© AFP

Ajmal should be remembered for being one of the most entertaining and difficult-to-face bowlers to grace the game. © AFP

Saeed Ajmal’s announcement that he would be retiring from the game will bring him back in the headlines and once again trigger the debate over whether Muttiah Muralitharan and he should get any credit for their wicket-taking abilities considering their faulty actions.

The world record of 800 Test and 534 One-Day International wickets the Sri Lankan ended with, and the Pakistani’s 178 wickets from Tests and 184 ODI wickets will always have question marks around them, unlike the case with Shane Warne or Anil Kumble.

The debate took off because of Muralitharan’s action, attributed to a deformity in his bowling arm. It forced the International Cricket Council to tweak their rules as well. Even the changed rule irked quite a few purists like Bishan Singh Bedi, who when asked about Muralitharan’s bowling famously quipped: “Let him start bowling first”.

His frustration reached a point where he started to blame the Pakistan Cricket Board, the ICC and the process of dealing with bowlers with illegal actions. That was natural, one suspects. From a match-winner and the most sought-after bowler, he had become a non-entity.

Ajmal came under scrutiny after he took 24 wickets to help Pakistan whitewash England, then the No. 1 Test team, at ‘home’ in the United Arab Emirates in 2012. It led to calls for a major clampdown against bowlers with suspect actions. In his naiveté, Ajmal made things worse for himself when he failed to understand a question from a BBC reporter and replied, “Someone is telling me my action is bad, but the ICC allowed me to bowl 23.5 degrees because my arm is not good. But that’s my problem. Apart from that, there is no problem with my action; it has been cleared by the ICC.”

The ICC was quick to clarify, saying Ajmal had been given no concessions and could be reported if his action exceeded the permissible limit.

The crackdown came in 2014. Ajmal took 63 wickets in nine matches at 16.47 for Worcestershire in the early part of the season. That helped the county side get promotion to the top division at the expense of Essex, whose coach, Paul Grayson, questioned the umpires.

“Essex would have won promotion had county umpires been brave enough to report Ajmal,” thundered Grayson.

It was his ability to bowl the offspinner and the doosra from the same line that made him stand out, it was a skill that brought him so many wickets. © AFP

It was his ability to bowl the offspinner and the doosra from the same line that made him stand out, it was a skill that brought him so many wickets. © AFP

To add fuel to the fire, Michael Vaughan and Stuart Broad tweeted out their criticism of Ajmal’s action.

Vaughan posted a photograph of Ajmal bowling with the caption: “You are allowed 15 degrees of flex in your delivery swing…. #justsaying.”

Broad replied: “This has to be a fake photo?!” He sent out a second tweet: “Bowlers can bowl very differently in a lab while being tested compared to needing wickets in the middle.”

Unfortunately for Ajmal, the ICC had by then decided to crack down on faulty actions, especially of offspinners. That spelt doom for Ajmal. His action was reported after the Galle Test in August 2014 and after assessments he was banned in September. The report said Ajmal’s elbow extension stood at 37 to 39 degrees for his offspinners delivered over the wicket, and 41 to 42 degrees for those bowled from around the wicket. For the doosra it was 40 degrees, 38 degrees for the quicker ones from around the wicket, and 42 degrees for the quicker one over the wicket.

“In the end, I don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons. I can proudly say that my achievements were fair and clean. But, as a bowling coach, which I want to be in the future, I will do my best to ensure that no youngster suffers the fate I did.”

A remodelled bowling action got him clearance to bowl in international cricket but his Midas touch had gone. He was a picture of frustration in Bangladesh soon after the 2015 World Cup, going for 79 runs in 10 overs – his most expensive spell in 113 ODIs – in his first 50-over game. He managed just one wicket in two ODIs and a Twenty20 International, his last time out for Pakistan.

A stint with Worcestershire also failed miserably, 16 wickets coming at 55, as he could never recreate the old magic.

Those few months broke Ajmal. His frustration reached a point where he started to blame the Pakistan Cricket Board, the ICC and the process of dealing with bowlers with illegal actions. That was natural, one suspects. From a match-winner and the most sought-after bowler, he had become a non-entity.

“It was torture living without cricket,” said Ajmal looking back. “I had to endure a lot of pain and it was the most difficult time of my life. I did my rehab and remedial work with the support of my family and friends but it didn’t work.”

Missing the 2015 World Cup was an exceptionally bitter pill to swallow.

"I can proudly say that my achievements were fair and clean. But, as a bowling coach, which I want to be in the future, I will do my best to ensure that no youngster suffers the fate I did.” © AFP

“I can proudly say that my achievements were fair and clean. But, as a bowling coach, which I want to be in the future, I will do my best to ensure that no youngster suffers the fate I did.” © AFP

“I watched the World Cup on television and for 45 days, I wanted to enter the television and play alongside my team-mates and do my part. I felt they were missing me, as I was always effective in the batting Power Plays when I used to pick up wickets and that was missing from our game,” he reminisced.

But, forget the debate over his action, Ajmal should be remembered for being one of the most entertaining and difficult-to-face bowlers to grace the game. His easy-going, pressure-free approach to bowling was admirable. His entry into international cricket was as late as at 30 and his first Test came two years later. He had superb control over his craft. It was his forte to bowl the offspinner and the doosra from the same line, a skill that brought him so many wickets.

It was only in Ajmal’s second year in international cricket that his action was questioned. Though cleared soon after by the ICC, it continued to be questioned by many. In hindsight, if his action had been dealt with properly earlier on, who knows, he might have had a longer career.

“No matter how sad my end was, I have enjoyed my cricket. I have made a lot of friends. I have moments to cherish. I have battles with batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar. I won the World Twenty20 for Pakistan,” he said.

“In the end, I don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons. I can proudly say that my achievements were fair and clean. But, as a bowling coach, which I want to be in the future, I will do my best to ensure that no youngster suffers the fate I did.”

With his jovial disposition and non-stop jokes, in Punjabi, who knows, Ajmal might also want to give TV a shot.