Known for his ability to bamboozle batsmen around the world, Saeed Ajmal served Pakistan with distinction since his debut in 2008 until his retirement from all forms of cricket in 2017. Whilst the Faisalabad born off-spinner’s record of representing Pakistan in 212 matches, where he took 447 wickets which included 4 ten-wicket hauls and 12 5fers was impressive in itself, it was his never-say-die attitude that endeared him to his fans, the world over.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Ajmal spoke on a variety of topics including his role as coach for Islamabad United, how impressed he is with Shadab Khan’s progress, ICC’s worrying failure to encourage unorthodox spinners in world cricket, reasons behind Yasir Shah’s poor form and his aspirations to take on a coaching role in the Pakistan side in future.
By Amir Husain (7th May, 2020)
PakPassion.net: After a fine playing career, how are you adjusting to the challenges of coaching?
Saeed Ajmal: I’ve been with Islamabad United for three years now but that feeling of being on the ground as a player will not go away that easily. I suppose that will happen eventually. But what I am happy about in this role is that I am now in a position to impart my attitude of being an aggressive front-line bowler to all the bowlers I am coaching.
In my career, I always led from the front and looked to take wickets and never once was I on the back foot and looked to bowl defensively. These are exactly the type of bowlers that I wish to coach. I want bowlers to have a positive mind and not ones who look for an easy way out by being defensive. I say this with conviction that any bowler can achieve this positive state of mind as long as they have the right temperament. The trick is to think positively, and you will always be successful.
PakPassion.net: What are your views on the skill-level of modern-day spinners in the Twenty20 format?
Saeed Ajmal: The problem nowadays with spinners and especially those who play in Twenty20s is that they always worry about being hit out of the park. The fact is that a bowler will always get hit for a few sixes in a Twenty20 game but the real challenge is to look to take wickets and then even if you have gone for a few runs, you have the wickets to show for your efforts. In the modern game, a minimum economy rate of 6-7 is a given and to me, a spinner who ends up with 24-28 runs in his spell without any wickets to his name is of no use to the team.
PakPassion.net: Give us your thoughts on Shadab Khan and what he needs to do to improve further?
Saeed Ajmal: Shadab is an excellent bowler but I would like him to bowl in a more attacking fashion. He is a young talent and a brilliant bowler. He’s been made captain at Islamabad United so that he can build his confidence and is able to take good decisions in pressure situations. He can also build his skills so that he can be a back-up captain for Pakistan in the future if needed.
Whilst his batting has really improved in Twenty20 cricket as we saw in PSL 5 where he played in an attacking way, his bowling needs improvement as he rushes and I feel he bowls a little too short at times. I have advised him to take his time when bowling and also to bowl slower as that will give him time to think and work out the batsman as well. We are working on some of these issues with Shadab so that in future he will turn out to be a good all-round option for Pakistan.
PakPassion.net: What are your views on Zafar Gohar and his areas of improvement?
Saeed Ajmal: There is no doubt that Zafar is an excellent bowler who has performed really well in domestic cricket but the problem we had in the PSL was that we had to play an emerging player and already had a decent spinner in the shape of Shadab Khan. So, we had to hold Zafar back, but whenever we gave him a chance, he performed really well. Looking beyond PSL, I would say that being a finger-spinner, Gohar has a great chance of making it to the Pakistan side as he could be an invaluable option in Tests. Currently, we only have Yasir Shah as our main spin bowler in Tests, but a finger spinner could play a very important role in the Pakistan bowling attack.
PakPassion.net: What’s the reason for the lack of finger-spinners in Pakistan cricket?
Saeed Ajmal: It appears that the PCB is not giving much attention to this issue. What they need to do is to make a concerted effort to address this worrying situation by gathering the top Under-19 and Under-16 spin talents to a training camp. Pakistan is one country where there is an unlimited supply of cricketing talent, but all we need to do is to find this talent at such camps and polish it further.
With a strategy like what I am proposing, I am sure that within one year, we will be able to unearth some excellent spin prospects for the country. We desperately need spinners for the Test format as in ODIs and T20Is, we already have some decent spinners in the shape of Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim. We have a situation where there is no backup for Yasir Shah and that is a source of huge concern. I also urge up and coming finger spinners in the country to work hard at their game as the position of a second spinner is wide open in the Pakistan side and there for the taking.
PakPassion.net: What is the reason behind Yasir Shah’s poor run of form in international cricket?
Saeed Ajmal: Yasir is short of game-time. After a Test series, there is a huge gap before the next one which is a problem for Yasir as he is not a regular member of the T20I or ODI squads. On top of that, he isn’t playing much First-class cricket as well due to the fact that there are fewer games being played after the re-organization of the domestic structure.
With so many gaps between the times when he can play matches, how can we expect him to settle into any sort of rhythm? Compared to Australia and England who can play up to 15 Tests a year, we have 5-6 Tests and in those, if Yasir Shah doesn’t get favourable wickets than how is he expected to perform? In contrast, if we have more matches in favourable conditions for him then his performances will surely improve.
PakPassion.net: What are your views about the recent changes to domestic cricket in Pakistan?
Saeed Ajmal: I don’t think that the changes to our domestic system have been a good development. What I would suggest should happen is that there should be a 2-Division structure for First-Class cricketers, just like it is in England. We are told that in our new system, by reducing the number of cricketers at this level, we will get better quality players. This could well be true, but spare a thought for the hundreds of other cricketers who play Grade 2 cricket, or used to play for departments or play in clubs – where will they go if they don’t see a future in front of them? They will lose all interest in the game and their families will also put pressure on them to not pursue cricket as a career. All in all, the game will suffer due to such changes and also result in the reduction of the talent pool in Pakistan. What we need to do is to see how we can improve the quality of the lower grade cricketers in our country.
PakPassion.net: What is the reason for the absence in cricket of unorthodox spinners such as Muttiah Muralitharan, Harbhajan Singh and yourself?
Saeed Ajmal: Look, it's simple. If you wish to generate and maintain interest in cricket then the ICC has to realize that in the same way they have made changes in Twenty20 cricket to make life easier for batsmen by introducing shorter boundaries, powerplays and allowing them to use huge bats too, they need to support spinners as well. Show me one new rule that ICC have brought in for the benefit of spinners? If we subject spinners to fields of 60-metre boundaries and they get hit all around the park, then how else can the bowler compete without looking for that extra advantage which gets labelled as chucking? If we don’t make allowances and even things up for spinners, then no one will want to take up spin-bowling in the future.
Without variations such as a Doosra and Googly, spinners have become sideshows and the modern game seems to have been made for batsmen only. Batsmen have a great time at the crease hitting spinners all over the place and then the bowler has no option but to put in more effort in some deliveries but what other option do they have? Cricket has become so commercialised and the objective seems to be just to entertain audiences with fours and sixes, but in doing so, we cannot take away the joy of seeing spinners given a fair crack of the whip or they will fade away from the game. I would like ICC to consider this situation and give some thought and respite to unusual spinners who bowl with variations which I am sure will go a long way in keeping cricket alive and enjoyable for all concerned.
PakPassion.net: What are your thoughts on ICC clamping down on illegal bowling actions?
Saeed Ajmal: I should have taken legal action against the ICC for banning me from bowling. If I had gone to court against the ICC to question their use of technology to assess the legality of my bowling action, then I would have won that case. From what I understand, the location of the computer chip which is installed on the body of the bowler can determine if the player passes or fails his bowling action test. The location of the chip on the bowler’s body can mean a difference of 5 or 6 degrees in terms of permissible straightening of the elbow joint which places a big question mark on the whole process.
And to top it all, the results of all those measurements are pushed through a ‘black box’ to determine the legality of an action which I find to be a complete mystery. The fact is that in this testing procedure, there is nothing which can be said with 100 percent certainty, and that being the case, how can a bowler’s action be deemed illegal based on this testing procedure? You can only have that level of confidence when the ICC can clearly explain how the procedure works.
Look at what has been done to Mohammad Hafeez who had been bowling so well international cricket. The poor guy cannot bowl properly due to all these restrictions. Yet we have others, non-Pakistanis, who are bowling freely whilst our guys are being banned for illegal actions.
PakPassion.net: What are your views on Rana Naved’s assertions that some players deliberately underperformed in two ODIs against New Zealand in UAE in 2009, just so that Younis Khan could be removed as captain?
Saeed Ajmal: I can say with conviction that no Pakistan player indulged in any activity that led to any match being lost just so that Younis Khan could be removed as captain. I played in those games and I know that no such thing happened as we all played to win the game.
I am not sure why Rana Naved feels that there was some conspiracy against Younis Khan. He was an aggressive captain who played with that mindset and in the previous tour of South Africa, we had requested the PCB to advise him to have a better attitude with his team-mates. But, to say that a match was deliberately lost to remove Younis Khan as captain simply did not happen. Younis Khan is a great man who has performed really well for Pakistan. I respect him and believe we as players would never dream of undermining his captaincy by any means.
PakPassion.net: Misbah-ul-Haq currently is Head Coach-Chief Selector for Pakistan as well as Head Coach for Islamabad United. Seems the only thing left for him is to become Prime Minister of Pakistan…
Saeed Ajmal: Well he is a Niazi, so who knows!
PakPassion.net: Seriously speaking, is Misbah-ul-Haq able to perform all these roles without putting inordinate pressure on himself?
Saeed Ajmal: There used to be a time when the Head Coach would blame the selection panel for shortcomings but now that Misbah has all those roles, all decisions lie with him and he is bound to have some pressure. But the good news is that he is taking all this in a positive fashion and what we need to understand is that it takes time to build a team and that could take about a year.
What Misbah wants to do is to try out all his front-line players and to build a quality squad once he is convinced of the utility of those players. If people are worried about our performances in Australia, then let me ask his critics which other Pakistan side has won in Australia before. We’ve had top teams from Pakistan go to Australia and lose the series so if we lost there again then that is not a huge issue. You need to give time to evaluate the performance of any player or coach and hopefully, when he has built the right squad and it starts performing, the same critics who lambast him now will be singing his praises.
PakPassion.net: Are you concerned about Pakistan’s Test form?
Saeed Ajmal: There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Pakistan’s current performances are below-par in Tests, and I do not think that this situation will improve for another year or so. It will take some to build replacements for the likes of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. We have Babar Azam who seems to have found his feet in Tests, and alongside him, we have Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali who are well-established batsmen, but the same cannot be said of our fast-bowlers or spinners. So, it will take time to build a new side and this is what Misbah is looking to do. But, I am convinced and hope that he will be successful in that aim.
PakPassion.net: Would you be interested in a role as a spin-bowling coach for Pakistan?
Saeed Ajmal: Whilst we may be great friends, please don’t assume that just because Misbah is Head Coach for Pakistan, he will appoint his friend as the spin-bowling coach! Having said that, I can say with hand on my heart that should this offer be made by Pakistan and the Head Coach feels that my services are needed for the country, then I will make myself available without fail as I am ready to give my all for Pakistan.
As far as PCB’s requirements for coaches are concerned, it is my aim to complete all qualifications necessary to become a coach. I have already completed Level 2 coaching qualification in Pakistan and from England, now I am looking to complete Level 3 which was supposed to have been done in April of this year but has been postponed due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. So, whenever the Level 3 coaching course is available again, I will look to complete it so that I am eligible for a coaching position.
As for my coaching experience, it is building up nicely with my association with Islamabad United and that along with my playing experience should allow me to answer any call from Pakistan for a spin bowling coach or consultant and hopefully, I will be able to do what I can to serve my country in that capacity in future.