes Aamer is a better-developed cricketer than he was at the same age, but Mushtaq - who played alongside the great man in his pomp - believed that it was too early to make such lofty comparisons.
"It's a long way to go to follow Wasim Akram," he said. "Maybe Wasim was being modest in saying that, but sometimes we judge people too early. It's a great honour for Aamer to have a legend like Wasim saying things like that, and I think overall he's a very good talent, but he has to keep performing at that level if he wants to emulate Wasim. Hopefully he can do that because it will mean a great future for Pakistan."
Mushtaq was a fascinated bystander during the recent neutral series between Pakistan and Australia, and not merely because his current employers will be facing both teams before the year is out. Coming at a time when his home country is in crisis, and with no prospect of international cricket being played there in the near future, the opportunity for Pakistan to play a home series away from home, and to emerge with a share of the spoils after victories in the two Twenty20s and the series-levelling second Test, was invaluable.
"It's a great boost for the Pakistan nation," said Mushtaq. "Cricket is the game in Pakistan and when the team wins anything, the fans really like to celebrate. They start believing in the players and the players start believing in themselves, and every team that wins against Australia in a Test match takes a great boost from it. It will give the players a lot of confidence, and especially after waiting for 15 years."
Though Mushtaq admitted he was surprised by the small crowds that turned out, especially at Headingley, he still believed that the concept of the neutral Test had been a success. "It works because at least Pakistan are playing cricket," he said. "At least they are not sitting at home and waiting, so well done to the ICC on that issue, and well done to the ECB for providing places to come and play cricket against Pakistan. It's a very good sign for Pakistan to have a place to play away from home.
"But it's important for Pakistan cricket to be able to go back home, for the peace of the region," he added. "Many people in the world are united through a love of cricket, irrespective of where we're from and whom we support, and an atrocity like the one that took place in Lahore last year has a terrible impact on the game we love. It affects everyone and everything - players, fans and morale - but hopefully visiting teams can get that confidence to travel as soon as possible, and go back to playing there."
Mushtaq Ahmed is an ambassador for the Not in My Game anti-terrorism campaign. For more details, visit notinmygame.com.
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Plays of the day from the fifth ODI in Ranchi
Plays of the day from the fourth ODI between India and Sri Lanka in Kolkata