Saeed Ajmal has promised he will return to international cricket. He believes in his ability to regain his form and a place in the Pakistan team, particularly in limited-overs cricket, where he was peerless. Sadly, the facts don’t stack up. A bowler who once regularly ran amok now struggles to take a wicket a game. His economy rate is no longer special. Magic and mystery have abandoned his spinning fingers.
Few Pakistan players have felt the love of supporters as Ajmal has. There is his infectious smile; that flash of defiance, especially when applying his rudimentary ability as a batsman; the lack of athleticism, which creates an instant bond with his public. Above all and beyond price is his bravery. In key moments, when the charge is on and a target to be protected, a captain will turn to Ajmal for rescue. And Ajmal will save the day. Not with a flat spell fired in at a batsman’s legs, but with deliciously flighted deliveries, full on off stump, against the world’s best hitters. That is daring. Such bowling takes guts. Such audacity demands affection.
It also demands great skill, and Ajmal was, till recently, master of his art, top of the world rankings, the bowler who embraced the inventions of Saqlain Mushtaq and moulded them into his personal version of mystery spin. The world loved him for it, or at least appreciated it for the large part. It was hard to imagine a competitive Pakistan team without Ajmal. Some of the mystique was helped by his late entry into international cricket, from 30-year-old debutant to world beater in doosra-quick time.
Still, every success was accompanied by whispers, observations about his action. That right arm, that long sleeve, and that doosra. How could a bowler produce such magic and be legal? It was surely beyond human capability? With every glory Ajmal acquired more whisperers, more trolls, more haters.
Those of us who loved his artistry felt confident, for behind Ajmal were the ICC and the 15-degree rule. No umpire would call him, and even if they did, the biomechanical experts would prove that he was in the clear. Indeed, the ICC had already investigated Ajmal’s action, including his devastating and controversial doosra, and found it to be within acceptable limits.
But the whispers continued and his supporters began to wonder if that kink they were seeing with their naked eyes was illegal. In 2014, when the voices of suspicion became too loud, the umpires intervened and the ICC investigated again. The verdict this time was that Ajmal’s killer ball – that doosra – was indeed illegal and that his action would require a complete modification.
The fear now is that Ajmal isn’t the bowler he was. His international return against Bangladeshearlier this year was a disappointment. The man who once destroyed international teams has been castrated, his arsenal emptied, that doosra finished.
The players’ verdict on this remodelled Ajmal is that he certainly isn’t the bowler he was. There is no threat, no mystery, no magic. Where once watching him brought joy, it now brings sadness at the memory of a magnificent career that is now tragically ordinary.
I don’t blame the ICC entirely. It has a legal limit for fair deliveries and, unlike some commentators, I believe it to be a good one – the same allowance for all bowlers, a degree of movement that is consistent with the exhaustive evidence that the ICC reviewed. At 15 degrees, any kink becomes visible to the naked eye. Previously, at a lower limit, umpires referred actions in an arbitrary way that was open to accusations of bias. That had to end. Hence, the 15-degree rule is clear, fair and workable.
Where the ICC is at fault is that the law has not been rigorously implemented. We’ve basked under the illusion that Ajmal’s action was legal, his doosra a wonder of the modern age. The evidence before us is that clearly it was not within the laws in recent years. There’s nothing to be done, of course, about those matches or statistics. If we get into the game of rewriting history we might end up emptying the ICC’s Hall of Fame. But it does tarnish our memories of wonderful bowling performances from a brave man who lobbed the ball into the sky at a gentle pace to strike fear into the hearts of the world’s leading batsmen.
Surprisingly, the Pakistan Cricket Board has awarded Ajmal a central contract – of category B, not the recognition a stellar performer might expect, but still any contract is an indication that there may be a way back, a return for a more orthodox Ajmal, a bowler with less mystery.
Unfortunately, the stats and the sightings since his resurrection do not yet point towards a storybook comeback; they suggest a rapid fade for a once-mesmeric career. Even Pakistan cricket has moved on, working its way up the Test and T20 rankings with legspinner Yasir Shah’s emergence, although Pakistan’s decline in ODI cricket surely has some connection with Ajmal’s ban.
It is easy to be cruel about chuckers, to treat them with disdain and suspicion. I find that hard with Ajmal, and not simply because of my affection for Pakistan cricket. There should no celebration or joy at his decline. That is not what he deserves. The world moves on as new heroes are discovered and new legends made. All that may be left for Ajmal is personal tragedy, a lonely exit from the game he once ruled over, followed by a lifetime of contemplation of great deeds uncelebrated. But in the forlorn dark days of Pakistan cricket, of exile and banishment, regardless of how people judge him in retrospect, Ajmal brought hope and a smile whenever he stuttered his way to the crease. For that alone, if there is a way back, a doosra route to the top, Saeed Ajmal deserves to find it.