Willis turns spotlight on legality of Ajmal action
With absolute inevitability, it took about five minutes to stoke the fires of controversy yesterday. They were doused down soon enough but doubtless the flames will be reignited sometime soon. It would not be England against Pakistan otherwise.
No sooner had Saeed Ajmal produced the greatest exhibition of his Test career by taking 7 for 55 and hardly spinning a ball to boot, than his action came under scrutiny. It was not that its legitimacy was in doubt, more the regulations that permit it.
Poor Ajmal had just incited a disastrous England batting display and announced that it was the greatest performance of his life. With an array of off-spinners, doosras and sliders, almost all of which were straight but accurate, he had dismantled England's middle order. He tried his new ball, the so-called teesra, but that was innocuous for the moment. If England were being undone by this kind of spin, wait until he starts to turn it.
But a debate was begun, perhaps inadvertently, when Bob Willis, the pundit and former England captain, appeared on Sky. "Let's be honest, the only bowler that is threatening England now is Saeed Ajmal," he said. "The teesra has a round arm and that doesn't seem to be a threat but the doosra is the delivery that the batsmen are all struggling with. The authorities are now allowing these mystery spinners, unorthodox off-spinners, to bend their elbow to a degree.
"If they are going to be allowed to do that then England have to address this and decide whether we should be teaching our young spinners to bowl like that as well."
Willis was merely making the point, as he emphasised later, that England would have to join the mystery spinners' club if they wanted to compete on the subcontinent. And it would have to be taught from the cradle. But his comments were sufficient to rekindle the embers which are rarely extinguished when these two sides play.
Ajmal seemed resigned. "I am just getting on with my bowling," he said. "It's the umpires' responsibilities to see if there is anything wrong with my action." But he would not allow it to spoil his day. To the issue about whether questions about the legitimacy of his action were disappointing on such a day, he replied with a fetching smile: "No problem."
Matt Prior, the only England batsman who played with the required skill, repelled the doubts with a bat as straight as he had shown in the middle while taking his Test batting average to almost 47.
"He didn't bowl anything that we weren't prepared for or weren't expecting," he said. "He just had a good day and cricketers are allowed to do that. His action is not something we are concerned about, it's not something we talk about in the dressing room. If other people want to pick him up on it, that's up to them, but it's got nothing to do with us."
Ajmal has been reported once before, coincidentally by Billy Bowden, one of the umpires standing in this match. That was after another match in Dubai, in April 2009. Three weeks later he was cleared by the International Cricket Council's bio-mechanical expert, Bruce Elliott.
The herring was as red as the fuss over Ajmal's new mystery ball. But it could not divert attention from his marvellous performance. He took a wicket in his first over, and two in his second, by which time England were in a state of high confusion. Prior was alone. "First and foremost I went in in a position where I was almost forced to play a certain way, playing very straight and pretty watchful," he said.
"That's the way we have to look at it. I [usually] try to get on top of the bowlers. Recently we have played a lot of cricket where the ball has come on and you can score at a certain rate. This was just a reminder that subcontinental cricket is slightly more attritional and you have to play the long game. This team has been in bad positions before and we have fought our way back. We have won and saved Tests from this position.
"The day has not gone as we wanted but it's not all over." Not until the teesra man starts turning it anyway.
Timeline: How England's wickets fell
6.24am (UK time) Alastair Cook, 3 (Eng 10-1): Mohammed Hafeez outwits Cook, caught behind by Akmal attempting to cut.
7.01am Jonathan Trott, 17 (31-2): Akmal catches another, Trott taken by the keeper after trying to flick the ball down leg.
7.29am Andrew Strauss, 19 (42-3): The captain is bowled in the last ball of Ajmal's first over, attempting an extravagant pull shot.
7.32am Ian Bell, 0 (42-4): Bell is out for a duck as Ajmal deceives him to take the outside edge with a superb doosra.
7.39am Kevin Pietersen, 2 (43-5): Pakistan review an lbw off Ajmal and KP is out after first receiving a reprieve.
9.27am Eoin Morgan, 24 (82-6): Kneeling Morgan misses a pull over midwicket and is deemed in line after a review.
9.52am Stuart Broad, 8 (94-7): Ajmal grabs his fifth as Broad is given out lbw attempting a slog-sweep. A review wasted.
11.23am Graeme Swann, 34 (151-8): Helplessly deceived as Rehman bowls him with a fine delivery that hits off-stump.
11.49am Chris Tremlett, 1 (168-9): Ajmal bowls a doosra which smacks Tremlett's back leg, the umpire rightly calling him out.
12.13pm James Anderson, 12 (192 all out): A career-best haul for Ajmal as Anderson is trapped in front.
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