The easiest way to attain God's status in India and Pakistan is by standing out in their cricketing rivalry - a feat very few players have managed to achieve in history. One such player who did it brilliantly was former Pakistan spinner Saqlain Mushtaq.
Pakistan toured India in 1998-99 under extreme controversy. The controversial neighbours were visiting after 12 years, and a few sections of the country weren’t happy; hence, the previously planned tour of three Tests and five ODIs was shortened to just two Tests. The first Test match had to be transferred to Chennai from New Delhi amidst threats, although the excitement levels hadn’t dipped.
The spinning turf made it a low-scoring affair, and after Pakistan tallied just 238 runs in the first innings, the hosts could only take a 16-run lead. The match was in India’s fist after Pakistan was wrapped up for 286 runs in the second innings, leaving India to chase a target of 270 runs in over two days. However, Saqlain broke India’s middle order by dismissing Sachin Tendulkar (136), captain Muhammad Azharuddin (7) and Sourav Ganguly (2) as the hosts eventually lost by 12 runs. He had become an overnight sensation.
Widely believed to be the first off-spinner to have total control over doosra, a delivery where a bowler can spin the ball away from the batsman from an off-spin grip, Saqlain was definitely a trendsetter in an era where cricket was seeing a spin revolution.
On one side, Shane Warne was doing unbelievable stuff with the ball, while India’s Anil Kumble had a different leg-spin than the Australian, which was equally effective. Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan was also emerging as the next big thing, where he could bowl off-spin with his wrist. Amidst all this, Mushtaq became the fastest bowler to reach 100, 200 and 250 ODI wickets. Saqlain wasn’t without faults, as well. While his short run-up with a small step-stopping delivery was effective, he bowled quite a few no-balls.
Born on December 29, 1976, in Lahore, there was never a doubt over his talent right from the get-go as he was a regular in the Zareef Memorial Cricket Club Second Eleven from age 13. He debuted for Pakistan at 18 in 1995 and became a regular thereafter.
His Test career could span just nine years, but Saqlain still managed to take 208 wickets in 49 matches. His last Test came against India in Multan when Sehwag’s historic hitting saw him concede 1/204, and that was pretty much his end in red-ball cricket. He had more success in ODI cricket, where he took 288 wickets in 169 matches.
The emergence of spinning all-rounder Shoaib Malik in ODIs and leg-spinner Danish Kaneria in Tests spelt the end of Saqlain's international career, following which he moved to England and joined compatriot Mushtaq Ahmed at Sussex. While it was a promising prospect for Saqlain to reignite his career and even play for England in a few years by becoming its citizen, he chose to sign a contract with the unsanctioned Indian Cricket League that saw Surrey terminate his contract following the 2008 season.
Saqlain had three 10-wicket hauls in Tests and 13 five-wicket hauls. Apart from this, he had also finished with seven five-wicket hauls in ODIs. Amongst the 2000 Wisden Cricketers of the Year, Saqlain was ranked as the sixth greatest ODI bowler and the all-time and best ODI spinner, following a 2003 statistical analysis by Wisden.
The Pakistani spinner has the record for taking the most wickets in an ODI calendar year, with 69 in 1997. He was also the first of only two spinners to take a hat-trick in an ODI, with the other being Bangladesh's Abdur Razzak.