Since May 24, 2009, Saeed Ajmal has bowled 18,310 deliveries across all international matches for Pakistan. That does not include how much he has bowled in domestic matches, in various leagues across the world. At the international level only James Anderson (18,759) has bowled more in the same period.
Since May 2011, when Ajmal really established himself as an all-format player for Pakistan, nobody has bowled more than his 13,346 deliveries.
May 24, 2009 is not an arbitrary date. That was the day Ajmal was cleared by the ICC of having a suspect action, having been reported by umpires after the second ODI against Australia in Dubai a month before.
It is that figure of 18,310 on either side of which lie the keys to his clearance then and his suspension now, after being called again by umpires last month.. That is a monstrous workload for one bowler and Pakistan’s reliance on him has been burdensome to the point of breaking him.
Ajmal bowls around 50 overs a Test, making up about 30% of all overs Pakistan bowl in a match. Spiritually he has been their bowling leader, arguably the first spinner to be the main man in a Pakistan attack for a prolonged period. He is the one they turn to for wickets, for slowing down run rates, for calming the nerves of a side and country.
It goes to his unending credit that he bore that burden in the manner that he has, smiling, uncomplaining and successful. But here is the point. Under such strains, actions – which are not always the same every single ball anyway – can change.
They can deteriorate. Will the body deliver with the same forces and positions as it did five years ago, having undergone such an intense amount of work in the interim?
In Ajmal’s case, it has emerged that it cannot. One version of the conclusions from his recent testing say his action has changed significantly since the last time he was tested; in particular his bowling arm was more bent, or flexed, at the elbow joint with the arm in a horizontal position as he prepares to bring it over his shoulder than in 2009.
Naturally then, when it then straightens upon release, it does so to a greater angle than before and vitally, a greater angle than the 15 degrees permitted. The bottom line is that the action is significantly different and so too the results of the testing process.
Are the testing procedures much different to what they were last time? Especially now as the ICC and the laboratory in Perth that used to be the main testing centre – and where Ajmal was tested in 2009 – no longer have a working relationship?
There are little differences according to the ICC but not, they insist, to a degree that would be the difference in this case between his action being cleared or not. Ajmal has not marginally gone over the accepted limits; in all his different types of deliveries, he has transgressed significantly enough for minimal differences in testing procedures to not matter.
It is important to look at this as dryly as possible, without emotion. There is a law, and science has apparently proved that Ajmal’s action breaches that law. It does not say Ajmal is a cheat or a villain. He is someone simply bowling with his body and muscle memory wired the way it is.
The ICC is not ostensibly carrying out the kind of moral crusade it was years ago, or its umpires have in the recent past. Or if it is, it is at least couching it within science and legalities. This is a law that has not been enforced well recently and now it is being enforced better. It is a bureaucratic clampdown: break the law, be sanctioned. It is not so specifically an ideological purge: cheat, be banished forever like a leper.
It is also never a bad time to argue about that law. Given how keenly it now employs biomechanics in this regard, is it not imperative for cricket to find out more about how much help a kinked action gives to bowling generally and a doosra specifically?
Are we sure the doosra can only be bowled by flexing beyond accepted limits? How about we address the real root of the problem? That the game is so heavily loaded in favour of batsman it has become deeply imbalanced.
It is at that level that this stings the most. One of the world’s most dangerous and watchable bowlers over the last five years, one who has sought to level that imbalance, may not bowl again internationally. Feast on, batsmen.
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