Mushtaq Ahmed shows off the trophy
Chris Ison / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Good old Mushy by the sea

The oldest of the English counties had punched under its weight for over a century - until a pint-sized colossus rolled into town in 2003

Scott Oliver  |  

When Mushtaq Ahmed arrived in Hove in April 2003 to begin what turned out to be a six-year stay as Sussex's overseas pro, the county of Ted Dexter, Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, John Snow, Tony Greig, Garth Le Roux, CB Fry, KS Ranjitsinhji and KS Duleepsinhji had never won the County Championship in 112 seasons of trying. Bridesmaids seven times, including three straight years as runners-up in the 1930s, but never the bride. By the time this bounding ball of bamboozlement had departed, he'd helped good old Sussex by the sea - as the supporters' song goes - to three Championship titles and had finished as the country's leading wicket-taker for five straight seasons before injuries hastened him towards the curtains. It was, by any reckoning, a remarkable spell.

It had been four years since he'd last trod the county boards, and getting on for two since he'd played any international cricket. In August 2002 he had been drafted in by eventual champions Surrey for a couple of weeks as cover for Azhar Mahmood, and his first game for them came, ironically, at Hove, where he bowled 42 wicketless overs, although he did biff 47 from 31 balls in the second innings. "If memory serves", Sussex head coach Peter Moores says, "I don't think he even wore a Surrey sweater. I think he wore his own."

The following week Mushtaq took eight wickets against Leicestershire, whose interest was duly piqued. "James Whitaker [Leicester's director of cricket] told my agent they wanted to sign me", recalls Mushtaq, "and we even agreed all the financial details. But I believe your journey is written, and Leicester pulled out of the deal."

Sussex captain Chris Adams put in a call to the Surrey coach, Keith Medleycott. "I faced him quite a lot in the game at Hove and felt he was still a world-class bowler," Adams says.

"We'd spent a few years building a really good side - lots of good, honest, hard-working cricketers, very few egos, everyone knew their job, fit and very well drilled under Peter - a side that was almost complete, bar an 'X-factor' player. We wanted a mystery spinner. Saqlain [Mushtaq] was going back to Surrey the following year, so I asked Keith his thoughts about Mushy.

Richard Montgomerie dives for a catch off Mushtaq against Kent in 2004

Richard Montgomerie dives for a catch off Mushtaq against Kent in 2004 Rebecca Naden / © PA Photos/Getty Images

"He said he'd still got it: fabulous bowler, great skills, and, importantly for us at the time, he was great in the dressing room. His character and his energy was everything you wanted."

Mushtaq went with his agent to speak to Moores, "and within ten minutes we had sorted out the contract. I told Peter I wanted to finish my career with Sussex in county cricket. Whoever I got a contract with, I really wanted to leave a legacy there. There wasn't much other discussion."

He may have been indulging the occasional orange-flavoured alcopop as recently as the previous summer, but by 2003 a corner had been turned and Mushtaq had embraced an outlook that was both more devout and more disciplined. "I was bowling well, I was fit, I wasn't cheating myself in the off season, but I wasn't getting a chance with Pakistan. So I was very, very motivated."

Indeed, Moores remembers Mushtaq's focus at that first meeting. "He said, 'If you pick me, Mr Peter, I'll get 100 wickets in the first season.' And he did. It was like signing a top-class striker. Rather than drawing 1-1, we'd win 2-1 because Mushy would do something special."

Not that the signing was entirely straightforward. There was an impasse in a committee meeting, but Adams and Moores had a strategy. "We didn't have any money to sign him," Adams says. "The strategy was to pitch them Stuart MacGill - who was coming in at twice what Mushy wanted - and then throw in the cost, knowing there was no chance we'd get that. But then we'd say, 'Well, there is another option...'

"We nailed it. We got the committee to buy into the idea that this player was going to complete the side."

Leading spinner in the shires in the 2000s? That would be me

Leading spinner in the shires in the 2000s? That would be me John Walton / © Getty Images

Mushtaq was excited by the dressing room he walked into. Murray Goodwin was the standout batsman, ably supported by the likes of Adams, Tony Cottey and Richard Montgomerie; Matt Prior and Tim Ambrose were coming through, and would share wicketkeeping duties; and the attack featured underrated seamers Jason Lewry, allrounder Robin Martin-Jenkins, and the skiddy James Kirtley, who would win Man of the Match on Test debut later that summer. But it was Mushy who brought the magic.

Nevertheless, five games in, they had suffered three defeats - at Lord's, Edgbaston and The Oval - sandwiching home wins against Kent and Notts, for whom Kevin Pietersen smashed a brutal 166.

After that, Sussex hit a relentless winning groove: of the next nine games, they won seven and drew two. Mushtaq was on 99 wickets with two games left. At times, it was like bringing an AK-47 to a knife fight. Perhaps the most significant of these scalps was that of Warren Hegg, captain of main rivals Lancashire, caught at short leg in the penultimate over of the Hove game in mid-August to secure the points.

Lancashire won by an innings at Old Trafford - Mushtaq went wicketless - to delay the seemingly inevitable, but that only meant the long wait for what Adams called "the Holy Grail, and the reason I had chosen to go to Sussex in 1998" would be ended, fittingly, in front of the candy-striped deckchairs at Hove.

Mushtaq Ahmed's first-class bowling record for Sussex 2003-08
Season Matches B Mdns R W BB Ave 5W/I 10W/M
2003 16 5019 163 2539 103 7 for 85 24.65 10 5
2004 17 4748 164 2318 84 7 for 73 27.59 6 0
2005 16 3605 82 2139 80 6 for 44 26.73 4 1
2006 15 3743 118 2031 102 9 for 48 19.91 11 4
2007 15 4013 91 2310 90 7 for 72 25.66 8 3
2008 6 1357 32 777 19 5 for 83 40.89 1 0

Mushtaq picked up his 100th wicket of the season as Leicestershire were winkled out for 179, leaving Sussex needing to score 300 for mathematical, cork-popping certainty. It was reached with a cover-driven four by Goodwin, part of a career-best 335 not out, which sparked an impromptu mid-match pitch invasion that Leicestershire's captain Phil DeFreitas generously allowed to extend into a mid-match lap of honour.

Mushtaq had been allowed to put his feet up for Leicestershire's second innings, having bowled a colossal 836.3 Championship overs (no one else in the country sent down more than 563.5). Lewry took 8 for 106 to secure, for the understandably hungover Sussex, a tenth win from 16 games. They were indisputably the best team in the country, and Mushy was indisputably the star man, his 103-wicket haul 43 more than the next highest in the division.

Not that they were a one-man band, affirms Adams: "Of course, Mushtaq's contribution was immense, and I know many people outside our environment at Sussex would say, 'Well, you only won it because you had Mushtaq', but he'd played five years at Somerset and never got close to taking that many wickets or winning the Championship. We were obviously doing something right to get the very best out of him as a team, as a club, and as a management." Mushtaq had in fact finished top of the County Championship's wicket charts in 1993, his first year at Somerset (they finished fifth), and his total of six seasons as the competition's leading wicket-taker have been bettered by only one man: the prodigious "Tich" Freeman, the similarly diminutive Kent legspinner who led the field for eight straight years between 1928 and 1935, pocketing 1754 wickets.

Wee Mushtaq was head and shoulders the best in the land. Adams only remembers two batsmen taking him down during that period: "The first was Pietersen, who slog-swept him over the pavilion and the tennis courts at Horsham, but by far the best I saw Mushy played was by Darren Lehmann at Arundel. He did the same: slog-swept him out of the attack. Mushy was so down about not being able to make his usual impact - and this is where I'll always respect Darren Lehmann as a person as well as a cricketer. He came and told us later that he'd reached the point where he had no other options: Mushy was bowling that well, he had no choice but to gamble. It was great for Mushy to hear that from a quality player when he was feeling a bit down about things. 'This is how good you are, mate.'"

It was impossible to get the ball out of his hands, as Mushtaq happily admits: "Sometimes Chris used to say to me, 'You've got to have a rest. You've bowled 25 overs on the trot.' I said, 'No, skipper: if I'm out here fielding for somebody else, I may as well be bowling.'

Just can't wait: Sussex celebrate their 2003 title win in the middle of their last game, against Leicestershire

Just can't wait: Sussex celebrate their 2003 title win in the middle of their last game, against Leicestershire Tony Marshall / © Getty Images

"At that time I used to say: age makes you think and passion makes you young. It's part of my personality to want to bowl all the time. You don't get people out if you don't bowl!"

There may have been a little kidology in this, explains Adams. When I felt he was tired I'd go up to him and say, 'Are you okay?' He'd look at me and say, 'What do you mean?' Then the penny would drop: 'Aah...' Or I'd say, 'Have one more?' and the next over would be absolute dynamite."

Mushtaq bowled the most overs in the country in four of those first five injury-free years, the most in Division One in all five. The regularity of his marathon spells was partly due to Sussex's reluctance to play on helpful wickets, which changed his modus operandi a little.

"He'd bowl at the stumps, a little bit of legspin, variations in pace," explains Moores. "He knew who thrust their pads down, and he had this ability to make you go back when you didn't want to. We didn't need to play on scruffy pitches because he could still be very effective on pretty well any surface, and we didn't want to bring other people - lesser bowlers - into the game."

Adams wanted Mushtaq to bowl lots of overs. "Not defensively but in a way suited to English conditions: straight and with good pace. Then, given his height, if he got a high percentage of his balls pitching in line and going on to hit, he'd get a lot of wickets. If he showed them a ripping leggie or googly, that was usually enough and the straight one would often get the wickets".

Mushy was more than happy to bowl on whatever surface was served up. "Even on good pitches, you back yourself to adapt and get good players out. Having said that, you've got to be smart. I was lucky that I was an experienced bowler and I could read the pitches and the batsmen very well by that stage, controlling my pace and that sort of thing".

In his office away from home: Mushtaq surveys the scene from the balcony at Lord's

In his office away from home: Mushtaq surveys the scene from the balcony at Lord's Jon Buckle / © PA Photos

His effectiveness at international level might have been fading - in his previous 18 Tests, following a career-best 10 for 106 against West Indies in 1997, only once did he pick up more than four wickets in a match - maybe as a result of his once fabled googly being picked. That was not true domestically, says Adams.

And things were challenging for Sussex's 'keepers as well. "I used to tell them to keep watching my hands," recalls Mushtaq. "Because I had a very quick arm action, it was very difficult for them. I used to spend a lot of time just bowling at them at nets and they started to figure things out, working out which one was going to be a legbreak and which a googly from the line."

Adams underlines the difficulties Mushy presented to his glovemen: "I'd like to say, 'Yes, the 'keepers picked him', but for so many good batsmen not to pick him, inevitably the keepers were going to struggle." He laughs his way through a story from the rivalry they built with Shane Warne's feisty Hampshire side.

"One day, I'm at silly point and Mushy bowls a wrong'un at Simon Katich, who plays and misses. There's a few words between Matt Prior and Michael Yardy at short leg. Next ball he bowls a regulation legspinner; Matt goes to take a googly and the ball turns past the back of Katich's legs and away for byes. He runs a couple, gets back on strike and turns to Matt and says, 'That's karma, mate.' Anyway, next ball, Mushy bowls another googly that does him, gets him out. I remember Michael Yardy and Matt Prior accompanying Katich about 30 yards of his way to the pavilion and the word 'karma' came up quite a lot!"

For all the overs and all the deception and all wickets, Mushtaq's impact was far greater than his on-field contribution. Moores fondly remembers him in his element at a community outreach day at a school in Crawley, a town with a sizeable south Asian community nestled next to Gatwick Airport. Closer to home, he would sit on "a big leather seat in his al fresco office" on the balcony at Hove, welcoming players young and old for chats about cricket and life.

The portly ambassador: Mushy chats with Sussex fans in 2007

The portly ambassador: Mushy chats with Sussex fans in 2007 © PA Photos

Mushtaq took this pastoral role extremely seriously: "I believe that your job as overseas player is not only getting wickets and runs and performing for yourself. You've got to develop the youngsters too. I remember, on our off-days I used to spend time talking with them after practice. Or I'd invite them to my place for dinner. I taught them how to win games, how to get the most out of themselves."

"He said the youngsters were like new plants," recalls Adams. "You need to leave them out in the sunshine, not in the shade, because they'll never flourish there. And he always had a positive outlook, no matter the state of the game or whether he'd had a bad day. He had this motto, taken from The Lion King: hakuna matata. It means 'No worries.'"

Mushtaq's debut-season success with Sussex earned him a surprise international recall in late 2003 when he managed two wickets in two Tests against South Africa before being discarded once and for all.

If there was a hangover of disappointment, this would prove ultimately to Sussex's benefit, although they finished off the pace in both 2004 and 2005, winning just two of their opening ten games in both campaigns (Mushtaq failed to take a five-for before mid-August in 2005) before the more legspin-congenial late-summer conditions saw an upturn in results and perfectly respectable finishes of fifth and third.

Adams describes this lull as "the Everest effect". "We all know about the epic climb. You have between seven and ten minutes when you get to the summit to enjoy the moment before you have to get yourself down the mountain, otherwise you'll die. Then you have to get back down to base camp and start all over. We only went halfway back down the mountain in 2004 and 2005. We spent far too long up there enjoying 2003."

By the summer of 2006, Moores had moved into a job with the ECB, and his replacement, Mark Robinson, set about addressing the slow starts. With Rana Naved ul-Hasan adding potency to the attack and allrounders Yardy and Luke Wright established members of the team, Sussex won five of their first six games and led the table all summer. Mushtaq was on fire, taking 102 wickets at 19.91, including 13 wickets back to back to finish the campaign. His career-best 9 for 48 in the innings victory at Trent Bridge secured the title.

Skipper dearest: Mushtaq and Adams have a cuddle after the 2003 win

Skipper dearest: Mushtaq and Adams have a cuddle after the 2003 win © Getty Images

Sussex had become a dynasty, and that year also won the C&G Trophy, beating their mid-noughties rivals Lancashire by 15 runs in a low-scoring thriller. Mushtaq produced 10-1-19-2 to support Man of the Match James Kirtley's 5 for 27.

The 2007 Championship also culminated with Mushtaq taking 13 wickets in Sussex's final match. It was nerve-racking for them. Lancashire's dogged, season-long pursuit was given 11th-hour encouragement by Surrey's declaration to set them 489 to get in four sessions - leaving the door slightly ajar when Sussex would have preferred it triple-locked. Lancashire made 464 all out. "The longest day," sighs Adams.

By the following summer, Mushy's gargantuan appetite for bowling started to catch up with him. He had two knee operations and managed to get on the park only six times in the Championship. "I thought I still had a couple of years left in me," he says, "but a couple of times when I ran after the ball, trying hard, a couple of people in the crowd laughed because I was limping. There was no issue in my bowling, but as soon as people start laughing at your fielding, I thought, 'That's it, I'm not going to enjoy it any more now.' That was the time I thought I should quit."

And with that he was gone, leaving only his immortal numbers and the memories of a perma-smiling bearded magus who had made his way into the hearts of many lifelong Sussex supporters who thought they would never see their team win a Championship, let alone three.

In 84 appearances in the Championship, Mushtaq bowled a colossal 3707.3 overs, bagging 476 wickets at 25.26, with no fewer than 40 five-fors and ten in the match 15 times. It was time, as Adams concurs: "He went at the exact right time. He could have gone on for a year or two more, but there was nothing else for him left to do on a cricket field."

Peter Moores is in little doubt about his legacy. "When Mushtaq first signed for us, he said he wanted to become the best overseas player in Sussex history, which was a big statement when you think of some of the names that had been at the club. By the end, I think you have to say he achieved it."

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper