Play it again, Saqi
Sitting comfortably in a fold-up chair in the Players' Dining Room outside the Surrey dressing room after the first day of the game against Kent at The Oval, arms moving about as he simulates bowling actions and shots batsmen have attempted against him, Saqlain Mushtaq looks every bit the seasoned cricketer. Add on the flowing beard and Islamic skull cap and he resembles something of a sage. Listen to sport and religion blend together in his conversation and you're taken in by his boyish simplicity. Place it all in perspective of where he's been the last few years, and you have a man relishing another chance to play cricket.
Saqlain started as a teenage wonder, making his Test debut at 19, and became the quickest to 100 one-day-international wickets, flummoxing batsmen with the magic delivery that went the other way. He helped Surrey to the English County Championship title three times in four years, had his career damaged by injury, and made an unsuccessful attempt in 2004 to force his way back into Pakistan's Test side, against India in Multan - a game where he was made to look like a nets bowler by Virender Sehwag, who made an epic 309.
A year ago, ravaged by the second of two serious knee injuries, Saqlain looked a shadow of the bowler he had been in his international pomp. It appeared his career was over. "It was hard. Injuries played their part, and there were some selection issues. It's in the past," he says, his eyes fleetingly turning away behind us, where fastened on the white wall are dozen of framed photographs of Surrey's last glory years, of which he was a starring part with 384 wickets at 20.79 in 80 matches.
The group stage of the Twenty20 Cup has just wrapped up and it's back to four-day cricket, where Saqlain has always been a star at his adopted home, The Oval. "I thrive on cricket. It don't matter what the format, I just want to bowl," he says.
The art of the other one
I'd heard he was reticent and uncommunicative, that you had to prod, and you'd be lucky to receive monosyllabic answers. But I found a friendly individual, who within seconds of hearing I spoke Urdu, grabbed my hand and led me into the Surrey dressing room, proceeding to parade me before Abdul Razzaq, Usman Afzaal and Scott Newman. A barrier, one that perhaps existed in the words of others, had been broken.
I suggest that perhaps an overdose of playing one-day cricket affected his bowling in Tests, but he brushes that aside. "Never. Alhamdulillah, I was fortunate to be able to adjust to conditions and pressure early in my career and as I progressed. Test cricket, one-day cricket, Twenty20, all of these I picked up easily. I figured out each format early."
The doosra, he says with pride, is a weapon he honed during his youth, playing at home on the terrace. "We used to play as boys using a table-tennis ball; that's where I picked it up. I then bowled it in professional cricket later. Later I played with the taped ball, which is big in Pakistan. It worked there too."
There has been criticism that Saqlain used the doosra too much, particularly early in his career, but the man himself is quick to defend his methods. He talks about observing the way a batsman stands at the crease, what his preferred shots are, his style. "If a batsman is playing straight, not cutting or playing much to the off side, or is playing more off his legs, then I bowl where he's uncomfortable, making him play. Often to the non-Asian batsmen, who I feel are susceptible, I used to bowl the doosra first to give them a jhatka [shock]. The Asian players - Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans - their footwork is better and they have a better understanding of how to play spin, using their wrists, so I had to be more observant and not try too much too soon."
|"Allah gave me a talent and variety in my bowling, and after that whatever I learned was from Twenty20 cricket|
Wasim Akram regularly used Saqlain inside the first 15 overs of an ODI, as well as at the death - often even in the penultimate over. "The thinking was just that I had to get batsmen out," Saqlain says with a hearty laugh. "The ball is hard at the start and soft by the end but I never thought about such things. I had one thing on my mind and that was getting wickets. If you stray here and there and don't think about what's important - line and length - then negatives can creep into your head. Wasim bhai backed me and I just had to deliver."
Oh to be in England
Saqlain is only 31 but has assumed the role of senior statesman in the Surrey dressing room. The move to English county cricket, he says, was crucial. "Those were great years. You develop your game, you learn. I want to work hard and bring back those years to Surrey."
A veteran on the county circuit, having gone from Surrey to Ireland to Sussex and now back to Surrey, Saqlain says the moves were not purely for financial reasons but targeted at gaining exposure. "You definitely need to play in different conditions, on different tracks, against different batsmen. You learn a lot that way. And I took what I learned playing in England back to the international level. If you play in one place or against one type of player, you won't go anywhere. "
There was speculation over his future after he left Sussex halfway through a two-year deal. Saqlain had not featured much that summer and made only four Championship appearances taking 14 wickets. "I went to Sussex because I had no other option at the time. They looked after me very well, they kept in mind my expectations and gave me a deal which matched my requirements," he says matter-of-factly. "But I came back here to London mainly because there are better education options for my three children. I'm conservative and wanted my kids to get a proper Islamic education. That wasn't there for me up in Sussex. I've been settled in London since 1998 and my family and relatives and friends are all here. Commuting and looking after the kids' education became tough. The kids have a good school here. Thankfully, Surrey approached me with a deal, it worked out well, and I here I am."
And what of the rigorous county schedule? "We play a lot of cricket in England and it is demanding, but that's your job and you learn to adjust. I enjoy it, keeps me busy."
He only smiles and nods when asked if his readiness to play for England - he's qualified for a British passport through marriage - still stands, but is eager to point out that apart from Monty Panesar, the spin scene in England is weak. And he should know. "Until now, Monty's [Panesar] the only quality spinner I've seen. Spin has never been England's strength. I've not seen anyone extraordinary on the circuit. There are good bowlers, definitely, but no one really stands out. Shaun [Udal] was good but he's aged; [Graeme] Swann is playing for England in one-day cricket, but he's not extraordinary - he's good for one-day cricket but that's it. Monty's the real deal. Adil Rashid bowls well. He hasn't gotten the wickets he deserves but he's a good spinner."
Adapting to the short stuff
Taking a swig of Powerade, Saqlain moves on to Twenty20 cricket, which is all the rage these days in the wake of the IPL and Allen Stanford's agreement with the English authorities.
"In Pakistan we've been playing such formats for some time," he replies when asked if it was a format that took getting used to after 49 Tests and 169 one-day internationals. "Allah gave me a talent and variety in my bowling, and after that whatever I learned was from Twenty20 cricket. It helped me a lot - learning to change lengths and such. I had no problems adjusting to the format. My job is to take wickets, and I'm comfortable doing that in any format."
At the height of his international career Saqlain was a master of innovation, mixing flatter, restrictive deliveries up with tempting flighted ones. The key in Twenty20, he says, is variation. "Obviously, in Twenty20 cricket you need to make some adjustments: the length you bowl, the pace, because the batsman is always looking to dominate. You really need to adjust quickly; it's just that type of game. The batsman will always think that there's nothing to lose. Also, the fielding is different."
And what of these new innovative shots - the switch-hit, the reverse sweep, the paddle-scoop? "They are encouraging. If it works, it looks good, but if it doesn't, I'm going to get a wicket," he says with a smile. "You really have to look at the margin of your line and length, and make sure you don't give them much width to play these fancy shots. That's what bowling - more so spin - is all about in Twenty20 cricket: line and length."
In Twenty20, one would think more spinners would be encouraged to bowl flat and quick because the ball will still be hard and relatively new? "That depends on how you want to bowl," Saqlain says. "There's a lot of research and homework being done, people analysing videos and such. Last year, when I was at Sussex, they felt the slower I bowled, the more effective I was," he reveals. "It seemed the batsmen were easier able to hit the quicker, flatter balls.
"It depends how comfortable the bowler feels. In Twenty20 cricket you definitely need to vary your length. But if you look at the scorecards of the past year, you'll see that the average wicket-runs ratio has come down in favour of spinners who've bowled slow, using flight and length as their weapons."
There are also cues to pick up from a batsman before delivering the ball. "You have to really observe what's happening in a very short span of time. You've got to be quick to pick up on a batsman's style, his aggression, his back lift. There's plenty to analyse beforehand, but out on the field you need to try and see where he's lacking in positivism, if at all. I can usually pick up how a batsman is thinking. It's easier in Twenty20 cricket, obviously."
During Saqlain's international career deep midwicket and long-on, often even mid-on, used to be key field placements when he bowled. How does he set his field these days? "Offspinners rely on drift into the batsman and get more chances on the leg side. There are changes in the game now that require you to change your field placing," he says. "For example, if a batsman is reverse-sweeping, I remove midwicket from the circle and place him at short fine leg for the top edge. If he's sweeping for singles repeatedly, I may push a man back to encourage the second, and then slip in a quicker one for a stumping, a caught-and-bowled... I don't want to give away my tricks!
"But I most always keep a deep midwicket because batsmen fancy playing with the turn. If someone's not looking to work the ball to the on side, I'll then drop the midwicket and use the man somewhere else."
Meanwhile, back in Pakistan
The talk moves back to his international career. Apart from a series of knee injuries, Saqlain slowly fell out of the reckoning in Pakistan's one-day line-up because the management started preferring batsmen who could bowl part-time spin - the likes of Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, and Shahid Afridi, who starkly indicative of the current scene, is Pakistan's No. 1 spinner in ODIs. Why the dearth of quality spinners?
|You've got to be quick to pick up on a batsman's style, his aggression, his back lift. I can usually pick up how a batsman is thinking. It's easier in Twenty20 cricket, obviously|
"Matters in Pakistan change a lot. It's all politics. We've had so many selection committee changes. No one seems to know what needs to be done, what makes a good spinner. So that hurts the process, and spinners can't just come up the ranks.
"You don't just become a spinner, you have to be made into one. You need to be coached and groomed. Pakistan isn't producing quality spinners or opening batsmen. There are no fast bowlers of the likes of Wasim and Waqar either, which is sad. Look at [Abdur] Rehman, who played two Tests and then was gone. It reflects on the changes in the board."
Saqlain says he often closes his eyes and goes back to his first Test wicket (Sri Lanka's Chandika Hathurusingha in Peshawar, 1995), which he took with his seventh delivery. "It was unbelievable. I can never forget that. I was just 19.
"I remember a lot of wickets. They stay in my mind. My favourite was getting Sachin Tendulkar in the Chennai Test in 1999... but if someone tells you that they can remember every shot played and wicket taken, they're lying."
He looks at his watch and says he needs to leave. As we descend the steps from the pavilion down towards the Alec Stewart Gate, one of the umpires, former Test player Rob Bailey, emerges from a side entrance. "Saqi" he smiles, making a spinning motion with his right hand. "Looks like there's going to be some turn out there tomorrow. You must be looking forward, eh?" Pat comes the confident, boyish reply. "Of course, I'm always ready."
Saqlain's Pakistan career is over but he's embracing another shot at county cricket with open arms. The poor impersonator from Multan in 2004, lacking in confidence, rhythm and mystery, is thankfully gone and a fresher, more positive Saqlain is back. Here's hoping he can bring the smiles back to the faces of the Surrey fans, and those who remember his feats on the international scene.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo