Long before he took to tweeting out life lessons, Saqlain Mushtaq was an outstanding offspinner, on a par with the best at his prime. Calling him an offspinner, of course, is a little incorrect, as he spent a fair bit of time developing deliveries that were anything but the regular offbreak. The doosra came off as planned, but the teesra remained shrouded in mystery as, by 2004, when he wasn’t yet 30, he disappeared from the international scene.
Saqlain was the quickest to 100 One-Day International wickets – a record that has lasted close to two decades – and was Pakistan’s premier spin option for quite a while, till Danish Kaneria went past him in the pecking order and an injury bogged him down. He continued playing for Surrey and Sussex till 2008, a contract with the Indian Cricket League not doing him any good, and is now a regular in the veterans’ circuit, dishing out deliveries that aren’t quite the offbreak or the doosra.
In Dubai to represent Gemini Arabians in the Masters Champions League, Saqlain spoke to Wisden India on his own career, manufacturing deliveries, R Ashwin, Saeed Ajmal, and much else. Excerpts:
You aren’t yet 40 – doesn’t it feel a bit odd playing veterans’ cricket?
Yes, but it’s been great, it has been a lot of fun. Both Cricket All-Stars and the MCL have given players like me another opportunity to go out and entertain the fans. Playing with and against some of the great players of my time has brought a lot of wonderful memories flooding back. It’s almost like being young again. It has been a wonderful experience. For everyone, I’m sure, not just me. I hope it continues for many years.
Seeing you perform at the All-Stars and the MCL, it does seem that you can go back to playing first-class cricket. Any such plans?
You know what, after I got injured, I did train and then went back and played for a few seasons with Surrey and Sussex but then, without planning to, I got into coaching and then into commentating … I was working with PTV and other channels. It wasn’t a planned career move, but it all just happened. I last played international cricket in 2004, when I wasn’t yet 30. So it’s all a bit strange, but that’s just how it all happened. Nothing was planned. If things had been planned, I might still have been playing for Pakistan. But I dropped out of the scene.
That delivery you got Sachin Tendulkar out with in the All-Stars – that was the teesra, wasn’t it?
Yes. I had developed it. I didn’t play at the top level much after that, so it remained a bit of a mystery. People talked about it. I talked about it. But no one really knew about it. I think a lot of people believed me, because I had invented the doosra. Maybe some people didn’t believe me. I did bowl it a few times in the English county circuit, but that didn’t get much publicity. I bowled it at the Cricket All-Stars, and that got people talking.
Can you tell us a bit about it?
It’s a bit difficult to explain – the trick is in the grip. What happens is that the ball travels through the air slightly faster than usual, but once it pitches, there is a bit of backspin. There is some drift as well, in both directions, drift in and drift out. It depends a lot on what the pitch is like, what the weather is like … what the shape of the ball is. If the ball is in good shape, like it is in T20s, and there is some shine on one side, and there is some breeze blowing across the pitch, then it will drift out and get backspin. It will drift in if the breeze is from the other side. It’s the grip that does it.
You were the original master of variations as far as offspinners go – what are your thoughts about R Ashwin?
Oh, there is no doubt that he is a world-class bowler. The way he is performing for India, I don’t think anyone can ask for anything more from him. He is performing in every game and he is improving with every game. He has played key roles in so many important victories for India. He is a world-class bowler. I make it a point to switch on my TV and watch India’s matches only to watch him bowl. He is a wonderful bowler.
Saqlain on the teesra: The trick is in the grip. What happens is that the ball travels through the air slightly faster than usual, but once it pitches, there is a bit of backspin. There is some drift as well, in both directions, drift in and drift out.
For a while, he was criticised for overdoing his variations, mixing things up too much. Your thoughts?
I agree that some bowlers go overboard at times. I think you will benefit most if you keep it simple. But if you look at the modern game, you need to mix it up all the time, because if you don’t have variations, you have nothing. I think the main thing is your mind, your brain. You shouldn’t get too excited. The game today is such that batsmen have no fear; they step out, they play sweeps, reverse sweeps, paddle sweeps … it’s almost like we played a different game altogether. Now the game is much more positive and attacking. So, as a bowler, you have to have the variations, and also have the control. That’s more important. You shouldn’t bowl different balls only because you know how to bowl them. Keep it simple. Have the variations, but use them as surprise weapons.
All those different shots, and the powerful bats, the batting-friendly pitches – do you have any thoughts on what can be done to help bowlers a little?
I think it has to come down to the pitches. The pitches have to be sporting. You can’t do much about the power of the bats. You can’t change the balls. But the pitches must be fair, and the boundaries should be fair. One side shouldn’t be smaller than the other side. Boundaries shouldn’t be 70-75 (yards) in some places and 50-55 in others. Make a rule – keep it at 60-65. I think the rules are fine, the fielding restrictions are fine, but the boundaries should be standardised. And the pitches must have something in them for the bowlers. That’s the only way to bring some balance.
At Gemini Arabians, you have been bowling in tandem with Muttiah Muralitharan. What has the experience been like?
It’s the experience of a lifetime for me. Like batsmen have partnerships, bowlers also have partnerships, and bowling in a partnership with Murali is a dream come true. We have been chatting a lot, learning from each other, talking to each other, making plans … it’s been great fun, an education. It’s also been good to play under an attacking captain (Virender Sehwag), who encourages us to attack and do what we can to pick up wickets. He stresses on aggressive and attacking cricket, which suits us fine.
How has it been in the nets, bowling to Sehwag and Kumar Sangakkara and others?
It’s been fantastic. They have retired very recently, so they are in good touch. It’s been fun, but it’s not just been about fun and games. We have been training hard and enjoying ourselves. I think what happens is that we train hard when we are in the nets, and save the fooling around for later, when we are in the dressing room, or at the dining table, for dinner or breakfast. We have a lot of fun then, there’s a lot of banter, a lot of fooling around, a lot of memories shared.
You were working with Saeed Ajmal, helping him with his action – he cleared the tests, but wasn’t anywhere near his best after that.
Saeed Ajmal … he has been the No. 1 bowler in the world, he is outstanding. The problem with his action has pulled him back. I worked with him on his action, and we did enough to ensure that his action was fine and he was cleared as well. But I had informed the PCB, and I had told them that we had done only about 40-50% of the work and 50% of the work remained to be done. But the PCB got busy with other things and so did I. A lot of work remains to be done with him, but I don’t know if that’s happening any more. I wish him all the best, and, if the PCB wants, I am there for him.
In Ajmal’s absence, Yasir Shah has become Pakistan’s premier spinner.
The way he has been bowling for Pakistan … he is a world-class bowler. Even in one-dayers. They should have played him more than just in that match against India at the World Cup. I was on TV at the time, and I kept saying that he should play every match. He is a legspinner, he is a wicket taker, he is an attacking bowler. You can’t keep him out. All legspinners are wicket-taking bowlers. They will go for runs, but they will take wickets too. Yasir Shah is outstanding. He must play every match. If he goes for runs, so be it.
Before finishing – who is your favourite spinner of the current lot?
It’s Ashwin at the moment, without doubt. It used to be Daniel Vettori, but he has retired now. And then there is Yasir Shah.