CRICKETER OF THE YEAR 2000

Saqlain Mushtaq

When politics and ethnic and religious differences mix with the exuberance and passion of Indian crowds, there is every chance the resulting volatility will damage cricket as a spectacle. But, though Pakistan's first Test tour of India for 12 years in early 1999 had potential for trouble across the subcontinent, it proved more memorable for the right things. In Delhi, Anil Kumble became only the second player in Test history to take ten wickets in an innings - yet he was not the man of series. The award went to another spinner, of whom Kumble graciously remarked: " He bowled so well that the credit must be his."

Saqlain Mushtaq took five wickets in each innings of the Chennai and Delhi Tests, using such variety and control that India's formidable array of batsmen were rarely able to exert any authority over him. Most telling was his superiority over Sachin Tendulkar, who fell to Saqlain in three successive innings. On the second day in Chennai, when he dismissed Tendulkar for nought, Saqlain bowled 34 overs in the scorching heat. He was often unreadable, interspersing orthodox off-spin with what has come to be called his "mystery ball", delivered with the same action but turning the other way.

It was in the second innings, however, that Saqlain drew on hitherto untapped reservoirs of stamina at the crucial moment. In an atmosphere of near-hysteria in the Chidambaram stadium, a century by Tendulkar to within 17 runs of victory. Saqlain, who was by then suffering from heat fatigue, was punished for four boundaries in an over, and admits that "I thought I had had it and India were going to win." His captain, Wasim Akram, came across to urge him on: "You can do it, your No. 1." When he tried again to force Saqlain away, Tendulkar was caught by Wasim in the deep. Saqlain took the final wicket for an astonishing triumph.

SAQLAIN MUSHTAQ was born in Lahore on December 29, 1976, the son of a government clerk. Two elder brothers taught him the game's rudiments. One, Sibtain, played at first-class level for Lahore and instructed his younger brother in off-spin, while Zulqarnain helped with his batting. The nine-year-old Saqlain was sometimes allowed to bowl in the nets at his brothers' club. He never got a chance to play at school, but by 13 was an all-rounder in the Zariff Memorial Club Second Eleven. It was always off-spin for Saqlain. " I never wanted to be a quick bowler. I was very skinny and never had too much strength in the body. I just played for enjoyment, never thinking I would be a pro. But my brothers and the club coach Ahmed Hassan thought I had a future. No one ever told me, though. It was only discussed with my brothers. The big step which turned my life was when I was 14 and went to the MAO (Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental) College. I got a new coach there, Mumtaz Akhtar Butt. I played for college for three years and we won the championship three years."

However, he ascribes the secret of his wrong'un to the yard and street cricket he played as a teenager, at his home in Lahore, with relatives and neighbourhood boys. "we would get up at 4.30 a.m., go to the mosque and then play a Test match. We drew lines in chalk on the walls for wickets. We would bet soft drinks or a dinner on the result. I used a tennis ball bound with electric tape. Then it goes a bit quicker, swings and dips. You can make it go both ways."

Saqlain made his first-class debut in 1994-95, aged 17. He took 52 wickets in his first season and was picked to represent Pakistan A in a one-day tournament in Dhaka. Full international recognition came quickly in September 1995, after Saqlain got seven wickets for the PCB Patron's Eleven against the touring Sri Lankans. His Test debut came three days later, at Peshawar: he took four wickets in that game and five in the next. By the end of 1999, his total had reached 107 in 24 Tests and 210 in 111 one-day internationals; he was the quickest bowler in history to reach 100 one-day international wickets. Wasim believes he is the greatest off-spinner he has seen. "He is as aggressive as a fast bowler, not afraid of getting hit, and has this total belief in himself."

Saqlain joined Surrey in 1997, a step which he considers to have been wholly beneficial. " Before that I had never really bowled much. In England, you play every day, sometimes ten days continuous. I've learned so much from different weather, pitches, conditions, different players, stances, techniques." Last summer he played seven games after the World Cup, taking 58 wickets at an extraordinary 11.37. A knee injury in August prevented him playing the final games, but Surrey were already assured of the title by then.

During the World Cup, Saqlain claimed 17 wickets, including a hat-trick against Zimbabwe, but time has not lessened the pain he felt when Pakistan lost the final to Australia. "I left the team hotel and went back to my London flat and cried. For two days I didn't speak to anyone apart from my wife. She helped me pull through." Helping Surrey to the County Championship helped the healing process. And he is only 23; there could be several more World Cups to come for Saqlain.

© John Wisden & Co