Mushtaq Ahmed May 6, 2008

Once more, with feeling

Sussex's talismanic, long-serving legspinner is back for what might be his final season for them
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'Our club may not have the big names, but we care about each other' © Getty Images
 

Mushtaq Ahmed has interrupted a dressing-room game of golf that involves a polystyrene cup. He walks into the offices at Hove wearing a woollen hat - it's the mildest day of the season so far, although all things are relative. "This year is the coldest I have ever played in," he says, but with a smile on his face. Mushtaq is almost always smiling, whether trying to improve his indoor golf handicap, or while going about his more renowned day job of taking bags of wickets.

He played the last of his 52 Tests in 2003 - part of a two-Test series against South Africa, which yielded a single wicket. Scarcely credible, given his prolific record for Sussex over the last five years. He has taken 459 wickets since, passing the century mark twice, and earning 90 last season, helping Sussex to the Championship title for the third time in five attempts.

When there was doubt over his availability due to his involvement in the Indian Cricket League, Sussex - perhaps slightly dramatically - were being discussed as relegation candidates. With Mushtaq back at Hove no one will be surprised if they make it four Championships in six, even though he will be on the sidelines for a few weeks, having undergone a knee operation. He is as much a part of Sussex's history as the deckchairs on the grass, the Cricketers' pub on the corner of the ground, or the sea mist that floats in from the channel.

Although he'd like to be wearing a few layers less, be able to grip the ball more easily and not be hobbling so much, Mushtaq's enthusiasm for his role and passion for Sussex are impossible to ignore. "This is my hobby and my hobby has become my profession. Sussex is definitely one of the closest teams I've played for," he says. "They are lovely people down here; they have a heart and care about each other. Our success belongs to those people. Our club may not have the big names, but we care about each other."

Modesty is another of Mushtaq's traits. He is happy not to call himself a big name, a further example of how he sees his role as being just one cog of the Sussex wheel. For outsiders it's easy to say that if that cog was removed, the wheel would cease to turn, but Mushtaq wants the praise to go elsewhere.

"I must say the coaches are very good here. Peter Moores, he was a lovely man. Chris Adams is one of the best captains I have come across, and now Mark Robinson. They all run the show and should get the credit, getting the best out of the talent here. I'm a big believer that when things go well, people should get the respect they deserve."

Mushtaq's second coming as a county cricketer - he played for Somerset for five years between 1993 and 1998 with plenty of wickets but no trophies - has given him a new lease of life. His international career was on the skids in 2003 when Sussex went on the hunt for a match-winning spinner to help form their side under Chris Adams.

At 37, though, Mushtaq's days on the cricket field are numbered, partly by other parts of his life and maybe also a creaking body. Last year he signed a two-year deal with Sussex, but his stay might not even extend that far. Faith and family are two vital elements for Mushtaq, and he realises that the longer he plays, others around him will be affected. "Maybe this will be my last year. To be honest I'm spending a lot of time away from my family. That's the only issue, because passion-wise it's no problem. Sometimes you have got to sacrifice something and this is the time. My kids need me and my wife needs me."

As Sussex are clearly aware, and will notice even more when he leaves, legspinners of Mushtaq's class don't come along very often. So was he jettisoned too early by his country, after an international career that brought 185 wickets and a World Cup winner's medal in 1992?

"I definitely wish it had gone on longer," he admits. "In the last five years I have been doing well and always hoped I might get another call-up one day, but unfortunately it didn't happen. But I have no complaints because it's my country, and they gave me my name. They looked after me and cared about me. We [Pakistan] have plenty of youngsters. There's Danish Kaneria, and we have a few other legspinners coming up as well. From a cricketing point of view I would have liked to have played more for my national side, but when I see others doing well I feel good."

And what of Pakistan cricket, forever, it seems, in turmoil? Shoaib Akhtar spends more time in the courtroom these days than on the cricket field, and you can sense a pain in Mushtaq's voice about aspects of the game back in his homeland.

"Pakistan has lots of talented cricketers. It's just about finding the best way to handle things. Sometimes you can have all the horses that will win the races for you, but if they don't know which direction to run in, it won't work. That comes from having good communication from the management down to the players. That's where we are a little bit lacking, but I can still see a bright future.

"Obviously, things can be done better. Hopefully, things are getting better. Everyone is trying their hardest. As an ex-Pakistani cricketer I always look at the positives. Sometimes it's hard to see them, but if you keep looking there will be one."

However, as hard as Mushtaq wants to try and see the positives, to extend his horsing metaphor a little further, some have already bolted so far they are virtually uncatchable. "No-one is bigger than the game, you have to respect it. If you don't, no-one will ever respect you," says Mushtaq. "I personally believe that humble people get more respect that the ones with big egos. I hope things are going in the right direction, and it will improve sooner rather than later."

With his international days behind him, Mushtaq, like numerous others, has become part of the Indian Cricket League. He played for Lahore Badshahs, a virtual international-strength Pakistan side, which reached the final of this year's tournament before falling to Hyderabad Heroes by six runs, and then a bowl-out loss in the second game. How long the ICL will hold off the megabuck power of the IPL remains to be seen, but Mushtaq has no doubt about the tournaments' value.

 
 
Modesty is another of Mushtaq's traits. He is happy not to call himself a big name, a further example of how he sees his role as being just one cog of the Sussex wheel. For outsiders it's easy to say that if that cog was removed, the wheel would cease to turn, but Mushtaq wants the praise to go elsewhere
 

"I tell you one thing: it was a great standard. It was like I was playing for Pakistan again," he says. "I was playing in front of 25-30,000 people, and it felt like I was in international cricket. The standard of batting, bowling and fielding was very high. It was all very professional, not just for fun. People were there to win matches, and you couldn't afford to let yourself relax. It was some of the toughest cricket I have played recently and I enjoyed it big time. Sometimes it's nice to put pressure on yourself, and push your skills levels. The ICL did excellent things for the local Indian youngsters."

He also isn't shy about making his view on the clash between the unofficial ICL and the official IPL very clear. "It's only because of the ICL that the IPL exists. The ICL were the first people to take the step. I will always give ICL huge credit and respect because they were the first ones to come forward. There was nothing like this in the world before the ICL came along, and then the IPL thought it was a good idea.

"I think there is room for both. It's good for cricket, the players and the fans. People can watch good cricket and lots of youngsters can come to the grounds again, which is very important. People also have more variety."

When he does finally hang up the whites (and colours) Mushtaq wants to move into coaching, something he had a taste of during Pakistan's World Cup campaign in 2007. For reasons off the field it was one of the worst times of Mushtaq's career, but it never doused his desire to help the next generation.

"That's my hobby now, and it has been for the last two or three years. I'm very much into passing on whatever I know from this game. When I leave my cricket behind it's the direction I want to take. I'd like to offer myself to my country, but I don't just want to go up there and say, 'Please, can I have a coaching job?' If they want to offer me something - I would like to be involved with the Academy and young players - I will take it up."

He has so much knowledge and understanding of the game that Pakistan would be foolish to let him go for a second time. But you know that wherever Mushtaq finds himself and whatever he ends up doing, he will do it with a smile on his face.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo