Perhaps the greatest problem with modern-day cricket is the homogeneity it has bred. The game being increasingly skewed towards the batsmen hasn’t helped the game; bigger bats, flatter pitches and quicker outfields have meant that the concept of the so-called “contest” between bat and ball has been adulterated.
The flawed beliefs of cricket administrators – the creed that spectators want boundaries and runs – have eaten away at the enjoyment of the game. So it is a joy to watch the game, on those rare occasions when cricket is played as it is supposed to be.
The 2nd day of Pakistan’s 2nd Test in South Africa was one of those instances. The headlines might have been reserved for DRS, but the day belonged to SaeedAjmal. One passage of play, in particular, showed why Saeed Ajmal was later described by Robin Peterson as a ‘genius’.
The context to that passage was most significant. South Africa have been the best batting side in the world over the past five years.
This dominance has been led by Hashim Amla, who has become the best number 3 in the world. He’s averaged nearly 60 during this time, and has been the tempo-setter for the whole batting order. The success of Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers owes to how much Amla has been able to challenge and dominate bowling attacks. They took on Graeme Swann, considered by some to be the best off-spinner in the game, last year in winning the series away to England. Swann finished the series with four wickets at an average of 77 with Amla scoring hundreds in two of the three innings he faced him in.
In the opposite corner was Ajmal, who had - at least in the eyes of non-Englishmen – surpassed Swann as the best off spinner in the world over the previous 18 months. South Africa had handled him as well as they did Swann, in the first Test – taking him for more than 140 runs while giving away just the one wicket. But buoyed by his momentum-turning ninth wicket partnership with Tanvir Ahmed, and the wickets of both the South African openers, he took on Amla.
It is in such a battle of wits that Ajmal seems to shine brightest. Pakistan needed Amla to be able to generate any collapse at that moment. Ajmal’s spell after tea was built around trying to get to Amla. Seventeen off his first 23 balls immediately after tea were to Amla. They produced only four scoring shots. With a 6-3 leg-side field, Ajmal attacked the stumps, rarely spinning the ball much, as his pace and length forced Amla back. He knew that if Amla was able to get on the front foot, he could use his wrists to minimise Ajmal’s attack. It is often forgotten that behind the sheer variety that the Pakistani spinner possesses is a brain better than the likes of Sunil Narine, Ravichandran Ashwin or Ajantha Mendis have.
Ajmal’s greatest strengths lie not in bowling the odd doosra but the subtle changes in his length that he can employ. Almost every ball that he bowled to Amla during that spell was at a length where he had to go on the back-foot, but wasn’t able to pull the ball. Furthermore – although he is often criticized for his conservatism – Misbah did have all but one fielder within 30 yards of the batsman. It was a combination of all these things – the pressure from the fielders, the fact that Amla couldn’t relieve the pressure by going to the non-striker’s end nor put Ajmal away – that led to the eventual wicket. And the wicket was a reflection of what had preceded it. A frustrated Amla, trying to play the ball across the line was on the back-foot to a ball that he never should have been at. Without the demons created by the previous 16 balls, Amla could very easily have flicked that ball off the front foot in his customary serene way.