August 27, 2003

'Allah never closes the door on people'

by Kamran Abbasi

"My job is to perform well, and despite that if they don't pick you for international cricket I don't know what you can do?" So says Mushtaq Ahmed, once an automatic selection for Pakistan, now the leading bowler in this year's English County Championship and heading fast for 100 wickets.

"Spin bowlers get better with age," he continues, "and the best age is in your thirties." That, of course, is Mushtaq's age now, and he can have had few better seasons than with Sussex, now surprise leaders in the Championship.

Whether or not Mushtaq is bowling the best of his career is difficult to judge unless he gets back into the Pakistan team, and the noises from the selectors suggest that his chances are slim. They are backing youth, which means Danish Kaneria, the man who replaced Mushtaq in the middle of England's last tour of Pakistan.

But does Mushtaq have a case? There was a time, in the mid-1990s, when he vied with Shane Warne for the title of world's best leggie, but Warne continued to rise while Mushtaq plummeted. His first problem came with the arrival of Saqlain Mushtaq, a spinner who could take wickets and check the run rate. Saqlain is an ideal one-day bowler, and with Pakistan's emphasis on the shorter game, Mushtaq found himself squeezed out. Saqlain's emergence coincided nicely with Pakistan's match-fixing scandals, during which Mushtaq was accused and out of favour. His appearances became confined to when Pakistan played two spinners, although he continued to spin the ball prodigiously, with great variation. Mushtaq remained a threat, but the wickets dried up. Perhaps he was trying too hard.

For the last two seasons he has been the leading wicket-taker in Pakistan's domestic cricket - but you wouldn't know it. News of Pakistan's domestic cricket travels little beyond the country's own borders ... and not that much within them. But this season's success with Sussex has brought Mushtaq's predicament to prominence.

He is not alone. Saqlain too has lost his place; both of them sacrificed at the altar of youth. Nonetheless, while Pakistan's officials do talk of Saqlain's return, Mushtaq's plight usually gets short shrift. The current axis of power - Rashid Latif (captain), Javed Miandad (coach) and Aamir Sohail (chairman of selectors) - wants a clean break from the past, and will probably persevere with youngsters like Kaneria.

Surprisingly Mushtaq had few favours from his friend Waqar Younis, during whose captaincy he played only once for Pakistan. He denies any bitterness towards Waqar, but clearly he is not impressed by his treatment. "When a man tries to keep his job he has to make a lot of compromises," says Mushtaq. "I took a lot of wickets at the start of the 2001 tour but I was dropped. When people get into the business of survival, especially the leader, the team cannot get behind him. You only have to see what happened in the World Cup. Pakistan lost badly but the team was not so bad.

"There is too much liking and disliking in the selection for the Pakistan team. Danish Kaneria has been tried inconsistently. They have dropped Saqlain too. They should give an explanation when people with good records lose their place."

Mushtaq is a family man and, for the last two years, a devout Muslim who prays five times a day. He has no expectations of Waqar Younis or Rashid Latif or the Pakistan selectors. He has left his fate in the hands of God, and is determined to perform his best for Sussex and take them to their first Championship title.

"Allah has given me a lot of insight and blessing. We shouldn't run after material things. There are many millionaires who are not happy with life. And Allah never closes the door on people. I played well in a couple of matches for Surrey last season, and Sussex signed me. I have a one-year contract but I hope that will be increased and I hope to take as many wickets as possible."

And what remains unsaid is that he wants to win his Test place back.

Kamran Abbasi, born in Lahore but raised in Rotherham, is deputy editor of the British Medical Journal