Saeed Ajmal played his first international match only at the age of 31, but since then, he has become one of the leading bowlers in the world, taking wickets in a rush in all forms of the game. At the ICC World Twenty20, Ajmal is going to be one of the men the Pakistan team will depend on to take the team to a second title. Wisden India caught up with Ajmal to discuss his career so far, and the road ahead. Excerpts:
You started your international career rather late. Why did that happen?
If you look at the Pakistan team, there has never been a place in the team for another spinner. Saqlain Mushtaq performed for a long time. After that, Danish Kaneria and Shahid Afridi took over. Even Shoaib Malik and Mohammed Hafeez bowled their full quota of overs. When the chance came, thankfully, I was able to capitalise. Misbah-ul-Haq has supported me right from the beginning in international cricket, and even before that. It was he that got me into the national team. Dav Whatmore, our new coach, is a very nice person, and has also been very supportive.
Which cricketer do you look up to as a benchmark?
In Test cricket, I look up a lot to Kumar Sangakkara. I love his approach towards the game. I get a thrill bowling to him. The shorter format of the game allows you to pick up so many things from a variety of players. Anyone can come and play a short innings or bowl a good spell to change the course of the game. For that day, he is the hero.
Abdul Qadir, Mushtaq Ahmed, Saqlain Mushtaq … do you ever feel any pressure of living up to the high standards?
There is no pressure at all. Our legends and my seniors have always told me that while playing a match, I shouldn't think about anything else but about what's happening on the ground. Whoever does well is the best player. Past players worked in different circumstances, but the essence is the same. The key is to carry the momentum for a long duration.
How do you change your approach depending on the format you are playing in?
My main aim, in all formats, is to ensure that I do not give away boundary balls. The moment I bowl a few dot balls, the pressure is on the opposition to score and, in their attempt to hit me they get out. I buy my wickets. I hardly get to play six to seven Test matches a year. For those, I plan a lot, thinking well in advance about the opponents, their strengths and weaknesses. Limited-overs cricket is different. You get hit a lot. There is not much scope to experiment. Since I bowl a lot in the death overs, I always try to stick to the basics and restrict the runs.
With so much thinking going on, do the wicketkeepers pick you easily?
It is always a problem when the wicketkeeper is new. But every time I play at a new place, I practice with the wicketkeeper regularly and we work as a team. Understanding is very important.
Your county stint at Worcestershire must have helped a lot in developing your game…
Yes, my stint with Worcestershire was very helpful. I improved a lot and reached second place in the ICC's Test rankings for bowlers. I believe every cricketer, whenever he gets a chance, should play county cricket. You become an independent thinker after that, and the experience reflects in your game.
You have got Sachin Tendulkar out twice in two outings in the last 18 months.
Maybe he couldn't read me properly because I have not played much against him. But he is a great player and I am sure if he plays me more, he will understand me better. It will be a new challenge for me.
These days, it appears that for an offspinner to survive in the international game, more and more variations are a must. Do you agree?
These days batsmen have new weapons, and their shots are also getting innovative. Therefore we are also continuously thinking of new deliveries that can rescue us. That is why only spinners with more variety are able to succeed. Having said that, I am not working on any new variations right now. I am working on the old ones, because more variations make things risky. To young spinners, I would just want to say that they should work hard and aspire to play international cricket. Focus is the key. Test cricket may look boring, but it is the real cricket. You have to enjoy it, and as long as you are enjoying your game, you will be happy.
The series against Australia should be good preparation for the ICC World Twenty20, shouldn't it?
Doing well against Australia is always good because they are a good side. We have a balanced team and are hoping that like every World Twenty20, where we have at least made it to the semifinal, this time too we will make it to the last four and go on to win the competition.
Cricket-wise, things are improving between Pakistan and India. You must be looking forward for the series later in the year?
Yes, it is good news. All of us want to play against India, and it will be an exciting series in December. The experiences in the Bangladesh Premier League and the Sri Lanka Premier League were good. I am still not sure about what the understanding is for the Indian Premier League, but Pakistan's entry into Champions League Twenty20 is definitely a step forward.
Not playing cricket at home must be a big loss…
There is no bigger loss than not being able to play at home. Not only for the players but also for the fans. But the circumstances are not in our control. We, the cricketers, do not have a say in that. Things are improving in our country and, with god's grace, very soon international cricket should resume in Pakistan.