Saqlain Mushtaq traps Alec Stewart lbw

Purple patch: Saqlain at Old Trafford in 2001, where he took 4 for 74 in the second innings - including two in two balls

Paul McGregor / © Getty Images


'One has to listen to that inner voice'

Saqlain Mushtaq chats about the pehla and the doosra, the four types of excitement, the six qualities in people, and the plans God has for everyone

Interview by Subash Jayaraman

Saqlain Mushtaq asked me to be at the gymnasium of West Indies' team hotel in Dhaka at 8pm. He showed up at 7.59 with a towel over his shoulder and a topi on his head. He took off his wristwatch and placed it on the coffee table to mark the 15 minutes I had been allotted. I hunted, nervously, for questions that might persuade him to stay longer, and eventually he did, as well as agreeing to meet for a second session. For a man with close to 500 international wickets and who is now a specialist coach, he was interested less in matters technical than philosophical. Asked how he guides his wards, he poked his finger at my chest repeatedly, as if into my heart, and said: "What is that telling you? Do it."

What inspired you to take up offspin bowling?
It's all fate's doing. A man wants to do something, and ends up doing something entirely different. If a man says, "I always intended to become what I am today", then I feel that man is wrong.

Cricket was always big in my family. We started off, as most do, on rooftops with a ping pong ball. Since there wasn't much space to bowl fast, throwing and underarming the ball was the preferable option. From there I took the jump to street tape-ball cricket, and then to more serious tape-ball cricket in the neighbourhood, where we would play for a certain prize, mostly buying the winning team breakfast or something like that.

When my dad saw me playing cricket with such interest, he was wary of the crowd I was interacting with and got me registered at a local club. Cricket was a bit spiritual as well, and once that initial germ of the game had established itself, it was all I used to think about.

But even with that amount of love there were at least five or six occasions before getting picked for Pakistan where I gave up on playing the game. The politics and the lack of opportunities often forced me to give up, but Allah would open doors eventually. Somehow a chance would present itself on its own, often a month or so after I had thrown away my kit and vowed not to play again.

I wasn't well built in terms of being an athlete, wasn't tall enough and lacked the muscle too. I wasn't really firing as a fast bowler, which is what I would try to do, and often ended up bowling offspinners with a fast bowler's action. So I started concentrating on spin instead in the T20 Ramzan tournaments.

What was the effect of bowling with a tennis ball, and how did you develop your action?
I had a creative mind and would always be thinking of how to make my bowling better. What would happen if I do this? Or that? How can I use all five fingers? What would happen if I used three? Or if I ran in a bit harder? Or jumped a little higher? I would watch fast bowlers and try to emulate their styles as well - Wasim [Akram] bhai's quick arm action, the quick-step run-up…

Did the halt in your action provide you with an advantage against the batsman, in seeing what he was trying to do?
Most people think it was a halt to see what the batsman was up to, but for me, a bowler's stride can make a lot of difference in his variations. And what appeared as halts would often be me adjusting the length of my stride. Of course I would pause sometimes to see the batsman as well, but the stride adjustment brought automatic variations in my bowling.

A lot of it also had to do with passion that ran through our veins. We would play cricket for hours and we would experiment to come up with what worked best. Today I see youngsters trying to get done with practice as soon as possible and jumping on their mobile phones and playing video games.

"Just like clouds are signs of rain to come, I saw a six being hit off me as a sign of the batsman giving me his wicket"

Can you talk a bit about the doosra and what Bishan Bedi has said about it?
Somebody forwarded me Bedi sahab's comments on the doosra and how it is illegal. He said even the use of the word doosra as something illicit in our society, since it refers to having a mistress or a second lover…

I respect Bedi sahab as an elder, and he is a guru in terms of cricket, but I would like to say that we shouldn't meddle in affairs that the ICC declares as legal. We are not playing according to our own rules. It's not like we said, "No, we are going to start bowling four bouncers an over, or eight balls an over."

There are many who feel delighted to see these variations being exhibited on the cricket field. I have said it before and will say it again: when the first dies, the second will come, then the third, then the fourth and so on. The first, pehla [the traditional offbreak] is dead, its era has ended, and this is the era of the second, the doosra.

It is not our job to make rules, and pass judgement on what is legal and illegal. Our job is to play within the rules. Yes, cricket has become extremely competitive, a lot of professionalism and money has come into the game, but at the end of the day we are playing a sport, the main function of which is to have fun. It's an art. Keep playing while having fun and appreciate it. And like all art forms, it demands appreciation to boost the confidence of the artist. This is not a war. We are not battling for the world.

Some spinners, including you, have been criticised for over-bowling the doosra and becoming obsessed with it. How do you guard against that?
A bowler needs to do what he feels will trouble a batsman the most. Now whether that includes bowling too many doosras, flippers, yorkers, bouncers… it doesn't matter. Whether you swing it or you are a fast bowler and bowl six slower balls, I don't mind as long as it is troubling the batsman. Why is the bowler there? To take wickets, to create pressure, to win you games.

How did you go about adapting your game for different surfaces and circumstances?
It depends on what sort of mood I was in at the time. What was my preparation going into the game, and what was the opposition's preparation. What is the history of the series? Are you playing the first, second, or third Test? Are you going into it with a lead? Are you trailing? Or is it a decider? You can't narrow it down to a specific general plan.

But I'll try to give you a small example. I played most of my cricket under Wasim bhai, and he made me believe that I was a wicket-taking bowler. So I first figured out which one of the two batsmen I can trouble the most. Which batsman do I have to give respect to? When do I stop giving him respect and try to take his wicket? How many balls do I attack with in the over? What balls do I bowl? How many balls do I create pressure with? All this I figured out while on the field, when I was not even bowling. And it was based on the surface and players on the pitch.

Can you talk us through the Chennai '99 Test, and the dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar?
Sachin was playing extremely well in that game. He was reading everything, the ball was reversing as well and he tackled all of it. I was the only bowler bowling the doosra at the time, and had a bit of repute for that, but he smashed me around quite a bit as well. Even he has mentioned how that is one of the best innings he ever played. So I was lucky that he committed that mistake, a small mistake that unfortunately meant him losing the game.

What did that match mean to you in terms of your career?
That match propelled me as a bowler to new heights. My mental strength took a massive boost. After that match I grew three or four years in terms of my cricket maturity. What I would have grown to become mentally as a player in three years, I became in five days.

The Saqi grip

The Saqi grip © PA Photos

How was your approach different in ODIs, where you had to defend as well as take wickets, to bowling in Tests?
Wasim bhai had defined my role, and told me I was a wicket-taking bowler in ODIs as well. He told me: we are going to utilise you in the beginning and in the end and your main job is to pick wickets. And even when we bring you on for just two, three overs at a certain time, your job is to take a wicket. It doesn't matter if you get hit for boundaries. I was never afraid of getting hit for boundaries. In fact, I used to be happy, because I saw it as a sign of an approaching wicket. Just like clouds are signs of rain to come, I saw a six being hit off me as a sign of the batsman giving me his wicket.

That's how it was for six or seven years. But then the captaincy changed and the pattern was broken. Near the end of my career I was utilised as a containing option, which I thought was wrong, and I felt hard done by. Injuries played their part too.

Just like a PhD candidate adopts and pursues one specific topic, so did I. I was always an attacking offspinner and tried to go as much in depth as I could. I didn't try to meddle with that pattern too much as I would have ended up being a jack of all trades and a master of none.

The wicket-taking mentality was set from a very young age. I credit my childhood coach - may he live a long life - for that. I remember after each net session he would ask me, "How many wickets did you take today?" And I would tell him, and he would encourage me to improve on it day to day. He told me to keep a diary, to keep a record of all the wickets I took in the nets, and as the days, months, years passed that diary filled up with thousands of wickets. I still have it lying in Lahore.

The relationship between a coach and player is like the one between the body and the soul. The coach is the soul and the player is the body. If a coach doesn't know what lies in a player's mind and heart, how much courage the player possesses, how much passion he has for the game, he can't coach the player properly. Telling a player to adjust his footwork is not coaching. Understanding the player inside-out is. The coach is a mentor, a director, a filter - he needs to filter out the negative thoughts that often besiege a player - a creator and technician. He has to be attuned to the player like his shadow.

Do you see enough attacking spinners these days?
These days a spinner doesn't even have to attack. The batsmen attack and get themselves out. They don't have the mental capacity to stay at the crease long enough and play you out.

I wanted to ask you about two specific instances. There was Hrishikesh Kanitkar in Dhaka, and Rajesh Chauhan in Karachi - both struck winning runs off you in tight finishes. What did you think at the time? What do you think when you look back?
At the time, obviously, I felt disheartened. But my outlook was always positive. I used to think that if I could successfully defend seven or eight runs in the final over, my rewards would multiply. If we lost in these situations, then there wasn't that much I would lose, since the situations were such. I always thought of it from a business point of view - if you add 100 to 100, you get 200; if you multiply 100 to 100, you get 10,000. I would think that if we lost today, I wouldn't lose that much. Of course, losing would upset me. It's not that it didn't make me sad.

From the beginning I was a thinking player. My friends were all invariably older than I was. Even today I always tell young players that they should try to keep six types of people with them at all times.

Who are these six types of people? What are these six qualities that people should possess? The first quality is honesty. The second is trustworthiness. The third is discernment or intelligence. The fourth is experience. The fifth is devotion. And the sixth is worldliness. One should always have people with these six qualities, so that whenever there is any problem, one can talk to them and learn a lot from them.

I didn't have too many worldly people around me, since I wasn't from a prominent family. I felt uncomfortable around worldly people. I was a simple guy. There were experienced people in the team. I would sit with them and learn. I had discerning people in my life, like my father, my grandfather, my brother. They were always honest too. Whatever they said was said with honesty. My friends from the club and college were also experienced, honest and devout. They were God-fearing people, not egotists.

"Telling a player to adjust his footwork is not coaching. Understanding the player inside-out is"

Whenever I was having a difficult time they would explain to me that this is God's will and things won't always happen according to my will. We didn't come into this world by our will, and we won't leave by our will. We cannot expect things to happen for us according to our will in life when the beginning and the end do not happen according to our will. If our wish is granted from time to time then we ought to be grateful that He fulfilled one of our wishes.

You have been very philosophical, very religious. Was this how it was during your playing days? Were you as philosophical?
It was exactly like this even then. When I coach children in England nowadays, my homework to them is that they must respect their parents more than anything else. I always tell my students that having the love of the whole world on one side will be less than having even a little bit of the love of one's parents.

When my father found out that I was crazy about cricket and that I used to sneak away from the house at night - climbing down the pipes of a three-storey house and play cricket on the street, in the cemetery, in the cinema, and then climbing the pipe back up to the roof and sleeping, and then waking up in the morning and go play more cricket - he decided that if I liked to play cricket, I would play it properly. He had me join a club. He used to wake me up before the sun rose. I didn't like to wake up early. He would make me go running.

He would make me eat well - even things I did not like very much. I didn't like milk, yoghurt and fruit. I always thought I'd eat mutton or chicken and get strength from that, rather than by eating everything in a balanced way. I didn't know any better. My father made me do things that I didn't want to do. I had to listen to him. Then I got into a routine in the morning. I would sleep early at night, work hard all day. My father had big dreams for me.

I was spiritual before too. My lifestyle was such that it was not visible, but I was spiritual. Everybody is spiritual. West Indians are very spiritual too. They pray all the time. Indians are spiritual. I talk a lot to Harbhajan Singh. He's very spiritual. He talks a lot about these things. I've talked to Sachin. He's spiritual as well.

Was there a specific time when you felt you had to change your lifestyle?
My father passed away in 1999, after I got married. For a year or two after marriage, life went on. Then in 2003 I felt I needed somebody and I didn't have anybody. I was married but was away in England. I got injured. I was depressed. I wasn't playing cricket, I was sidelined for eight months, spending time in hospitals, getting injections, having fluid removed. I couldn't run and I couldn't play.

At that time I needed somebody. I think England was the wrong place for me at the time. If I had been in Pakistan, I would have had my family and friends to take care of me. Maybe my international career would have developed even further. I suppose I took a number of decisions that were wrong. One shouldn't take decisions on one's own. One should consult people who are close.

When I coach youngsters I always advise them to consult others. One's own thoughts can sometimes lead one astray. That's why from the coaching point of view we say that one should always declare at the outset what one is trying to achieve. Competitive cricket puts you in many situations that are bruising to your self-belief and confidence.

What was your preparation and thinking like? Bowling is an art. How did you set up a batsman?
It depends on the situation. There are different types of excitement associated with getting a wicket. First, there is the case in which the bowler has set a field and is bowling to get a batsman out through the gate or at slip. The bowler tries to build up pressure for this kind of dismissal. He keeps bowling a length and eventually flights one ball just a little bit more. If this works, then one is at the limit of one's excitement. The bowler has built a whole picture of the dismissal, often the night before.

A second type of excitement is when the bowler executes his plan and his field setting well, and the batsman doesn't get out according to plan but gets out somewhere else. The dismissal occurs in some other place that is related to the plan, but not the ambition of the plan. This is not as exciting as the first case.

A third type of excitement is when the wicket is taken in a way that is not related at all to the bowler's plan. This is bewildering.

A fourth type of excitement is when a batsman plays a shot with his head high, trying to release pressure. The bowler knows that the batsman has done something stupid.

If you keep thinking about these things you'll learn about the thinking process for working out plans against batsmen. For this, one needs the support of one's team-mates and one's captain. Without this support doubts creep in when the plan doesn't work and then you start bowling only to avoid getting hit. From a coaching point of view, I always tell my players that before you think of getting the batsman out, get your own captain out.

Saqlain and Co celebrate the wicket of Steve Waugh during the Hobart Test in 1999

Saqlain and Co celebrate the wicket of Steve Waugh during the Hobart Test in 1999 © Getty Images

Imagine you have the ball. You have eight runs to defend in the last over of an ODI. There are two set batsmen in the middle. How do you make a plan?
I remember one big occasion. It was a match at Lord's. England needed nine runs to win. [Marcus] Trescothick was batting with a century and England were eight down. I had bowled eight overs and done badly. I had a knee injury and I just couldn't get into any sort of rhythm. I was not asked to bowl after that and I thought I wouldn't be asked to bowl again. But Waqar [Younis] bhai asked me if I would bowl the last over. I said, of course. I had to do it.

Once I committed, I kept telling myself that what has to happen will happen. I had to try my best. Trescothick used to plant his foot and hit sixes to midwicket. The boundary was also a short one. I thought Trescothick would go for it if I gave the ball some flight. Why not try to get him caught when he tried this? Instead of spinning it from middle stump, I would bowl it from a bit wider on the crease, a little bit wider of off stump, give it some air, but spin it hard. I tried this [with the second ball] and it was called a wide. Trescothick planted his foot and shaped to slog-sweep, but it was wide. He took the wide.

I began to have doubts. Someone else also raised doubts. I ignored it. I told myself to not listen to anybody else, just to listen to one's heart. One has to listen to that inner voice. That inner voice is not trivial, it is the work of God.

When I visualised what had happened during that wide I bowled to Trescothick, I realised that he had gotten into position to slog- sweep. I thought to myself that he would go for it again. I told myself that I should come in just a bit closer to the stumps and try it again. As I was about to bowl the ball, I knew that he was going to try it again. He went for the slog sweep, it went up in the air, Shahid Afridi took the catch, and God brought me honour that day.

We won that match by two runs.

Subash Jayaraman hosts the Couch Talk podcast on ESPNcricinfo