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County cricket's finest overseas signing talks of how he had to leave his country to get his due, and the change religion has made to his life and career
October 14, 2008
Some 15 minutes into our chat Mushtaq Ahmed sums his philosophy up in a nutshell: "You can't buy respect with wickets." Self-respect and right conduct are recurring themes through the conversation, and they figure prominently in the explanations for his absence from the Pakistan team during the years he shone for Sussex. So does talk of his faith, of course.
The obvious question is thrown across early: How come he was not playing for Pakistan during his successful Sussex period? In 2003 Mushtaq became the first bowler in five years to take 100 wickets in an English season, helping end Sussex's 164-year wait for the County Championship. He repeated the feat in 2006, and then took 90 wickets in the next season, taking Sussex to a two more titles, before retiring to play in the ICL. His last appearance for his country, though, came in 2003.
"I didn't get a single phone call when I played all those years for Sussex," Mushtaq says. He isn't bitter, however. "I have no regrets. I am at complete peace with my career and life. I have never ever criticised anybody and I won't do it, but I am just raising this point so that the people know what was their mistake."
We are in an elegant mahogany-panelled room in a plush five-star hotel in Hyderabad, where Mushtaq is playing in the ICL for the Lahore Badshahs, led by his friend Inzamam-ul-Haq. When Mushy, smiling, robed in a flowing kurta, came gliding in, looking serene, the room grew quiet immediately.
Mushtaq rarely raises his voice through the interview, even when he has a strong point to make - and especially when it happens to be against the Pakistan board. If the board or selectors didn't call him, couldn't Inzamam, as the captain, have supported Mushtaq's case? "I never asked him why I was not playing and he has never told me. He backed Danish Kaneria. Our base of friendship was never about cricket and it will never be, Inshallah. I never want any favours from my friends."
So just why does he think he wasn't called by the selectors? "You have to go see them, say hi to them. It's never about your ability. It's everything to do with your contacts, and I don't believe in that. People in the board think, 'He has to come to us.' They have ego.
"Maybe I have my ego too," he says with a smile, but quickly retracts, unhappy at the choice of word. It's against his faith. "Ego is a bad word. For me it was about self-respect and morals."
"When I have performed why should I go and tell them? Once, someone asked me why I was not playing. I told them I was playing in the domestics. I was the captain and the highest wicket taker. That is the best answer I can give - performance, right?
|In Pakistan you have to go see the selectors, say hi to them. It's never about your ability. It's everything to do with your contacts, and I don't believe in that|
"He said, 'You are not showing interest.' I said, 'How does one does that?' He told me to go and tell them [selectors, board], 'I want to play.'
"I don't want to do that. I played these games and got so many wickets. What does that show, that I don't want to play for my country?"
How did he handle that phase of his career? "I got my best support from religion," Mushtaq says. "Once, the Prophet Mohammed's companion asked him, 'Who is the strongest among us?' And he said, 'The strongest is the one who forgives the other.' That struck me a great deal. You tell me how difficult it is not to take revenge."
Talk turns to Kaneria and the words "decline" and "detractors" slip out. Mushtaq's response is revealing of the man. "I have always backed Danish. There is no decline." A slight pause before he adds, "He has taken 200 wickets in 47 or 48 Test matches. He was the quickest Pakistan spinner to get 200 wickets. He or Saqlain." (Saqlain, as it happens, who reached the mark in 46 Tests, one less than Kaneria.)
"And then on the other side there are bowlers who have not performed for Pakistan but still get more recognition. I don't want to name them."
Shoaib Akhtar, maybe?
"I don't want to mention. People can guess. They will have a fair idea. Danish is not getting the recognition and respect he deserves. If the guy is performing well, taking wickets, and you get him down from the A category in the contracts to C, then what does that mean?" It's a statement, not a question.
Respect cuts both ways
We move on to the reasons for his success in county cricket. "The environment," is the quick answer. "I was enjoying it. It's like you want to go back home after a hard day's work - you know your parents or your wife will make you happy and less tired. In Sussex I didn't even have to ask, 'Where are my socks?' Everything was organised. If my family had problems, there was a guy who would take them to the doctor. So I didn't have any worries, and I started enjoying it more and more. It's natural that if you take care of me, I will do my best as well."
For their part, the English fell in love with Mushtaq too. After he retired, at least one newspaper wondered if he was the finest foreign player in county cricket history.
"It's a great honour for me," Mushtaq says. "Last year Peter Moores left his practice and made a speech for me. I was very emotional and thanked Allah. Now they are organising a dinner for me, in January or February."
He tries to be analytical about why he got the respect and acclaim he did. "Obviously my performance was good, but more importantly the way you behave is very important. You can get five wickets, but if you are bad in the dressing room then you cannot get that respect. It doesn't matter how big a player you are. You've got to respect others, be loyal to the team. Hopefully I have done that.
"I was given a Citizen of the Year award. The previous year Fatboy Slim got it. I was the only Pakistani - in fact, the first foreigner to get that award. You don't get that respect with wickets."
Finding my religion
How did the change from a boisterous young cricketer to this serene alter ego come about? Some have said the match-fixing controversy of the 1990s damaged Mushtaq, and that his religious turn was inspired by a desire for redemption.
He only offers a lack of peace of mind as the reason. "I had got wickets, I had played for Pakistan, but peace was missing. If you have a new car and are getting worried that someone will smash it, then what's the use of that car?"
It was a former team-mate who first sowed the seeds of faith in Mushtaq. "Zulqarnain - you remember the Sharjah game where [Javed] Miandad hit that last ball six? He was the wicketkeeper - had turned religious and took lots of effort to teach me. He said we would have to leave this world sooner rather than later. 'Have you prepared for the last world?' he asked me.
"I did take a little bit of time. He was a big influence. Then, of course, Saeed Anwar. The real change came after the 1999 World Cup."
Mushtaq's concern about the afterlife has had a big impact on his here and now. It has helped his cricket flourish. "I didn't worry about the results. You realise destiny is not in your hand. I started to enjoy the game more.
"There is a prayer I say a lot: 'Oh mighty Allah, show me the direction that you like and not what I like.' As human beings, we make mistakes."
On that note, the chat is over and he gets up as he spots Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. "Rana, namaaz ka waqt ho gaya na? Chalen?" (Isn't it time for namaz? Let's go.)
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