Magic of Mushtaq mark II

As one young spinner waits to confirm his promise, another is poised to prove the future is in his hands
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The Independent Online
It did not need Mushtaq Ahmed to take Warwickshire's batsmen apart last week for the England team to be aware of what trouble could be in store for them when the little Pakistani leg-spinner starts bouncing towards the bowling crease.

But from England's point of view, what is even more worrying - not to say galling - is that Pakistan have another slow bowler in their party who is already being spoken of in revered tones - the 19-year-old off- spinner Saqlain Mushtaq.

With most talented young sportsmen, senior men are reluctant to offer excessive praise. On the one hand, it might go their heads; on the other, it might put them under too much pressure. But in Saqlain's case, there is no holding back.

"I think he's as good as Mushtaq," Ijaz Ahmed, Saqlain's more experienced team-mate, says. "He's the best off-spinner in the world," Wasim Akram, the Pakistan captain, says. Zaheer Abbas, the former Pakistan captain, goes even further than either. "I've played against some of the greatest ever off-spin bowlers - Fred Titmus, Ashley Mallett, Lance Gibbs," he says. "I think Saqlain can be better than all of them."

A softly spoken, rather dreamy young man, Saqlain grew up in Lahore, where he played street cricket before graduating to the dry, turning wickets of his local club. Off-spin bowling, he explained in the nets at Edgbaston last week, came quite naturally to him. "Nobody told me what to do."

When Saqlain was 17 he joined a group of about 100 young players given a trial by PIA (Pakistan International Airlines), which runs one of the country's leading first-class teams. Zaheer is now the general manager of the PIA sports department.

"The way we tend to recruit is if we have a player from the first team who may be nearing retirement we go out and look for a younger replacement," he said from Karachi last week. "On this occasion we were looking for players to make up a PIA under-19 team. I remember Saqlain very well. I had only seen him bowl two balls when I knew we had to have him."

PIA were quickly rewarded. In Saqlain's first season in first-class cricket, in 1994-95, he took 54 wickets in 13 matches. Then, last winter, he made his Test debut against Sri Lanka before playing in two of Pakistan's three Tests in Australia.

Other bowlers have made more spectacular starts in Test cricket; few have begun by claiming such prized scalps. The four Australian wickets Saqlain took were those of David Boon, Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor (twice).

"He's very accurate," Zaheer said. "And what really impresses me is that he thinks about where to bowl and what the conditions are like." A slender 5ft 10in, Saqlain is a big turner of the ball, but, according to both Zaheer and Ijaz, it's his arm ball that is his most dangerous weapon. "It's very difficult to read," Ijaz said. "The action is basically the same as for his conventional ball. That's how he gets a lot of his wickets, through batsmen trying to hit his arm-ball to leg."

Whether Saqlain makes it into the Test team here is another matter. But his emergence suggests that Pakistan are acquiring the spin tradition that, in terms of the sub-continent, had always been more India's preserve.