Saeed Ajmal © AFP
By Saj Sadiq
Apart from being a highly sought after player at domestic level in Pakistan, Saeed Ajmal‘s skills have also been in great demand around the world where he has made successful contributions on behalf of teams such as the Adelaide Strikers, Barisal Burners in the BPL and most recently with the English County side Worcestershire. Faisalabad born Ajmal continues to entertain world audiences with his bowling prowess and at 36 years of age shows no sign of slowing down in his drive to become one of the most successful spinners of modern times.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net Ajmal speaks about his return to Worcestershire, what motivates him, responds to comments about his bowling action, whether he would want to captain Pakistan, criticism from former players, his academy in Faisalabad and much more.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): Is the failure at the World T20 a distant memory now, or still something that you are disappointed about?
Saeed Ajmal (SA): No you cannot brush aside a performance such as ours during the ICC World T20 2014. It was the first time that we hadn’t reached the semi-finals of the World T20 and that hurts, that hurts a lot.
There were some positives from the tournament and we have to take those positives away and build on those and also as a unit look at where we went wrong, what didn’t go well and where we can improve. I’m sure come the next World T20 tournament Pakistan will bounce back and perform much better than we did in Bangladesh.
PP: What’s the problem Saeed, why can’t Pakistan defeat India in ICC tournaments?
SA: I cannot put my finger on any particular reason for the record. It’s not as if we are under any extra pressure or we approach those matches any differently or are overawed by the occasion or the opponents. However rest assured we’ll be ready for them at the 2015 World Cup. I’m confident that we can set that record straight in Adelaide.
PP: You’ve played cricket all around the world but haven’t had the opportunity to show your skills at the Indian Premier League. Is that frustrating for you or does it not bother you?
SA: The organisers and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) should look at this situation and look to give Pakistani cricketers a chance to play in the Indian Premier League. There are former Pakistani cricketers, umpires and coaches all present, the only thing missing are the players. Surely if the IPL classes itself as the best 20 over tournament in the world then it should allow the best players in the world to take part. Anyway this is something for the authorities to sort out, but I hope there is a change of stance in the future as I would definitely like to have an opportunity to play in the IPL.
PP: You’re back at Worcestershire where you seem to be as popular as ever. How does County cricket compare with other competitions around the world?
SA: They are a great bunch of lads at Worcestershire and that’s why I signed with them. The coaches are superb and very supportive and there are also two or three fellow Muslims in the team. It’s a great atmosphere in the dressing room and I always enjoy my time playing for them. If the atmosphere is good in the dressing room then that inspires you to do even better and try even harder.
County cricket is very well organised and it continues to produce some wonderful talent for England. As far as I am concerned County cricket has helped me improve as a bowler and work on some areas of my bowling that I felt needed improvements.
PP: How do UK based Pakistani cricket fans compare with cricket fans back home in Pakistan?
SA: Pakistani cricket fans are unique wherever they are in the world. Their passion is second to none and they want their team to win every single match and at times find it very difficult to accept that sometimes their team will lose.
I love interacting with cricket fans and listening to what they have to say, they are what keep me going. Recently I was with friends at a restaurant in Birmingham and word got out that I was in the restaurant. Slowly but surely, there was an endless flow of autograph hunters and people wanting to take pictures with me which meant we had to re-order our meals several times as the food kept on going cold. At one point the restaurant was just full of people wanting pictures and autographs! But in all seriousness, any cricketers who don’t appreciate their fans and the love of their fans don’t deserve any adulation or success.
PP: What motivates you?
SA: My motivation is seeing the smiles and joy on the faces of my fellow countrymen when Pakistan wins. If I can contribute to that success, joy and happiness, then that makes me happy and proud. I’m fortunate to be in the privileged position of playing cricket for my country and being an ambassador for Pakistan and that is motivation enough for me. When the people of Pakistan smile after a victory, then I am happy too.
Saeed Ajmal’s action has been recently questioned by a few cricketers; former and present © Getty Images
PP: Shane Warne recently on commentary suggested that you like wearing long-sleeve shirts whilst bowling. Surely you must own some short-sleeve shirts too?
SA: (laughs) Shane Warne is known and respected all around the world and he should think twice before making such irresponsible remarks. There are a lot of spinners in international cricket including Sunil Narine who bowl in long sleeve shirts. In fact, by my estimation, nowadays 70-80% of spinners bowl in long-sleeved shirts. I have no idea why Warne singled me out for such an offensive remark.
Broad’s dig hurt me the most. Former players will sit in the commentary box or wherever else and say some things for attention but you don’t expect such things from a fellow professional cricketer who is still playing cricket. It was disappointing to read Broad’s comments, but we are dealing with it and we hope to get an explanation from the ECB about Broad’s comments.
I’ve played cricket all around the world and there have never been any objections to my action and I have never been called for throwing. I think it was a disrespectful remark from Warne. Whether I want to bowl in short-sleeves or long-sleeves is my decision. I don’t tell Warne what to wear in the commentary box, therefore he shouldn’t interfere in what I wear on the cricket field. I think he should stick to commentating on cricketing matters not what someone is wearing.
PP: Michael Vaughan recently tweeted a picture of you bowling with the comment, ‘You are allowed 15 degrees of flex in your delivery swing…. #justsaying’. Your thoughts on that tweet?
SA: Michael who?!?! Just saying.
PP: Stuart Broad replied to the aforementioned tweet by Michael Vaughan. What did you make of Broad’s reply and a subsequent tweet from him?
SA: Broad’s dig hurt me the most. Former players will sit in the commentary box or wherever else and say some things for attention but you don’t expect such things from a fellow professional cricketer who is still playing cricket. It was disappointing to read Broad’s comments, but we are dealing with it and we hope to get an explanation from the ECB about Broad’s comments.
PP: Were you surprised at Mohammad Hafeez’s decision to step down as Pakistan’s World T20 captain?
SA: I think he was just disappointed that he had not been able to get the best out of the team in Bangladesh and felt that someone else should take over and be given a chance in that role. There were absolutely no clues or hints that he was going to step down from the role while we were in Bangladesh.
PP: You’ve been mentioned by some as someone who could take over as T20 captain. Is captaincy something that you have thought about and would want to do before you retired?
SA: I’ve never really bothered about captaining any team. I like to play my cricket with a relaxed mindset and captaincy doesn’t allow you to do that in my opinion. I’m a happy man and always smiling, I don’t want the tension of captaincy and be frowning all the time. Also my hair is black and I have no plans for my hair to turn grey quickly as captain.
PP: Do you think the turmoil at Board level filters down to the players?
SA: You cannot turn a blind eye to it. All I will say on this matter is that whoever is the Chairman, whatever his background, whatever his political allegiances are, wherever he is from, he should work for the betterment of Pakistan cricket and look to improve all aspects of Pakistan cricket.
PP: We are seeing a lot of innovation from batsmen in limited overs cricket. How can bowlers particularly spinners counteract these innovations from the batsmen?
SA: I urge and plead with the ICC to spare a thought for bowlers and implement some new rules to help spinners. We are getting hit around a lot these days and the game seems to be heavily in favour of the batsmen.
But at the end of the day the batsman has the bat in his hand, he can use the bat in any way, whether it’s the edge, the back of the bat, the middle of the bat or the handle that he uses to hit the ball and we as bowlers do need to come up with some solutions to challenge the new ideas from batsmen. It’s definitely a challenging time for bowlers and a time where we really need to think about what we can do in terms of new deliveries and techniques to make the batsmen’s life harder in the middle.
I’m always trying new deliveries out in practice, with varying levels of success and always trying different angles within the bowling crease. There are still ways to innovate as a bowler but it’s really tough when the boundaries at some grounds are so small and the rules seem to be so stacked up in favour of batsmen.
PP: There seems to be a continuing trend of former players sitting on television and continually criticising the current team. That must be very demoralising for you and your team-mates?
SA: If we play poorly and underachieve, then the former Pakistani players on television have every right to criticise our level of performance and to pinpoint mistakes, but those pundits should also praise the same players when they deserve some credit. It seems to be the case that some ex players are happy to criticise and humiliate players, but not so keen to commend those same players when they have turned in a good performance.
We need support from these former players, not their continual criticism and not their continued personal attacks and finger pointing. Constructive criticism and analysis is a wonderful tool, it can help a cricketer improve, it can help a cricketer take on the board where he is going wrong, but never-ending personal attacks and criticism is unnecessary and unhelpful.
Those very same players criticising some of today’s players know about the pressures of international cricket, they know how tough it is to be a Pakistani international cricketer, so I would urge them to show some levels of tolerance and support the players.
PP: What are the updates on your cricket academy in your home city of Faisalabad?
SA: It was a project that was dear to my heart. I wanted to give my country and particularly Faisalabad something back. I’ve gained fame and appreciation because of playing cricket for my country and I felt that I needed to give something back in return.
The academy was something that I planned many years ago and wanted to launch when the time was right. With the help of friends and support from the community in Faisalabad and with the help of the Almighty, the project has started. Currently we have 210 underprivileged boys studying and learning cricket at the academy, all free of charge. We hope to increase the numbers in the coming months and years and also possibly provide the same opportunities to girls. The academy is open to all, irrespective of where you are from and may I take this opportunity to ask PakPassion’s readership to pray for the success of this venture.
PP: How are the fingers, knees and the rest of the body holding up?
SA: I’m happy with my fitness at the moment. Yes I feel in good shape and I’m grateful to the Almighty for this. You never know what’s around the corner and in professional sport it’s difficult to make any long term plans, but all being well, I plan to play cricket for another two to three years and then hang up my boots.
(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)