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Meet cricket's most unlikely partnership - an earthy Pakistani who moulded the world's best bowler for England.
July 1996: It was a muggy July afternoon at Lord's with Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart looking well settled at the crease. Day Five of the first Test against the visiting Pakistan side and all England needed to do was to bat out the day. Before lunch it seemed they were well on course to save the Test. But it all turned around in a matter of minutes as 'Little Mushy' (as the British commentators used to call Pakistan's leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed) came in to bowl. He had Atherton and Stewart in quick succession, claimed five for 57, and England were done and dusted well ahead of time.
August 2010: Little Mushy is a portlier, greying man now, his beard adding years to his age. Sitting at the pavilion in Birmingham as England take on Pakistan, he has changed sides. Now the England spinning coach, his ward is a certain Graeme Swann who is making the Pakistan batsmen dance to his tune. The offie runs through Pakistan, finishing with six for 65 that earns him the Man of the Match award and England a commanding lead in the series.
That Birmingham Test, virtually signalling a turnaround in spinning fortunes, could serve as the beginning of a partnership that has today helped England go on to become the World No 1 team in Test cricket. Swann himself has proven a resounding success and under his mentor Mushtaq, the off-spinner is the world's leading bowler at the moment - ranked No 1 in the One-dayers and No 3 in Tests.
But this wasn't exactly a likely partnership. While Swann grew up playing most of his cricket in Northamptonshire and was a late bloomer coming up the hard way, Mushy was the typical precocious Pakistan youngster growing up from the street cricket of Sahiwal in the Punjab province. The Pakistan leggie made his mark straightaway and was a spent force on the international circuit by the time he was in his late 20s - but curiously, went on to find second wind as a match-winning bowler on the English county circuit, shining for Sussex and Somerset. Swann, on the other hand, was an also-ran in the initial phases of his career and only came into his own when he was almost 30.
Despite their dissimilarities, Mushtaq and Swann have formed a brilliant combination for England and such has been the domination that when fixing clouds loomed over the Pakistani, his new team management stuck with him. "He's a cricket coach - that's what he is - and we're very comfortable working with Mushy. He's a lovely man, good for our system and I'm quite happy with that, " chief coach Andy Flower had thrown in his weight during those tumultuous days.
The shrewd Zimbabwean had his reasons. Flower knew that Swann was work in progress and there was no one better than Mushtaq to guide him towards the desired goal. Mushtaq had played a lot of cricket in the county circuit, being the No. 1 bowler quite a few seasons in the 2000s playing for Sussex. He is familiar with how the English spinners operate and was the right man to add the extra bit in Swann's bowling.
"Swanny has changed everything in the last year or so, " Mushtaq said in an interview recently. "He's singlehandedly won a lot of games for England in all different conditions, and played a brilliant role for the art of fingerspin. One thing is for sure, not many off-spinners have the potential he has, " Mushtaq added.
Former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh, who played a major role in India's 1986 series win against England, too feels that it's the attacking instincts of Swann that set him apart. "He always loves to bowl with a silly-point and a forward short-leg and looks to take wickets rather than restricting runs. This is typical of quality spinners in the subcontinent, " says Maninder.
He feels that even though Swann had that attacking instinct in him, Mushtaq "must have played a major role". "Mushtaq was a champion bowler himself and knows all about bowling in England...It's easier to work with an attacking bowler like Swann, but I am sure he has played a big role in the bowler's evolution, " he adds.
Mushtaq himself was a wristspinner and had it not been for a fingerspinner, he would probably have 200 more international wickets. But towards the latter half of the 1990s, as Saqlain Mushtaq burst on to the scene with his version of doosras, Mushtaq, himself with a devastating googly in his repertoire, slowly started to lose his position in the Pakistan ranks.
Saqlain swiftly became synonymous with the doosra, and Mushtaq knows the importance of having variations like that to be successful consistently on the international circuit. But the best thing about him is that he doesn't tweak around too much with the natural abilities of Swann.
The England man doesn't have a doosra, he bowls the drifter which goes the other way in the air. "He's a big spinner with a huge drift. And he makes the ball dip too. The ball he bowled Ricky Ponting with at Edgbaston (Ashes, 2010) really showed how good he is, " Mushtaq was all praise for Swann in the interview.
The Pakistani understands fully well that at the age of 32, it's difficult to add a completely new delivery, but maintains the mystery about Swann, that is so important for a spinner. "You will see something very soon . . . He is developing something. He's learning something. He's working at it in the nets, " said Mushtaq, adding to Swann's mystique.
Maninder, though, makes it clear that the doosra is something that Swann will never be able to acquire. "To bowl the doosra, you need a more open-chested action, which Swann doesn't have. Mushtaq, too, understands that well, but if he has said that the offie is working on it, it's only to make the opposition wary, " points out Maninder, putting things in perspective.
For a spinner's coach, it's also a lot about understanding the mind of his ward and Mushtaq has done that wonderfully. He has a say in the type of fields that the No. 1 spinner in the world should get so that he can make full use of his attacking instincts.
"We have to be clever with Swanny. He is always trying to get people out. We can always have an in-out field. We should not try to change his nature or his attitude, just try to be a bit clever with his field positions, to protect him, " Mushtaq said.
Test captain Andrew Strauss has listened to the Pakistani in one series after another and has reaped the harvest. With England opting for different captains for different formats with a view to the future, it's to be seen whether other England captains too, take the cue from the wise old Mushy and help Swann go on to become England's greatest spinner ever.
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