Cricket: Saqlain casts a spell on Sussex

Sussex v Surrey
Click to follow
IN A career that began in 1994, the 22-year-old Saqlain Mushtaq has already taken five hat-tricks, two of them this season - against Zimbabwe in the World Cup and against Sussex yesterday.

He is in his fifth Championship game of the summer for Surrey, and so far has taken 40 wickets at 9.3 runs a piece, one every 26 balls. Muttiah Muralitharan's 66 famous wickets for Lancashire this season arrived one every 35 balls, at a cost of 11.7.

Statistics may often lie, but not these. Saqlain is a spinner of quite exceptional guile and penetration, and the Sussex batsmen found him as unreadable as Marcel Proust. According to Surrey's coach, Keith Medlycott, only two players - Sussex's own Chris Adams last year, and the spinner's most feared opponent Carl Hooper - have dared to take him on in county cricket. The rest just prod in a baffled sort of way.

Saqlain is classed as an off-spinner, yet six of his seven Sussex victims fell to the leg break. "On this wicket it seemed more dangerous than the offie", he said. "It skidded past the bat." And this was the wicket, green and lush, that had been prepared to blunt his skills.

Saqlain finished with seven wickets for 19. Two of these had been notched up on Thursday night, but he painted his masterpiece yesterday morning - six overs, three of them maidens, five wickets at a cost of six runs.

Adams was not one of them. Martin Bicknell was also hard at work pumping down the hill, and he persuaded the Sussex captain to glove a rising ball to slip. Adams and Toby Peirce had seen Sussex to a respectable 99 for 2 on Thursday night in reply to Surrey's 224, and the removal of Adams set the stage for the rout. As he faced his final ball his team were 103 for 2. They were soon all out for 115, less than an hour into the day.

Think of the great, charismatic spinners and an exaggerated action usually comes to mind - Mushtaq Ahmed's windmill whirl Shane Warne's insolent, fat-boy flip, Muralitharan's fused elbow and double-jointed wrist, rotating like an owl's neck. Saqlain has none of these. He looks to be the most innocent of twirly men, a gentle canter to the wicket, a sober arch of the arm, just a little muscular stress at the point of release. But 18 yards away there is greater stress. A thrust of pad, a tentative push of the bat, another wrong guess, another wicket.

When Mark Robinson, the king of No 11's, prevented Saqlain from taking four in four with a squirted single, it was his 500th first-class run. This has taken him 201 games. And when he bowled Adam Hollioke later in the day, he also secured his 500th wicket. But the Surrey captain could grin and bear it with the visitors piling up the lead, he quietly planned his declaration.