September 10, 2012

Why Ajmal deserved the ICC nomination

His only competition was Vernon Philander, and the numbers show Ajmal has done better

Many of us expected to see Saeed Ajmal on the shortlist for the ICC's Cricketer of the Year. The history of these awards dates back to 2004, and so far the only Pakistani name on the honour roll is that of Mohammad Yousuf, who won Test Cricketer of the Year in 2007. Of the nine Cricketers of the Year so far (the title was shared in 2005), six have been batsmen, and one a batting allrounder. We knew the 2012 list would be dominated by batsmen too, as such lists and awards usually are. But there has always been a bowler in the mix. Who else for 2012 but Ajmal?

The PCB was right to act on the fans' widespread sense of disappointment by lodging an official protest with the ICC. The feeling has been compounded by a misconception still prevailing in some quarters that Ajmal's exclusion was similar to Graeme Swann's in 2010. Swann was included after a public outcry; the fact that Ajmal hasn't been feels like a double insult.

But the two cases are different. Swann hadn't made it onto the longlist, which is picked by a five-member panel of selectors in a consensus exercise, that allows for decisions to be reconsidered. Ajmal has made it onto the longlist but failed to garner enough support at the next level, a private ballot by the 32-member voting academy that whittles the longlist down to a handful of nominees. This is a confidential exercise handled by a major management consulting firm.

In a nutshell, while Swann failed to get selected, Ajmal failed to get elected. The ICC is arguing that selections can be reconsidered but elections cannot be overturned. The voting academy's failure to pick Ajmal can be likened to one of those irksome umpiring decisions where everybody heard the snick except the guy who needed to raise his finger.

There is not much you can do with the resulting frustration, except just soak it up. The PCB is making noises about going one step further, by threatening to boycott the awards. That would be a silly dead-end reaction, leading to nothing productive. Ajmal's exclusion may be a bad umpiring judgement hitting Pakistan like a kick between the eyes, but there is no DRS here. Every now and then you just have to accept an unfair outcome and move on. It happens in cricket all the time.

As for the judgement itself, it remains perplexing why Ajmal would be omitted by members of the voting academy. This rather grandly named body comprises distinguished former players, respected media figures, representatives from the elite panel of referees and umpires, and Clive Lloyd, who chairs the ICC's influential cricket committee. It is charged with vigorous pursuit of the truth, but on Ajmal it has stumbled.

It all boils down to this: in contrast to Philander, Ajmal took more wickets, was a force in all three formats, was involved in more wins for his side, and defeated the top-ranked side more often

Ajmal himself has shrugged this matter off without much fuss. He is a straight, open, plainspoken man, with a hearty innocence that utterly charms and disarms. There is no posturing about him, no grandstanding, no contrived theatrics. The only thing crooked and mysterious about him is his bowling, which has taken him to a sustained hover around the top of the ICC rankings.

Three of the four names picked for the 2012 Cricketer of the Year shortlist are batsmen, which means that Ajmal's competition for this spot had really only been with Vernon Philander, the talented South African bowler. Given their relative contributions and influence, the preference for Philander over Ajmal sends out a worrisome message. At best, it suggests that the academy members need a refresher in some of the basics. At worst, it affirms the existence of an unspoken caste system in world cricket, well into the 21st century.

During the review period for these awards, Philander played nine Tests to pick up 56 wickets at an average of 16.57 and a strike rate of 33.1 (he also played a solitary ODI, in which he took 1 for 39). Ajmal did far more. His figures over the same stretch include 12 Tests, 23 ODIs, and nine T20Is, for a collective haul of 120 wickets. Although his overall average and strike rate are higher than Philander's, if you pick out Ajmal's best nine Tests, his tally in this parity comparison turns out to be five wickets higher, at an average (20.11) and strike rate (47.98) that are fantastic by spinners' standards.

In terms of opposition quality and impact, Philander picked up three Man-of-the-Match and one Man-of-the-Series awards, while Ajmal collected two match awards and two series awards. Philander's nine Tests included five wins for his side; Ajmal's best nine included six wins. Philander had two victories against the top-ranked Test side; Ajmal had three. It all boils down to this: in contrast to Philander, Ajmal took more wickets, was a force in all three formats, was involved in more wins for his side, and defeated the top-ranked side more often. Ajmal easily holds his own against Philander in Tests; and he did so much more heft besides.

This episode may be an affront to Ajmal and his huge fan support, but its greater significance lies in the opportunity it provides to the ICC. One would be surprised if it doesn't trigger some sort of reform within the voting academy - either a review of its composition, or of the voting mechanism, or a stringent set of fresh guidelines impressed on each member. "Academy" is a hallowed and lofty term, evoking sanctity, precision, and intellectual depth. A few more gaffes like this one and it will begin to sound like a caricature.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi