In the lead up to the two-Test series against Australia, you needed generous doses of both optimism and patriotism to expect Pakistan to win against top-flight teams without Saeed Ajmal in their ranks. To win with big, convincing margins seemed almost impossible.
But that was then.
Two thumping victories against the Aussies in Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem to have changed everything. With the rise of the new spin twins – Zulfiqar Babar and Yasir Shah – Pakistan’s bowling attack is suddenly looking good even in Ajmal’s absence at least on favourable wickets in the United Arab Emirates.
Pakistan haven’t wasted any time in learning to live without Ajmal, or so it seems. But can they afford to keep on playing without their suspended off-spinner, who is by far their most lethal bowler in recent years?
Maybe they can if we are talking about the forthcoming three-Test series against New Zealand in the UAE. On batting-friendly pitches in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, Pakistan shouldn’t face many problems in taming the New Zealanders just like they tamed the Aussies in the two Tests. This month’s series against New Zealand that begins in Abu Dhabi on Sunday (today) will also be played on low and slow wicket with the duo of Zulfiqar and Yasir likely to get enough assistance, at least on the final two days of a match, to keep the Kiwis on the back foot.
But Pakistan are bound to miss Ajmal in a slightly longer run. I’m talking about next year’s World Cup which begins on February 14. During the best part of his ODI career which began in the summer of 2008, Ajmal has been the biggest gun in Pakistan’s bowling arsenal. He has hauled 183 wickets from 111 matches at 22.18 with an economy rate of 4.13. His stats show that Ajmal cannot be easily replaced.
The good news for Pakistan is that there are indications that Ajmal has successfully remodelled his bowling action and should clear an ICC test ahead of World Cup 2015 to be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. He left for Britain on Saturday to go through unofficial testing on his new action at the newest ICC accredited laboratory at National Cricket Performance centre at Loughborough University. Ajmal will be tested with the ICC’s accredited protocol by Dr Mark King, the university’s chief biomechanist, on Monday (tomorrow).
But the bad news is that there are no guarantees that Ajmal would be as effective when he bowls with his remodelled action. Publicly, there is all this hype and hoopla that under the supervision for ex-Test spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, Ajmal has managed to fix his action. There are also these claims coming from various quarters (including Ajmal himself) that the off-spinner will remain as effective as ever when he makes his international comeback.
But in reality, things might not be hunky dory. As an Ajmal fan, I really wish that he returns to world cricket and returns with a bang.
But I also fear that there is a significant possibility that it might not happen. That’s because I’ve been talking to various people privy to Ajmal’s rehab programme and frankly many of them remain highly skeptical about a successful Ajmal return. One of them even rejected the entire exercise involving Saqlain, calling it a waste of both time and money. Another source told me that there is little or no evidence that Ajmal would be able to successfully bowl the ‘doosra’ – his chief wicket-taking delivery – with his remodelled action. If that’s true then Ajmal would be like a tiger without his fangs.
I was also told that Pakistan cricket’s think-tank was mentally prepared about this troublingly possible scenario and is mulling over various options to fill the spot of specialist spinner in the World Cup squad. Ajmal remains their number one choice but at the moment there are many ifs and buts involved.
Ajmal, however, remains upbeat about his comeback hopes.
Just days before leaving for Britain where he will work with Saqlain following Monday’s testing, Ajmal stressed that he was “supremely confident” of a “strong” comeback.
“I have made some changes to my action and I am comfortable with the new action,” he told reporters in Lahore. “I am also confident whenever I am back I will be as effective as before.”
He also believes that his new bowling action will click.
“I will return with an improved bowling action but as effective as before,” he added.
“I have already undergone some informal tests under the supervision of our experts so I am going to England confident of clearing the tests,” he announced.
I really hope that Ajmal’s remarks are more than just hollow optimism. Over the years, he has established himself as the world’s best spinner. A team man, who always gives his hundred percent, Ajmal is an invaluable asset for Pakistan. Their ODI fortunes do not look very bright ahead of World Cup 2015. Without Ajmal, they’ll look even dimmer.