Often in international cricket, the most talented of cricketers do not get an opportunity at the highest level, while a few that do, don’t go on to make it big, The careers of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Amir at the Test level began on this day, but they went in different directions and controversially too. Ajmal was 32 when he finally made his much-awaited Test bow and Amir was just 17. To put things further into perspective, Amir was just 4 years and 6 months, when Ajmal made his first-class debut in November 1996.
While Ajmal had to overcome ICC’s ban on a couple of occasions – first in 2009 and then in 2014 - Amir sealed his fate when he was part of the 2010 spot-fixing scandal in England, which cut short his promising start in international cricket.
Ajmal’s rise and fall
Clarrie Grimmett, Dilip Doshi, Ryan Harris and Saeed Ajmal – the only thing that links these cricketers are the fact they have picked up 100 or more wickets despite making their bows after 30. There haven’t been better match-winners in the recent past for Pakistan than Ajmal. He bowled with terrific flight and guile, but his action was called into question early on. It was his doosra that was creating havoc and it was that very delivery that was brought into question, first in 2009 and then in 2014. In fact there are very few bowlers who could bowl the off-spinner, the doosra or even the teesra (carom ball/flipper) without tweaking their action at all and one of them was Ajmal.
The 2014 incident, for which he also received a ban for an illegal action, all but signaled the end for him. Even though he had cleared his action by the beginning of the 2015 World Cup, he decided to pull out of the tournament to further work on his action. While he played a few limited-over fixtures after that, he never got a crack in Tests again.
While his credentials in UAE cannot be questioned, he could not offer much in conditions like New Zealand and Australia. He was a top bowler even in England – especially on surfaces like Lord’s which offered spinners little assistance.
If you look back in the annals of Pakistan Test cricket, there are very few bowlers who have a better bowling strike-rate and average among spinners in their illustrious history. Pakistan have seen some top spinners like Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Danish Kaneria, among others, and Ajmal’s name definitely needs a mention besides these greats.
Also, Ajmal achieved something that some of the greats could not – he became the fastest Pakistan bowler to 100 Test wickets – until overtaken by Yasir Shah in 2016. He is also one of two Pakistan spinners, with the other being Saqlain, to have taken 50 wickets in a calendar year. He was also the No. 2 ranked Test bowler in 2014, but he could never return to the Pakistan side again post that with spinners like Yasir, Zulfiqar Babar, Bilal Asif and others taking over.
Post Ajmal, Pakistan did taste some success, which included them rising to the top of the Test ranking for the first time in 2016, but currently, they are tottering at No. 7. With two of their prolific batsmen Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan having retired, victories have been hard to come by – even in the UAE – where they were once upon a time nothing short of invincible. While Yasir has kept the spin department afloat, they are at the moment going through a transition in the fast bowling stocks – with the likes of Naseem Shah, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Musa and other slowly coming into the frame.
The Mohammad Amir mess
Amir too can be categorized as part of the fast bowling woes for Pakistan. Just when one thought he had settled in after returning from his ban and was ready to take over as the leader of the fast bowling pack, he announced his retirement from the long form at 27.
Amir’s Test career could be divided into two parts – from his debut to his ban in 2010 and then from his return to his retirement. Pakistan have never been afraid to throw raw talent into the deep end and Amir was once such product when he burst onto the scene along with Ajmal against Sri Lanka 10 years ago.
With 36 Tests under his belt, he should have been the one to guide the upcoming talent in the team, instead, Pakistan are still very much dependent on Waqar Younis to groom the youngsters coming in. During phase one of his Test career – before his five-year ban – Amir had established himself as the most sought after young bowler in international cricket. He had five-wicket hauls in England and Australia and had produced some impressive performances in Sri Lanka and also New Zealand. In his final match before his ban, he was also adjudged Pakistan’s player of the series in England and while he looked set to lead Pakistan’s attack for years to come, it didn’t happen.
He had picked up 51 wickets at 29.09 during that period and was the best performer for Pakistan after Mohammad Asif (55 wickets at 25.50).
Upon his return to Test cricket in 2016, he did show glimpses of his form that he displayed in 2010, which included him picking up his best Test figures of 6 for 44 against West Indies at Kingston. He was once again impressive in England and was one of their better bowlers in South African conditions and also in the West Indies, but he failed to have any sort of impact in Australia and also in the UAE. Yet, he was a key figure in the Pakistani bowling set-up and was just about hitting his peak, once again.
In comparison, his numbers seem to be on a downward curve since his return even though he had taken 24 wickets at 21 from six Tests in 2018 and in the 2019 World Cup, he was the star performer for Pakistan having finished as the leading wicket-taker for his team with 19 scalps at 21.05.
Due to his workload, he had to take the decision to prolong his career. In fact, Amir had bowled 1236.4 overs across formats since his return, 419 overs behind Hasan Ali at second place for Pakistan.
Hence, a decision had to be made for the 27-year-old Amir and he chose to focus on the two T20 World Cups coming up and then the 2023 World Cup in the subcontinent, which gives him the best chance to win some silverware for the team, besides the 2017 Champions Trophy.
Amir and Ajmal may have started their Test careers at the same time, but they sure followed different trajectories. In the end, both could not fulfill their true potential in the Test format, for varying reasons, of course.