Ajmal proves his Test credentials
"Jaane do, jaane do (let it go, let it go)," Saeed Ajmal shouted to the fielder at short gully as Paul Collingwood confidently pushed one to the off side. Ajmal knew Collingwood was a good reader of spin bowling having stood strong against the might of Muralitharan in the past. But it was part of Ajmal's plan.
He wanted to bowl at the fresh-to-the-crease Matt Prior and was confident of working out the England wicket-keeper. Bowling from round the stumps Ajmal made use of a touch of extra bounce, varying the pace of his deliveries cleverly and mixing things up with liberal use of his doosra to keep Prior on his toes.
With the wicketkeeper batsman rooted to the crease as a matter of precaution, but taking his chances against flighted deliveries every so often, Ajmal sensed the chance for a wicket. When Prior swept at the final delivery - an offbreak - of Ajmal's 22nd over he read the flight correctly but was beaten by the slow pace and adjudged plumb by the on-field umpire, a decision vindicated by the UDRS. Like an excited pony Ajmal went hopping across the turf celebrating his spoils. Immediately into the final session Ajmal then overwhelmed a charging Kevin Pietersen with his doosra.
More joy was on the way. Across his next eight balls he would go on to pick up three wickets, and could have had more were it not for two dropped catches. One of the prized scalps was Collingwood, who was also defeated by Ajmal's stock weapon - the doosra. Ajmal's first ball as soon as Collingwood had walked in earlier in the afternoon was the other 'un. England's most dependable batsman survived that, playing off the pitch. But the Pakistani did not waste the delivery. He used it sparingly and retained the mystery. In doing that he gained the upper hand against the batsman.
Coming into this match the pressure was on Ajmal to prove his worth. The task wasn't easy as he had seen Danish Kaneria being dropped and asked to regain his confidence on the county circuit after his below-par performances in the Australia series last month and then at Trent Bridge last week. Ajmal had also suffered heavily on seaming tracks in Australia and the cold conditions in New Zealand in his last two Tests.
Though people like Imran Khan preferred him over Kaneria because they felt he could work out the left-handers better, the team think-tank persisted with the legspinner until they ran out of patience in Notttingham, where Kaneria failed to make even a tiny impression and struggled like a rookie.
But today Ajmal brought to the field what was expected of his senior partner. Luckily providence smiled on him as the sun shone brightly immediately after tea. In the first half of the day he had asked some questions of Pietersen and Jonathan Trott but the drizzle that interrupted play for most of the first two sessions did not allow him to grip the ball properly. In brighter and drier conditions Ajmal came into his element. He operated with a slip and a short leg throughout his unbroken spell (19.1-5-50-5) from the City End, bowling almost entirely from around the stumps.
"With HawkEye coming in, left-arm spinners slide the ball on for lbws. Offspinners get a lot of lbws from round the wicket, so you [batsman] have to work really hard, and a bloke who's got a doosra you have to work extra special hard. He bowled nicely," Pietersen said in praise of Ajmal.
It was not just the angle. On a dry surface, which also had good bounce, Ajmal calibrated his pace constantly. With control, the most vital factor on a two-paced Edgbaston pitch, he became even more dangerous.
Interestingly Ajmal is a constant fixture in Pakistan's Twenty20 squad and was instrumental in the team winning the World Cup in that format in England last year where he was the tournament's second-highest wicket taker. Inadvertently spinners like Harbhajan Singh have taken that defensive mindset into the longer format, flighting and spinning the ball less. But Ajmal has gone the other way. He flighted the ball without fear, daring the batsmen to take him on. But they were never comfortable because of the fear that Ajmal might snake in the doosra or the faster delivery and surprise them.
"It was a good wicket for him to bowl on and he bowled at a good pace. I just tried to knock that down to mid-on for one run but obviously it spun the other way," Pietersen modestly confessed about his inability to read Ajmal's hand.
For Salman Butt, who was out for a duck late in the afternoon with his team on the verge of a defeat, the next few days loomed dark and ominous. So he was happy that Ajmal lightened his stress. "He has always been impressive whenever he has played for Pakistan. He showed it today that he can also do well in Test cricket. Even with the two set batsmen he kept constantly troubling them. They way he bowled and took wickets was very inspiring for the whole team," Butt said.
What has helped Ajmal maintain an equanimity despite the dropped catches - Pietersen was missed in his first over by Umar Gul at mid-on and two chances went begging on Saturday - is that he takes his game seriously but is a light-hearted man. In the dressing room he is a jovial character and not the 30-year-old boring adult. After spending the day twirling the ball mesmerizingly on the field, he could be seen strolling around the ground with his wife and child after stumps. With his mind settled off the field, he is able to focus on it without distraction.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo