Saeed Ajmal is among the premier offspinners in world cricket but, like so many top Pakistan cricketers, is missing out on playing enough top-drawer cricket when at the peak of his abilities. Speaking to Wisden India, Ajmal talks about the thrill of troubling Sachin Tendulkar, developing the ‘seedha’ and retiring just as soon he feels he is overstaying his welcome. Excerpts:
There was a 12-year gap between your first-class and international debuts. What helped you stay motivated?
The credit goes to my local cricket club and the administrators there. It is due to their hard work that I played for Pakistan. After that the credit goes to my family, my father and elder brothers, who supported my cricket. I belong to the Sheikh caste, which is mostly into business. Our family has a clothing business and I had to give time to it as well. Even when I was playing first-class cricket, I used to sit at the shop. But my family would give me time off to play cricket.
Is it true you were about to hang up your boots before making your international debut?
Not ‘about to’; I had hung up my boots. I had decided that 2008 will be my swansong. I had a daughter by then and was supporting a family. I regret saying it but our domestic cricket does not give you enough money to live well and run a household. I was doing two jobs at that time. So my father advised me to leave cricket and return to the family business.
You have earned Pakistan many victories. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
I will go with the 2009 World Twenty20 because that’s the biggest event I have won with the Pakistan team. It boosted my confidence a lot. I had just stepped into international cricket and we won such a big tournament. I had worked hard for it. After winning it, I realised how popular one could become. There was a huge welcome when I returned. The road from my home to the motorway was filled with people.
You talked about unleashing a teesra in the England series in 2012 but we never saw it. Did you really develop the mystery delivery or were you just trying to play psychological games with the England players?
It is totally wrong to say it was a psychological trap. I had indeed invented that delivery. I used to bowl it during practise and made its video too. I tried it in a few matches as well. But there were some doubtful elements, due to which the coaches asked me to do away with it. I still bowl it sometimes in the nets and it really troubles batsmen. Batsmen don’t have a clue what is happening. Sometimes it is slow, other times it is quick. There’s no flight; it keeps flat and low. Now, I have invented one more variety. It is the seedha [straight]. It is better than the teesra.
Tell us more about the seedha?
Yeah, it is seedha, like Shane Warne’s flipper. With my action, it goes straight, so it appears as a variation to me. The conventional delivery is offbreak; the other one is the doosra. So the one that goes seedha is also a variety, isn’t it?
You have three ten-wicket match hauls in Tests and two five-fors in One-Day Internationals. But Pakistan haven’t always won those matches. Do you get angry at the batsmen when your efforts go in vain?
It really irks me. The first time it happened was in Guyana in 2011. I got really angry. I had bagged 11 wickets in the match; it was my first ten-for. I thought we would win it. So much so that I had started to prepare for the post-match interview. But our batting collapsed and we lost the game. Then I pocketed five wickets in an ODI in Abu Dhabi in 2012 against England and we lost that match as well. In New Delhi this year, when I had taken four wickets, I said to Misbah-ul-Haq that I am not going to take the fifth or we would lose again. My hunch came true. I completed the five-for and we lost that game too. Now I think if I want Pakistan to win I shouldn’t be taking more than four. [Laughs]
The last delivery of Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI career was your doosra. You were very animated after claiming his wicket. Can you talk us through that moment? You had also given him a tough time in the 2011 World Cup semifinal in Mohali.
Not just a tough time, I took his wicket in Mohali as well. He is a super superstar, that’s what the world calls him. He has nearly 50,000 runs in professional cricket. So obviously it was great moment for me when I took his wicket. He was having trouble in picking the doosra in his last ODI in the Asia Cup. Misbah said to me we could get him out caught at slip. Younis Khan moved to slip and it worked out exactly as planned. I got the wicket of the world-class batsman and it came off such a great delivery that he was compelled to quit ODI cricket after it! [Laughs]
India offers ideal pitches for spinners. Do you regret not playing a Test there?
I want to play Test cricket against every team. There is nothing better than performing at the home of the opposition. I haven’t played Test cricket in Pakistan either. I want to play in every country. We have a great rivalry with India. It benefits both the countries. But I don’t know why the political tensions are not letting us play. I regret that Pakistan and India are not playing cricket against each other.
A technical question: Do you think the SG balls used in Tests in India are more helpful to spinners than the Kookaburras used by Pakistan?
I have taken most of the wickets with Kookaburra balls. As I have not played Tests in India, I don’t have much idea about the SG balls. But I have heard its seam is really good, which makes spin bowling a lot more effective. So I would want to bowl with it. I have played in England with the Dukes balls and they are also good. The older it gets, the better it is for spinners.
Who is the most difficult batsman you have bowled to?
In Test cricket, Kumar Sangakkara has given me the toughest time. He plays on the back foot and plays very late, which create problems for me. He is a wicketkeeper too and judges beforehand which ball is coming in and what sort of delivery is being bowled. Other than him, no batsman has troubled me in any format.
Your ranking on the ICC table has gone down. You were on top in the ODI rankings and close to it in Tests too. Now you are ranked fourth in Tests and fifth in ODIs. Why the dip?
I still want to become No. 1 in Test cricket. But it will be possible only if Pakistan play enough Tests. We play a series and then the next one does not come before six months. If you look at England, India, Australia … they play 15-odd Tests annually. Pakistan get around five or six. I have played only three Tests so far this year. I want Pakistan to play around 12 Tests a year. And Test cricket is the real cricket. I really like this format. It has its own appeal. It looks nice too, with the white clothes – it is pleasing to the eye. You get more pleasure when you take a wicket in a Test match because you set up the batsman before removing him. This is the real cricket and Pakistan should be playing more Tests; it will improve our batsmen’s rankings too. See we don’t have any batsman at the top. We are now playing fewer ODIs too. I am into my sixth year of ODI cricket and haven’t played 100 matches yet. The Pakistan Cricket Board should also think about it and arrange more matches.
Have you set any targets?
I want to serve Pakistan as long as I am fit. I will quit cricket whenever I feel my form is going down and people have started to point fingers at me. If I see a promising youngster, I will give him a chance at my expense. I have my eye on the 2015 World Cup and for that I will have to keep myself fit. But I will play it only if I am fit; else I will quit.
You have a cricket academy coming up in Faisalabad. Usually players plan such things after retirement. What got you started on it while playing and what are your plans with it?
First of all, I am grateful to Allah, who gave me courage for this initiative. The major factor behind this move was that Faisalabad, which is my home and the third largest city of Pakistan, got the wooden spoon in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. There are only two major grounds in Faisalabad. One is the Iqbal Stadium, where budding cricketers are not allowed. The other is the Boranwali ground, where they also stage different functions. There are not enough facilities for emerging cricketers and that prompted me to set up the academy. I contacted the government and initially they cold-shouldered my proposal as there wasn’t any space available.
In 2012, I met the vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. He offered me a piece of land to fulfill my dreams. The son of the chief minister also visited the university and announced that there was a piece of land available. I am thankful to him for giving me the space. After that it was estimated that the academy would cost 80 million rupees (approximately $US 800,000). I was reluctant to go ahead but eventually found the courage. I decided to go door to door to raise funds. The academy is my dream and I won’t be charging any money from the players who use the facilities. It will be free of cost. I took this initiative to improve my country and city’s cricket.