Saeed Ajmal: “It is really impressive to see Yasir Shah succeed in such a short period of time”

Regarded at his peak as one of the top spin bowlers in world cricket, Saeed Ajmal has been struggling of late to make a return to international cricket after remodelling his action. His current record of playing 212 international games where he has picked up 447 wickets remains a source of great pride for the off-spin bowler and is built upon some memorable performances for Pakistan.

Speaking to PakPassion.net, the 38-year-old Ajmal spoke about his hopes for a return to international cricket, his advice to Yasir Shah to improve his performance during the current tour of England and his views on Moeen Ali‘s utility as a spinner for England.

PakPassion (PP): What do you want to see from Yasir Shah for the rest of the Test series against England?

Saeed Ajmal (SA): I believe that what Yasir needs to do to be more effective is firstly to pitch the ball up. His length was totally wrong in Manchester. Secondly, he must continue to attack but have two fielders on the boundary for protection on either side of the wicket as this will give him the confidence to bowl with variety. Alastair Cook is an excellent batsman and I would advise Yasir to concentrate on bowling around the off-stump for the England captain as he is strong towards the leg side. In my experience, the Edgbaston pitch will offer bounce and swing and I expect it to take spin in the second innings which will favour Yasir Shah. I have no doubt that Yasir is Pakistan’s main weapon but he will need to attack in order to get wickets, rather than be defensive. Pakistan will face difficulties if Yasir is unable to take wickets.

PP: The England batsmen played Yasir Shah very well in Manchester, it seemed like he was unable to create any pressure

SA: Alastair Cook lead by example at Old Trafford and then once Yasir was under pressure, Joe Root who is my favourite current batsman came in and completely dominated him. He is an exciting batsman to watch and is beyond a shadow of doubt one of the best players in the world. What Pakistan need to do for the rest of the Test series is to show some patience and get rid of the in-form Alastair Cook as soon as possible. Yasir is not ideally placed to create problems for left-handers, but if Cook can be removed early then it will put pressure on Root who may buckle under pressure. Pakistan have to carefully analyse the weak points of these batsmen and work on that strategy. Failing which, I can see a few problems for Pakistan as both Cook and Root are in great form at the moment.

PP: Has Yasir Shah’s meteoric rise put more pressure on him to succeed?

SA: It is really impressive to see Yasir Shah succeed in such a short period of time. However, now that he has reached that position, he will need to work harder to maintain that level of performance in every game he plays. I feel that it is sometimes easier to get to the top but the real hard work is in maintaining that position over a long period of time. He needs to always try and work out the weaknesses of each opposing batsmen and go into every game with full concentration and proper gameplans. If he doesn’t do that, then he will find that he will fall from grace very quickly as we saw him do after the success at Lord’s.

One must also remember that this is Yasir’s first overseas Test tour outside Asia. We have series coming up against tough opponents such as Australia and New Zealand in their backyard and it will be important for Yasir to bowl with great care and as per agreed plans. Failure to do so will result in a lot of runs being taken off him. Coming back to the current series, Yasir bowled exceptionally well in the first Test match but seemed to be a little tired in the Old Trafford Test match. His length was on the shorter side and I believe this cost him in terms of lack of wickets. His pace for English conditions appeared a little quicker than what is needed. What he also needs to do is to vary his bowling pace or he will find that batsmen will play him with ease. This is because the faster the pace, the lesser the bounce for spinners in England. But if you vary the pace, you can get bounce and as a consequence take wickets in England.

I do feel that Yasir should not be disappointed by one bad performance. Yes, he took ten wickets at Lord’s and just one in the Old Trafford Test but he needs to work on making sure he is consistent without worrying about his ranking. If he out-thinks batsmen by analysing their weaknesses and performs well, then good rankings will follow as a logical consequence. He always needs to think that he is an important asset for Pakistan and not worry about the past but look to the future or he will immediately go on the back foot. He will also need to learn to make a quick assessment of the pitch he is playing on, because if he is late in doing so, he will lose his edge. So for instance, if he finds that there is little spin on offer when he comes on to bowl then he has to ensure that he continues to exert pressure by bowling with a good economy rate so that if nothing else, he can get a wicket by inducing a mistake by the batsman.

PP: How does one go about planning against a batsman such as Joe Root who seems to be in imperious form?

SA: I have noticed that Joe Root plays a lot off the back-foot and attacks with intent but he can be removed if bowlers bowl with a lot of discipline, restrict his run-scoring and it would be better to bowl within the stumps to tie him down. He should not be given width to play with, as he will attack those balls the moment he comes under pressure. Every batsman has weaknesses and Pakistan need to stop his free-scoring and build pressure on him and force him into a mistake.

PP: How highly do you rate Moeen Ali’s bowling?

SA: He has tremendous potential because he varies his pace. This is why he is able to take wickets. If he did not vary his pace and bowled at a quicker pace, he would struggle to get wickets. Apart from his bowling, he has made a place for himself in a highly competitive England team as an all-rounder which is really commendable.

PP: Were you surprised at the manner in which some Pakistan batsmen gifted their wickets to Moeen Ali?

SA: Look this is international cricket. Sometimes batsmen make mistakes and lose their wickets. You may feel that he has taken what could be described as “cheap” wickets but the fact is that he took five wickets at Old Trafford whereas Yasir Shah took only one wicket. At Lord’s he took just two wickets whilst Yasir Shah took ten, so things can go one way or the other for bowlers. This happens in cricket and should not be a surprise. Moeen may not be a frontline spinner for England but then they do not have many spin options at their disposal. England may appear to be using him as a frontline bowling option but I don’t see him being given the confidence and backing from the captain which he needs to be truly their first choice spinner. If he does get that support from Cook, then I believe Moeen can become a better bowler and help England more and become a regular spin bowler as opposed to a part-time one.

PP: Do you still harbour hopes to play for Pakistan again?

SA: I am very much ready to play for Pakistan. I intend to play in the National Twenty20 Cup which begins in Pakistan on the 25th of August. I bowled well in my last county cricket stint in both the One Day and Twenty20 format and I am feeling more confident now after a period of time where I couldn’t play much cricket. The Faisalabad team as well as my departmental team ZTBL were relegated to Grade 2 so I could not play for them. I also fractured my hand during the Pakistan Super League when I tried to stop a shot played by Sharjeel Khan. I was out of action for almost two months before I played in the Pakistan Cup and still want to play for Pakistan but I need to be given a chance. I shouldn’t have to take another two hundred First-Class wickets to prove myself again; I need to be played based upon my current skills.

PP: It seems that Twenty20 leagues around the world such as the Big Bash and Caribbean Premier League are still an option for you?

SA: I am definitely interested in playing in those types of leagues and I will be focussing on that from next year. If a chance to play for Pakistan does not materialise then I will have to play in any of these top Twenty20 leagues. I am fit and playing cricket and I see no problem in still playing cricket at the highest level; all I need is a chance to play at this level and the only way I can prove myself is by playing for Pakistan and not by standing on the side lines.

(Amir Husain is Senior Editor at PakPassion, where the article first appeared)