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exclusive interviews
"I'm Confident that Pakistan can defeat India at the Champions Trophy" : Saeed Ajmal

In an exclusive interview with Ajmal provides his opinion on the preparations for the Champions Trophy, the goals achieved during the camp in Abbottabad, speaks about Misbah-ul-Haq's captaincy, the IPL, provides an update on his academy in his home town Faisalabad and much more.

By Saj Sadiq (14th May, 2013)

Hailing from Faisalabad in Pakistan, 35 year old Saeed Ajmal could be classed a late bloomer as far as his international career is concerned. Debuting at the age of 30 in 2009 in an ODI game against India in Karachi, Ajmal has made progress in leaps and bounds. Picking up 125 wickets in ODIs at an average of 27.6 and 71 wickets at 16.59 in T20Is, he is ranked the world’s top ODI bowler and only recently has dropped to second position in the T20I bowling rankings. In the Test arena, with 133 wickets to his name, he is ranked number four on the back of some superlative performances since making his Test debut.

With a wealth of big match experience behind him, Ajmal is one of the most popular cricketers in the world. He's expected to play a key role in Pakistan’s Champions Trophy campaign this summer and will undoubtedly be a bowler that opposition batsmen will be thoroughly tested by.

In an exclusive interview with Ajmal provides his opinion on the preparations for the Champions Trophy, the goals achieved during the camp in Abbottabad, speaks about Misbah-ul-Haq's captaincy, the IPL, provides an update on his academy in his home town Faisalabad and much more. Saeed, tell us about the recent training camp in Abbottabad. Do you think it was a good idea to hold the camp there ahead of the tour of the United Kingdom?

Saeed Ajmal: Yes I think it was an excellent and really innovative idea from the Pakistan Cricket Board and the coaching staff. The camp was very enjoyable and very well organised, it was hard work but the weather was great, around 14-15 degrees Celsius dring the day and not as hot and humid as other parts of the country at this time of the year.

The wickets in Abbottabad were very conducive to seam bowling and our batsmen got a flavour of what they can expect in England during the Champions Trophy, which will undoubtedly be beneficial to them. The wickets were prepared to replicate English conditions and that was achieved, so yes all in all it was very good preparation. Just to warn you, the temperatures aren’t great at the moment in the United Kingdom and it may be a bit cooler than Abbottabad in Scotland.

Saeed Ajmal: Yes I've heard from friends that it's no so warm. That’s ok I’ve packed my two favourite leather jackets that I usually bring with me on tours of the UK. I just hope temperatures rise, otherwise I may have to ask for special dispensation from the ICC to play in one of the leather jackets. The planning at the camp seemed very meticulous ahead of the Champions Trophy. Did it focus on some key areas?

Saeed Ajmal: Absolutely, there were no grey areas. The players knew exactly what was expected of them on a daily basis. There were some key and important areas that the coaching staff wanted to focus upon and all in all I think it was a success. In addition having Wasim Akram and Javed Miandad in attendance in Abbottabad was a huge boost for the players and I’m sure all of the players in attendance at the camp are very grateful to Wasim and Javed for their time. You were one of several players recently told by the Pakistan Cricket Board to lose some weight. Was the target weight achieved and easy to accomplish or did you find it difficult?

Saeed Ajmal: Well I was given a training and dietary plan by the PCB which I’ve had to follow. Generally it was OK, but I had to stop the parathas and eating the sweetmeats which was the toughest part of the routine. I love my parathas and sweetmeats, but as a professional sportsman you have to make some sacrifices sometimes. You’re telling me that you’ve not had a single paratha or piece of sweetmeat since you were given the training plan by the PCB? Surely you must have had a sneaky one?

Saeed Ajmal: (laughs) No, absolutely none. I’ve had a sort of recurring reminder in my brain saying “No Parathas or Sweetmeat” every time I get tempted. Moving away from culinary delights to the new one day rules. How have recent changes in the one day rules regarding the number of fielders allowed in the circle affected your approach and your bowling?

Saeed Ajmal: The rule changes have made life even tougher for spinners in one day cricket. As if bowling in limited overs cricket wasn’t hard enough for a spin bowler. By having to have the extra fielder in the circle for non power play overs means that batsmen can free their arms and take on a spinner with an even more carefree approach knowing that there’s less chance of them getting caught in the deep.

Fast bowlers have been given the luxury of being allowed to bowl two bouncers in an over in one day cricket, but the rule changes have definitely made life tougher for spinners.

I find myself having to really think hard about my approach to bowling these days in the one day format, especially against those batsmen who are ready to use their feet to me. The rule changes have undoubtedly had an effect on my approach to bowling in the fifty over format as it probably has for other spinners around the world. Critics of Misbah ul Haq say that he is not using you as an attacking option or bowling you at the right times. Do you think that is a fair criticism of Misbah?

Saeed Ajmal: No I disagree with that assessment. Misbah’s an excellent captain and not a defensive captain. We’ve played a lot of cricket together over the years and he knows how to utilise my bowling and when to bowl me. You cannot be a defensive captain when you have won as many matches as Misbah has as skipper and also his win/loss ratio is almost as good as any other Pakistani captain over the years. Whether I am picking up wickets, or any of the other bowlers are is irrelevant, what’s more important is that the team is performing well and winning.

Misbah is one of cricket’s great thinkers. Even away from the field he analyses the team’s performance, individual performances and is constantly thinking of ways to get the best out of all the players. I think it’s unfair and harsh to say that he’s not utilising me properly in one day cricket. You’ve been the bowling mainstay for Pakistan of late and it must be heartening for you to see two excellent bowlers in Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan supporting you in the bowling attack now?

Saeed Ajmal: Absolutely, it’s fantastic to see Irfan and Junaid in the Pakistan line up and more importantly both bowling so well of late. We are blessed in Pakistan, our fast bowling resources never run dry. Sooner or later, from somewhere and somehow we will always manage to produce fast bowling talent.

Irfan and Junaid will be our strike bowlers at the Champions Trophy, both are fantastic talents and match winners and whilst Umar Gul’s absence will be felt in the team, I’m certain we can overcome the loss of Umar (Gul) because of injury, particularly with Irfan and Junaid looking so dangerous and in such great form.

Wasim (Akram) has really paid some close attention to both Junaid and Irfan and has put in a lot of effort with them both lately at the camps and I’m very confident that God willing both of these boys will perform very well at the Champions Trophy. There are still some critics of yours who say that your bowling action is illegal. What is your message for those individuals?

Saeed Ajmal: I don’t really take any notice of those individuals. I prefer to focus on my own game, perform to the best of my ability and to give my all for my country. I’m honoured and humbled that I have been given the privilege of playing cricket for Pakistan, an honour that is bestowed only to a minority of the population and rather than worrying about a few people that criticise I’d rather think about the millions of people around the world who appreciate my bowling.

Critics never left Muttiah Muralitharan alone throughout his career, despite him taking hundreds and hundreds of wickets all over the world in every format. Those critics never left that poor guy alone, so now they have to have somebody else to turn their attentions to. You made your Test debut at the age of thirty one and since then you’ve picked up wickets at regular intervals and against all opponents. There must be that nagging thought in the back of your mind about how many wickets you could have taken if you had made your Test debut at the age of twenty one instead of thirty one?

Saeed Ajmal: It was my destiny to debut in Test cricket at the age of thirty one and not twenty one. It was the Almighty’s wish that I would play Test cricket when I did and nobody could have done anything about it. I don’t think about what could have been, instead I look at the present and what I can do to make my country the number one team in all formats.

The way I look at it, who knows maybe if I had my Test debut at the age of twenty one, I might not have played as many Test matches as I have and not taken as many wickets as I have. I’ve got no axes to grind regarding when I was picked and at what age. The Pakistan team is returning to England for the first time since the infamous tour of 2010. Do you feel there is an additional responsibility on this group of players after the events of 2010?

Saeed Ajmal: That was a dark episode in Pakistan cricket, a chapter that we have all moved on from. Our attention as individuals and as a group is to focus on 2013, the matches against Scotland, Ireland and the Champions Trophy and not to look back at what happened in 2010.

Pakistan cricket and it’s cricketers has rebuilt its reputation after 2010, through the efforts of the Pakistan Cricket Board, players, staff and the team management and whilst lessons were learnt from that tour, we are looking forward rather than looking back at the events of three years ago. We as a group have a responsibility to ensure we are good ambassadors for Pakistan wherever we play, not just in England. You recently stated that you were looking forward to the challenge of bowling at Chris Gayle. Another West Indian Sunil Narine must have also impressed you in the shorter formats?

Saeed Ajmal: Yes undoubtedly Sunil is a world class spinner in the shorter formats and he’s a bowler I enjoy watching. It’s always pleasing for the “spinners union” to see a young man making his name in the game and he’s really impressed me with his variety and control.

The challenge for Sunil will be to continue to make life difficult for the batsmen and for them to continue to struggle to read his varieties. With batsmen and analysts around the world always trying to work out your varieties and with all of the technology available these days, it’s not easy to disguise your bowling variations. But a subtle change here and there can more often than not confuse the opposition batsmen and the analysts. Is there a tinge of sadness that you and your Pakistani colleagues are not being presented with the opportunity to play in the ongoing Indian Premier League?

Saeed Ajmal: No there’s no hard feelings. It’s not as if we are being stopped from playing cricket everywhere around the world. Whether Pakistani cricketers are allowed to play in the IPL is a matter for those that organise the tournament and not for the cricketers. If the organisers invite us to play in the future, we will play, but if they don’t invite us then good luck to them. Of course I’d like to play in the IPL, but it’s a decision that’s out of my hands at the moment. We’ve seen various innovations in the art of off spin over the years, but do you think off spin bowling has now reached a point where no further innovations can be added?

Saeed Ajmal: I don’t think any more innovations can be made in future. We have the conventional off break, the Doosra, the Teesra, the straighter one and the quicker one. I can’t think of any other varieties an off break bowler can add in future. I cannot really see any new deliveries being bowled by an off spinner.

You always try different variations with the coaches in practice and in the nets but the truth is that I cannot foresee any new deliveries from any off spinner. June 15th sees Pakistan face arch rivals India at Birmingham. Give us your thoughts on that particular match and also the fact that India will be without Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Sachin Tendulkar?

Saeed Ajmal: It’s always a fantastic occasion playing against India. The atmosphere wherever we play is always electric and I’m sure the fans lucky enough to be at Edgbaston and all those watching the telecast around the world will not be disappointed by this match. It’s like a mini-final within the tournament.

Both sides are very strong and at the end of the day, the team that handles the pressure will be victorious. We have the psychological advantage having defeated India in their own back yard in the one day series and I’m confident that we can defeat them in Birmingham.

As for some of the Indian big names not playing in the match in Birmingham, players come and go. Big names are replaced by lesser known players who then turn into big names and then they get replaced. The cycle of cricket goes on, no cricketer lasts forever and no cricketer has a God-given right to be picked again and again. If a player is out of form or struggling for form then it’s only right that they are replaced by a player who is in form. We’re seeing some cricketers around the world retiring from one or two formats to prolong their careers. Is this something you’ve contemplated?

Saeed Ajmal: Retiring from any format is not something that I’ve even considered. I just want to be out there on the field playing for my country for as long as I can and giving my all for Pakistan. Fitness plays a key part in such decisions and I’ve been very lucky with injuries and I hope that continues. As long as I stay fit, as long as I’m taking wickets, as long as I’m not a burden on the team, then I will look to play in all formats for Pakistan. There seems to be a shortage of young talented spinners in Pakistan at the moment. Other than Raza Hasan one cannot think of too many other options. Does this concern you?

Saeed Ajmal: No I don’t think it’s a concern. Pakistan has the tendency to unearth bowling talent literally overnight and we have never been short of bowling options. We’ve been pioneers when it comes to bowling talent and innovation and the stream of cricketing talent will never end. I think that spin bowling talent is there in Pakistan, it just needs to be nurtured and developed a little more than what it is at the moment. What’s the latest news on your cricket academy in Faisalabad?

Saeed Ajmal: God willing I’m hopeful that by the end of the year we’ll see the first matches being played at the academy. There’s a lot of hard work going on at the moment regarding this project and of course it’s a project that is very dear to my heart. Pakistan cricket has given me a lot, it’s given me a lot of dignity and fame and I want to give something back in return. I hope that in future matches will be played there on a regular basis and that we can start producing cricketers that are good enough for first class and international cricket. Recently we’ve had a General Election in Pakistan. By my reckoning if you had stood in the Election, given your popularity you would have been voted in as Prime Minister. Is politics something that you’ve considered as a career after cricket?

Saeed Ajmal: (laughs) No chance ! I leave politics to the politicians, I’d rather play cricket and then remain involved in cricket after I’ve stopped playing. Politics is definitely not for me. Can Pakistan win the Champions Trophy?

Saeed Ajmal: The eight top teams in the world will be competing and it’s very tough to predict who will win the tournament. I think whoever gets the right balance in their team and copes with the pressure can go on and win the Trophy. There are no weak teams in the tournament. I look at the West Indies and New Zealand and they are very balanced teams with several players who can change the course of a match in the space of a few overs.

Pakistan can go into the tournament with a lot of confidence. We have six matches ahead of our first game so that gives us plenty of time to get the team balance right and establish a settled starting eleven. We’re full of confidence, preparations have gone well and we are all looking forward to a tournament that if we play to our potential we can win.

2009 in England was fantastic when we crowned Twenty20 champions and I hope we can repeat that performance next month.