Cricket: Conjuror of the magical ball

David Llewellyn finds an old art is in good hands with Saqlain Mushtaq
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The Independent Online
Some are calling it the magic ball, others refer to it as the floater. But everyone agrees that Saqlain Mushtaq, the young Pakistani off-spinner who is having a mesmerising impact at Surrey, has a mystery ball. They also agree that it is impossible to read.

The 20-year-old's new county captain, Adam Hollioake, has been dramatically impressed since his arrival just three weeks ago. "The guy is awesome. Waqar Younis told me that if Saqlain is not the best off- spinner in the world then he doesn't know who is.

"I have faced him in the nets a few times now and I've still got no idea what the ball is going to do. He puts so much spin on the ball generally that you can actually hear it fizzing on its way down the wicket. He has an infinite variety of spin but he also has a very sharp quicker ball.

"But the big thing is that he turns it both ways - with an off-spin action. That is something I have never come across before. The ball that turns the other way is just unreadable."

The man himself is certainly not about to help people unravel the mystery. All he will admit, with a smile, is that the ball does turn the "wrong" way, from leg to off. It is continuing to fox his Surrey team-mates even after several intensive net sessions in his first three weeks as the county's overseas player.

Another England international, the explosive batsman Alistair Brown, endorsed Hollioake's assessment. "I haven't seen an off-spinner put as many revs on the ball. You can hear it coming. He has good variety, and he has an excellent loop plus he can bowl the ball at pace.

"For the batsman facing him it is not simply a matter of wondering whether it will turn a little or a lot, it is a case of will it turn the other way? I want to use my feet, but if you do go down the wicket you can be left looking very silly.

"His mystery ball is very disconcerting. There is no difference to his action, but when you are half way through your shot you realise it's going the other way. It's very disturbing."

Saqlain is happy to foster and even promote the mystique. He does not have a name for the delivery, he lets others label it. Thus are legends formed. He simply refers to it as his wicket-taking ball. "It was something I developed about four years ago," he said. "I have been practising the mystery ball and trying to perfect it ever since. But I have maybe five or six different deliveries in all."

Saqlain is also the holder of a startling record. He is the fastest bowler to 100 wickets in one-day international cricket, a feat which convention wisdom would have expected to fall to a fast bowler. And his exploits on the international front do not stop at his bowling. He shared in a world Test record eighth-wicket partnership of 313 with Wasim Akram (257 not out) when making his highest first-class score of 79 against Zimbabwe at Sheikhupura last winter.

His precocious rise owes as much to hard work and effort as it does to his obvious talent. He practises all his deliveries, every day, when he does not have a match. And he is forever studying batsmen, analysing their technique, looking for the flaws in their defences, isolating their preferred shots and picking out their weaknesses. Such dedication is bound to bring rewards, but it also brings something else - control. In Saqlain's case he takes that into another dimension.

"The ball is my remote control," he said, "making the batsmen do what I want them to do." Chilling words from a remarkable bowler.