Simon Hughes: The mental torment of Saeed Ajmal

The threat posed by Saeed Ajmal and his spinning assistants is, when combined with a dusty, low bouncing pitch and the Decision Review System, as big as that of the conveyor belt of tall West indies fast bowlers in the 1980s.

Those 6ft 6in pacemen were more physically intimidating, of course, with the possibility of inflicting broken bones, though it is just as mentally tormenting when you are groping hopelessly at unfathomable spin as it is being forced on to your backside by a 90mph bouncer.

But the real similarity is that both types of bowling challenge the batsmen into finding new ways to make runs. The West indians consistently banged the ball in short of a length so it regularly reared up at chest height. These deliveries were not short enough to hook or pull and rarely wide enough to cut. Front foot shots were obviously out of the question.

The flick pull and the uppercut evolved, but as most of the fielders were stationed behind the wicket, they were not always successful. Run-making was very difficult. The best players – Graham Gooch, David Gower, Allan Border, Martin Crowe, Javed Miandad – found a way of scoring, with powerful cut shots for the left handers and firm clips and punches through the onside for the right handers. Patience, decisiveness and self-belief were the key and many others fell by the wayside.

Run scoring against Ajmal is equally tricky for two reasons. One – he spins the ball deceptively both ways, and two he bowls very straight with the DRS, rather than bat-pad fielders, as his closest ally. Ball hitting pads equals out. Forty per cent of England’s wickets in the first two Tests against Pakistan have fallen lbw, most of them to Ajmal.

Like playing the 1980s West indies, the scoring avenues are limited against Ajmal. Playing forward is awkward because if the spin, or the line is misread, the pad is struck and the finger is up. Playing back is maybe safer, but only if you can read his variations and change of pace. The sweep is extremely risky because of the low bounce, the cut for a right hander is virtually a no-no.

The best alternative is maybe to do what Jonathan Trott has done and maximise the depth of the crease, taking guard deep in it, playing predominantly back but looking for any opportunity to step out and drive.

Perhaps too the batsmen can regard him more as a straight-on bowler (just as they did with Anil Kumble who turned his leg break as irregularly as Ajmal spins his offie) and look to score mainly down the ground. ‘Hit the ball back where it has come from’, as coaches are fond of saying.

In the end all bowlers are the same – they hate conceding runs – and just as the West indians used to get frustrated by resourceful batsmen pinching singles and taking them on and resorted to bowling too short, so Ajmal and company will also be disturbed by batsmen coming at them and upsetting their lines and lengths. They are human too. So the key thing for batsmen is not to be intimidated.

Of course we English want the batsmen to find a solution but, taking an impartial view, the way modern spinners like Ajmal are using the DRS has evened up the contest between bat and ball after several years of run-inflation. It has forced batsmen into a rethink and reminded us that the beauty of the game of cricket is that it is always evolving.

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