Mushtaq Ahmed: How to win friends and influence cricket matches
I came across this recent Mushy interview, and I thought I'd share it. Its a little long, but its worth a read especially the parts about his interactions with Warne and about his own bowling.
Mushtaq Ahmed: How to win friends and influence cricket matches
Brian Viner Interviews: The Pakistan leg-spinner's career has taken in a World Cup win, 185 Test wickets and two County Championships - but he insists that being a good person is more important than being a great cricketer
Published: 27 July 2007
This grim English summer permitting, one of the world's finest exponents of leg-spin will today practice his wizardry at The Rose Bowl, while another looks on. The last time Mushtaq Ahmed of Sussex and Hampshire's Shane Warne played against one another, it was the former who took the laurels, taking nine wickets against Warne's five and playing a dominant role in inflicting what remains Hampshire's only County Championship defeat of the season. Sussex, meanwhile, are unbeaten in the Championship since early May, and Mushtaq - whose 103 wickets in 2003 helped to propel Sussex to their first Championship title, and whose 102 wickets did the same job last year - is one of the principal reasons why.
This intriguing battle between two great leg-spinners is one reason I have come to a swish hotel just outside Southampton, where the Sussex players are billeted, although not, in Mushtaq's case, in the smoking room he desires. A small contretemps unfolds at reception when he checks in, but the best the receptionist can offer is a move the following day. "Thank you very, very, very much," says Mushtaq, who believes in unequivocal expressions of gratitude.
In his no-smoking room, then, I ask about his regard for Warne. "A legend of the game and a lovely human being," he says. "And I have no hesitation in asking him for advice. We used to share things even when we played against each other at international level. He showed me how to bowl his slider and his flipper, which is quite hard with my quick, jumping action, but I learnt to do it with a flicking of the finger." He gives me a demonstration, slightly to the alarm of the room-service waitress who has arrived with a large bottle of mineral water. Mushtaq - "Mushy" to his friends and just about everyone else - gives her a broad smile. "Thank you very, very, very much," he says.
And what guidance has he in turn given Warne? He grins. Under the severe, grey-streaked beard, the 37-year-old still has an appealingly cherubic face. "He doesn't need my tips, although in 1993 when he was touring for the first time in England and I was playing for Somerset, [the Australian wicketkeeper] Ian Healy asked me to have a chat with Warney, to advise him how to bowl in English conditions. I said to him that in the early summer in England the wickets are slow, so you have to bowl quicker, with less spin but more pace, getting people out with pace not variation." A chuckle.
"But after watching him in two Test matches I thought I should ask him for tips on how to play in English conditions. His ball to Mike Gatting [at Old Trafford, unforgettably, on 4 June 1993] was the best I have ever come across."
Leg-spin, of course, has a similar relation to cricket to the one that putting does to golf: it is a game within a game. And Mushtaq's googly - one of which bamboozled Graeme Hick in the 1992 World Cup final no less than Warne's fierce leg-break bamboozled Gatting the following year - is one of the inner game's glories. I ask how he developed it.
"How are computers made?" he replies, gnomically. "By humans. It is humans who feed programmes into computers, and that is what I do, I feed a programme into a computer, which is my brain. In the nets I ask myself, 'Why did that ball spin more?' And then I can do it again and again. Allah gave me the strength to remember these things."
The mystique of leg-spin in this country, I venture, is compounded by not having a Warne or a Mushtaq of our own. It seems like a foreign art. But has he seen a young English leg-spinner he really rates? "Yes, Adil Rashid is very talented. And when we played against Yorkshire at Headingley I could see that he is hungry, which is very good. But you know, the art of leg-spin is like a tree. A tiny seed is planted in the earth and slowly the tree grows. After about five or six years it starts giving you shade, and it starts giving you fruit.
"It is the same with a leg- spinner. You can't expect a tree to straight away give you shade and fruit. Only with rain and sunshine will it grow. The best gardeners know that, and look after their trees properly. Adil Rashid needs looking after in the same way. I would like to see him playing more one-dayers, and he needs to learn that tomorrow is always another day, that today he might go for 100 for 0, but tomorrow it could be 5 for 50."
While I am digesting Mushtaq's rather delightful tree analogy, I ask him about his childhood. He grew up in a village about a two-hour drive from Lahore, one of nine children of a cotton factory foreman. His idol was Abdul Qadir, the leg-spinner from Lahore who kept the embers of a dying art aglow in the 1970s and 1980s. At his height - he is still only 5ft 4in - Mushtaq was never going to be a quick bowler. And his admiration for Qadir made him determined to do the same thing for Pakistan, which he did - taking 185 Test and 161 one-day wickets - until Danish Kaneria replaced him.
"If you want to become a good cricketer, you must have the passion," Mushtaq says. "I was mad about the game from an early age. My mother and father used to punish me, because we all used to sit on a mat and eat our dinners, but I always ate with a ball in my hand, rolling it around like Abdul Qadir. I even used to sleep with the ball. My father said, 'If you study, you will have a better future; while you're spinning a ball you're not going anywhere'." We both smile at the irony. It is said that Mushtaq is the highest earner in county cricket.
He pours me some more water and asks if I will excuse him for a few minutes; he has to pray. It is 9.25pm and of the five sets of prayers of the day, this is the fourth. His team-mates Saqlain Mushtaq and Naved-ul-Hasan have arrived in his room and, once they have used a compass to find east, Mushtaq, in a pleasantly tuneful alto, leads the trio in prayer. His devotion to Islam, he tells me afterwards, is getting more and more intense. I ask him whether he considers it difficult being Muslim in modern Britain? "Not at all," he says. "People are so lovely wherever I go. Nobody says naughty words to me."
Does he fret about some young Muslims being taught to hate? "I don't judge people," he says. "Allah created me and you the same way. If you go in a different direction from me, I still respect you as a human being. As the Prophet Mohammed said, I can hate your actions without hating you. He also said that the strongest person among you is the person who forgives. People who are really true to Islam will never hate anybody. The Prophet Mohammed said if you kill a man, you kill mankind."
This leads us neatly to the tragic death of Pakistan's former coach Bob Woolmer, now in fact ruled to have been from natural causes. Mushtaq was Woolmer's assistant during the World Cup, and when it was thought that a murderer or murderers had been at work in room 374 of Kingston's Pegasus Hotel, was not immune from suspicion. Which presumably made Woolmer's death doubly hard to cope with? "Yes, it was just like losing a family member. I spent a lot of time with Bob. I felt a lot of love for that guy."
Does he remember the events of that bleak Sunday morning? "Yes, me and Inzy [Inzamam-ul-Haq] and Shahid Afridi were sitting down after breakfast, obviously still depressed about the Ireland game [Pakistan's seismic defeat by three wickets the day before]. The assistant manager of the team suddenly called us and said Bob was not conscious. We ran to his floor, where there was already security and doctors around. Bob was still lying in the bathroom and Inzy and Afridi went to see him. I didn't. I didn't have the strength to see Bob that way. He was taken to hospital and half an hour later the liaison guy phoned and said Bob had passed away."
A big, heavy sigh. "So sad. He was a lovely man." Mushtaq was disbelieving when he heard Woolmer had been the victim of foul play. "I promise you that I never thought it was murder. But you have to respect the police, and I thought, 'Hang on, these things can happen'. What is that English expression I should use? A dead man walking? We were all like that, the whole team. Going out of the World Cup, Bob dying, then this issue of murder ... my mind was scrambled. There was so much depression. We all had our own rooms but nobody could sleep by themselves, lying down looking at the walls, feeling like everything was coming at you. We had to have five or six guys sleeping in the same room."
Mushtaq was asked by the police what time he had risen that morning, what time he'd had breakfast, what had happened on the coach the day before, and what mood Woolmer had been in after the game. Was he cross to be under suspicion? "To start with, yes. But the Pakistan cricket team is a family, and we had lost the head of the family, so you have to give your support. I told them that Bob was more relaxed than anybody after the game. He went to every player and said, 'Don't worry, I've seen worse things happen than this'."
Mushtaq acknowledges that for a cricketing superpower such as Pakistan to have been beaten by Ireland's relative nonentities undoubtedly fuelled the suspicion that a match-fixing cartel might have played a part in Woolmer's death.
"Mr Brian, there are always rumours [of match-fixing] but unless you have evidence we can't talk about it. I was brought up in that culture [of suspicion] because we are Pakistan. If people are doing it, I don't know them and I don't want to know them, but to suspect someone like Inzy... it is a fair criticism to say that he didn't play well against Ireland but to say he is not a good man, that's not right. Australia lost against Bangladesh in Cardiff [in the 2005 triangular series with England]. Did anyone suspect match-fixing? Bob was right. These things happen."
At a slightly less sinister level of cheating, ball-tampering also happens. Imran Khan, also once of Pakistan and Sussex, and another hero of Mushtaq's, once admitted using a bottle-top on a ball in a county match. Has he ever come across this dark art? "Never. It never happened in front of my eyes, and I played with Wasim and Waqar, great experts at reverse-swing. The only thing we did is that we used to make the ball hit the rough on the wicket when we threw it back to the keeper. Sometimes people hit the ground because there is more chance of a run-out; the ball is quicker off the ground than in the air. But we did it to rough up the ball to make it reverse-swing. And when the umpires realised we were doing that, they told us to stop."
So there we are; the secret is out. Mushtaq smiles. "But the main message I want to give is that it is more important in life to win people than to win games," he says, winningly.