Saeed Ajmal won't stop fighting
For 13 years between 1995 and 2008, Pakistan had three quality spin bowlers. Danish Kaneria was a workhorse who occasionally bolted for glory. Saqlain Mushtaq was an inventor and a world-class offspin bowler, and Mushtaq Ahmed was an illusionist. Together in their careers, they took 654 wickets at 32.
On the 29th of December 1995, an 18-year-old from Faisalabad played his maiden List A game in the Willis King Cup against Habib Bank Limited. He bowled against Javed Miandad and took 1 for 32 off his nine overs. His first-class debut was a year later - he took the wicket of Imran Tahir and three others in his first innings.
But he was not knocking on the door. In his first six first-class seasons he took 53 wickets. In List A he was just as underused and unsuccessful. In 2003-04 he took 42 wickets at 19. That year he began to believe.
It took four years from then before Pakistan, at the urging of Misbah-ul-Haq, believed as well. His first match after his 13-year-wait was an ODI against India. He bowled in the death overs, took a wicket, and a year later, most people who saw him bowl believed in him.
Saeed Ajmal is one of six* men in history to take over 100 Test wickets despite starting after the age of 30. At one stage he was averaging 17 in Pakistan's Test wins and 19 in ODI wins. In his first 35 Tests he took ten five-fors and four ten-wicket hauls. The rest of Pakistan's attack took six five-wicket hauls. He dominated Test bowling and ODI bowling in an era when most bowlers specialised in one format.
He was something special. England had done research into how fast spin was better than slow spin. Their batsmen had already proved that theory before science could be involved.
Ajmal was a natural spin-bowling athlete who demanded wickets. Most spin bowlers take their wickets one at a time, working out the batsmen's weakness and then moving them into a position where they jump into the trap. Ajmal wasn't like that. He was more of a predator spin bowler. He was dangerous to almost all batsmen, had natural gifts, and when he took wickets, they came by the bagful.
Part of that is because most of Ajmal's career has been played during the time of T20. Abdul Qadir would spend two hours setting up a batsman; Ajmal has two balls to set up his kill.
There isn't much menace in his run-up. It is like every part-time offspinner you have faced in a club game - eager and unthreatening. The menace all starts with the pause at the crease. It is the offspinner's version of Wes Hall's leap to the wicket. It is the moment where time stops still and you get to think about what is about to happen.
You will face one of the best bowlers in modern cricket, a man completely on top of his game, who knows how to get the best out of most surfaces, who can beat you by spinning the ball either way, or making it jump up, and it will all happen without much chance of any error on his part, at a speed that offspinners barely touch with the regular deliveries, and the ball will zip past you at will.
And this isn't part of some bigger plan to get you out in 30 minutes. He thinks he can get you out this ball, and when he unfurls himself from his power pause, you start to believe it as well.
At his best Ajmal believed that batsmen were afraid to look him in the eye. From 2008 to 2014, he was probably right about that.
Tony Lock was called for chucking in 1954 and Sonny Ramadhin wore long sleeves in his career as camouflage. Offspinners with illegal actions are hardly a new story.
But in their era, a call for chucking (more often for fast bowlers) could be the end of a career. Jack Marsh and Eddie Gilbert, two talented indigenous Australian bowlers, both tried to prove they weren't chuckers, but no one wanted to listen, and neither ever played for Australia. Ian Meckiff lost an entire career after being called in a Test. Mostly bowlers just disappeared, many before they ever even made it to the top level. Forget a fair trial or any trials. Forget science. There was just non-selection and sniggering.
There will be a time in the future when that sort of treatment looks insane. One day there may be a time when a bowler is rightfully called for a no-ball on the field for bowling an illegal delivery, and there is no kerfuffle. We are not quite there yet. Science and due process were brought in for Muttiah Muralitharan, and that has been an improvement to our game. But the stigma and the accusations still exist.
If Ajmal's action was ever going to be called, Australia was the most likely opponent to stir it up. No country has been harsher with alleged chuckers than Australia (with their own and the opposition ones). Before Murali was called in Melbourne, Victorian bowler Troy Corbett's career was finished despite his List A bowling average of 10.
In 2009, Australia were playing Pakistan in the UAE and were handling Ajmal quite well (he took no more wickets than Andrew Symonds or Michael Clarke). But they weren't handling his doosra well. Pakistan claimed that Shane Watson had, after being dismissed, told Symonds (who was next to the umpire) that he believed Ajmal was chucking. Soon after, the ICC came to look at him.
Those tests would clear his action.
In 2012, the rumours would resurface when he played England and was unplayable. Again it was his doosra that was questioned. The funny thing with Ajmal's doosra is that so many players privately have claimed he chucked it, and yet when they were out on the field, they didn't seem to see it at all.
By 2014 he was taking close to a third of Pakistan's wickets in the UAE. He was easily one of the top three bowlers in the world, but his action was different. This wasn't a rumour campaign. Stuart Broad's tweets weren't responsible. Even privately, Ajmal's team-mates were worried about his elbow. And it was at the worst possible time, as the ICC decided to crack down on fingerspinners and their actions. Whether the timing was right (just before a World Cup) or not, Ajmal's action had degraded badly and was almost twice the legal limit.
He had to be suspended from cricket. Some argued of a conspiracy among the big three. Others claimed that he was too exciting a cricketer to be suspended from the game. But no matter how exciting he may have been, his action had fallen apart. It was illegal and it needed to be fixed.
Saeed Ajmal was the world's No. 1 bowler. He was Wisden India's Cricketer of the Year. He was a star. Ajmal had won a World T20, taken Sachin Tendulkar's wicket in a World Cup semi-final, and then joked that he had forced Tendulkar to retire from ODIs. And in December 2014, to prove he could still bowl well, he played for Pakistan A against Kenya.
Ajmal didn't play for Pakistan A lightly. He did it because he was desperate to prove that he could play in the World Cup in a few months' time. That he was still the man for Pakistan. He took one wicket, a ball pitched outside leg stump that was swept to a fielder. His action still looked illegal but also a bit muted.
Ajmal decided a week later not to play in the World Cup. There was talk just before the tournament that he might make a sudden comeback. He told Pakpassion, "If my country needs me, then I will play in the World Cup." They decided they didn't need him. With him, Pakistan were going to struggle to win. Without him, they were never going to get close.
After clearing the ICC tests and remodelling his action, Ajmal returned to play a three-ODI series against Bangladesh. He was nervous, more nervous than during his debut against India. He wasn't sure he had successfully remodelled his action, and he wasn't sure he was completely in control of it. He knew everyone would be watching to see if he could still do this.
Ajmal was dropped after the second ODI. In the first, he was taken for 74 runs in ten wicketless overs. All the other front-line bowlers went at less than six an over.
A week later he played in the T20 match against Bangladesh. His last delivery was a full and wide ball that Shakib Al Hasan smacked away to win Bangladesh the game. Ajmal has not bowled a ball for Pakistan since.
In 2014, at the full height of his wicket-taking ability and the height of what was a degraded illegal action, Ajmal took 63 first-class wickets in nine matches for Worcester to help them get promoted to division one.
In 2015, after his action and world had fallen apart, he took 16 wickets at 55. His second-last game had him bowling 29 wicketless overs for 112 runs. In his last match he went for 114 in 32 overs. That was the last first-class game he played. That same year Yasir Shah played seven Tests and took 49 wickets.
Those who saw Ajmal bowl in England saw a slow old man bowling with a low action, and the local scribes described him as bowling like a standard English county spinner. They did not mean it as a compliment.
Despite that, he still bowled well for Worcestershire in the T20 - 21 wickets at 16.6. For a typical spinner that would have been a good summer, but Ajmal is not compared to common spinners. He is compared to himself, and as batsmen around the world found out in his glory years, that is a hard guy to take on.
In the first Pakistan Super League, he was selected based on his services to Pakistan cricket. He was okay. There was one good wicket, against James Vince, and his economy rate held up. One of his great skills has always been knowing exactly where batsmen want to hit him and how to stop them from doing that. In an era when many inside T20 believe spinners should only spin the ball away from batsmen (see MS Dhoni's entire recent captaincy for proof), Ajmal and his barely reconstructed action have survived well even spinning the ball into right-handers. But you don't expect Ajmal to survive. You expect him to eat you alive.
As he told ESPNcricinfo earlier this year, batsmen used to be afraid to look him in the eye; now they stare back.
There was no party for Ajmal at the SSC in 2014. He took four wickets in the match but Sri Lanka won what was a going-away party for Mahela Jayawardene. What no one knew then, and perhaps we still don't know, is whether that game was the last Test for not just Jayawardene but also Ajmal.
Ajmal is desperate to play another. "I am available for all formats," he says. And he has done everything he can do to get back to top-level cricket.
He has worked with Saqlain Mushtaq and Mohammad Akram at the National Cricket Academy, biomechanist Dr Paul Hurrion, Steve Rhodes, his coach at Worcester, and he has the support of the PCB. Between April 28 and August 25 this year, he played no top-level cricket. Instead he has been learning, going to the gym and practising new technical skills. He went back to club cricket. He started thinking about himself as a young boy and tried to re-train himself like you would a teenager.
He claims to have been bowling 250 balls some days in practice - 41.4 overs a day. At the age of 39. In all, he claims to have bowled well over 13,000 deliveries. Some professionals of his age have been retired for years. Other players with his personality and level of fame would have slipped into a commentary or coaching gig. Instead he works and works to get back to where he was.
He loves cricket. He feels "younger than I am" and he doesn't want to stop playing. It took him 13 years to make it the first time. He is willing to try even harder now to get back.
You can question his new action and his results, but you cannot question his desire. He wants to play for Pakistan again. He wants to be the world's No. 1 bowler again.
The PSL might have taken Pakistan by storm, but such is the nature of T20 cricket these days that it is not the only T20 competition in Pakistan. The National T20 Cup, a smaller, non-franchise event that doesn't quite get the same airtime, has just been completed. But for Ajmal, every chance is the last chance. He has one more PSL contract, but a player like him would expect to play not just in the PSL but in all the leagues around the world. If he wants to continue to play at the top level, for a county or a franchise, it will depend on his current form, not his pre-2015 form. At his age, with his recent history, cricket is cold-hearted and will forget him as quickly as it fell for him.
But there is a photo of Ajmal that he just tweeted. It includes the watermark from the International Cricket Association - a cricket non-profit that helped him change his action, and now also wants to help other Pakistan domestic bowlers overcome illegal bowling actions. Behind the logo is him sitting in his Karachi Blue uniform with his newish Misbah-like beard, giving a two-finger point at an enormous cup.
He might have won bigger tournaments before, but perhaps none have ever been tougher for him. The look on his face shows his pride.
During the tournament, you could see that Ajmal has a lower action. But often now by choice, depending on the batsman and situation, in some ways he looks like Saeed Ajmal right until he arrives at the crease, and then a different, less vicious bowler arrives. His front arm doesn't crunch the back of his head like it used to in a power move. The arm is never as high as at his peak, which means less overspin, and while the odd ball still skips off the surface, it doesn't happen every delivery, as it did at his best.
Because of all that, batsmen aren't afraid to look him in the eye anymore. But to someone like Ajmal, a man with a will to win, that just makes the challenge all the more fun. He isn't coming at them now. He waits for them to come at him. And every wicket is a victory for the hard work he has put in.
The real story behind that picture is that he took 20 wickets at 11 with an economy rate of 6.28. And with those wickets, he believes again.
When Ajmal said "I am available for all formats", he added, "And I am effective in all formats." The best players make big statements like this. They believe in themselves when no one else does. But Ajmal hasn't always believed. At one point he had to be convinced by Saqlain to keep trying to come back. He wasn't a believer when he bowled against Bangladesh, or for Worcestershire.
This was a man who had to forget 22 years of the same action and relearn the art that made him the best bowler in the world. A man who went back to club cricket and was hit for sixes by amateurs. A man who described his comeback against Bangladesh as: "I was scared in my heart." A man who had 178 Test wickets at 28 became nervous about bowling on TV.
A few fast bowlers have had to change their bodies and actions in their careers completely, like Dennis Lillee, the poster boy for such a situation. But Lillee did it when he was young, not at the end of his career. What Ajmal is hoping to do has never been done by a top international spinner - a star for your country with two completely different actions, the second one when you are a year away from your 40th birthday.
It has been more than two years since his last Test, almost 18 months since his last games for Pakistan, and yet he believes in himself as much now as he did when he was tearing international teams apart. He now talks about his time out of the game as his learning time. All that extra work that a bowler of his talent never has to do has made him a smarter bowler. Working on his cricket has taught him so much more about the game than he ever could have learnt just playing it.
He believes he still has a doosra, a top-class offspinner and a host of new tricks, and he wants to show Pakistan, the world and himself that he can still do them.
There was a fan who brought in a sign to one of his matches years ago that said: "Saeed, the scientist of spin." While he has always been a smart bowler, for years much of what he did was because of his natural physical attributes and lax ICC testing. Now he wants to prove he can still be the best in the world, but completely legally and without the physical skills he once had.
The wickets he took in the National T20 Cup aren't that much more than what he took in 2015 for Worcester. The difference is, he now believes he can bowl that well every time he plays, and that he deserves to play for Pakistan again.
Pakistan have just announced their T20 squad to play West Indies. Ajmal was not in it. Very soon they will pick their ODI squad as well. This may not be his last chance, but at 39, with only a handful of T20s against his name in the last six months, he probably won't get many more.
It took 13 years for him and Pakistan to believe in him the first time. Now he doesn't have that time. He needs it now. One last shot.
He believes he will take it, or as he puts it, "If I get to play, you will see me as No. 1 in no time."
When Ajmal believes, history has shown us he is a force. But now what he believes doesn't matter. It's whether Pakistan believes.
* 15:32:41 GMT, September 28, 2016: The article originally said four, not six
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber