“History does not repeat itself. It rhymes.” — Mark Twain
The funny thing about England-Pakistan cricket is that is has essentially become a caricature of itself. Even when everyone, cognizant of the history between the sides, tries to turn the temperature down and take the steam out of relations, some conflict has to arise. It’s almost like it cannot be helped. It is the Groundhog Day of cricket series.
We’ve seen this movie before, right? Pakistan defeats England using a skill the latter cannot understand, much less execute. Whispers begin, aspersions are cast. First, we only kick their ass thanks to biased home umpires (I am sure David Constant and the Palmer brothers were paragons of fairness and impartiality). Then we only kick their asses because we tamper with the ball (never mind that Wasim and Waqar, as Geoff Boycott memorably claimed, would have bowled England out using an orange). And now we’re only kicking their asses because our best bowler is a chucker.
Is this an unfair reading of the last two days? I would submit to you that it is not. As long as Bob Willis and a bunch of internet warriors on comment boards were the only ones making the case that Ajmal is bowling illegally, I let it slide. Who cares what an old crank and online nobodies think?
But once Andy Flower waded in, well, that’s a whole other issue. When he says what he did — and please, do not let his clever way of phrasing his accusation of cheating distract from the fact that it was an accusation of cheating — it represents an escalation. Andy Flower is the England coach. He speaks for England.
Of course, it’s important to note that other personalities who speak for England, from Matt Prior to Andrew Strauss, have (publicly) denied that there’s anything to complain about Ajmal’s action. Media men and ex-cricketers such as Nasser Hussain have (guardedly) backed Ajmal. So this is not a full-court assault as 1992 was. But it doesn’t have to be to leave a very bitter taste in Pakistan fans’ mouths.
The worst thing about this situation is the nature of the target. I can’t think of a single more genial, big-hearted, fun guy than Saeed Ajmal. He always plays the game with a smile on his face. His interviews have achieved cult-like status on Youtube. He’s just a genuine dude. I challenge you to watch this bit of an interview Ajmal did on Geo, and not feel equal parts love and affection (for Ajmal) and contempt (for the host), as Ajmal talks about his dad dying (starts around 32:00).
Ajmal has actually had a very un-Pakistani route to stardom. For one thing, he’s a spinner. I can’t think of a single other instance in our history when our best bowler was a spinner; it’s just not the way things are done in Pakistan. For another, he didn’t break into the team until he was past 30. When you juxtapose that with the fact that, on the list of the youngest test debutants of all time, Pakistanis occupy the top three spots, and ten of the top twenty, Ajmal’s uniqueness becomes clear.
I should also note that Ajmal is in a run of form rivalled by few Pakistani spinners, ever. In that sense, the timing of these complaints is, shall we say, more than convenient. Abdul Qadir is universally (and I believe wrongly) thought of as Pakistan’s best ever spinner; Ajmal is ranked higher than Qadir ever was, and has more ratings points than Qadir ever did.
His comparisons with Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed (criminally underrated by Pakistani fans, even retrospectively) are also interesting viewing. Saqlain never had a ranking as high as Ajmal, for whatever it’s worth. Mushtaq did; he was the world’s best bowler at one time.
I may be tempting fate here, but I really don’t think this chucking hullabaloo is likely to effect Ajmal. He may have a friendly exterior but the dude has balls of steel. He had the mental strength to stay with cricket despite not making it until an age when most Pakistanis are retired. He had the mental strength to deal with family tragedies and carry on playing for Pakistan. He had the mental strength to recover from that Hussey innings. He stood up to some fearsome fast bowling on England’s last tour, with essentially no batting technique or talent, and made a fifty accompanied by a host of bruises all over his body. He’s dealt with chucking allegations before. This is not going to faze him.
But Ajmal’s ability to withstand this assault is, in many ways, besides the point. The crux of the issue is the presence of the assault in the first place. Why did Flower say what he did? Did he really think the perceived benefit of playing mindgames was worth the cost, given our history with England? Does he care?
Here’s what I want to happen: Ajmal to take another 10-fer in Sharjah. Ajmal to walk off the ground with the ball raised in his palm. And Ajmal to look up at the English dressing room and smile that Duncan Fletcher smile that so incensed Ricky Ponting in 2005. That would be sweet.