Mushtaq Ahmed has been around — the full, long beard is streaked generously with white strands, the face is a bit careworn. He’s been through purgatory, but he insists he is none the worse for all that.
Eighteen years have passed since he made his Test debut — and nearly four since he last played for his country — but he still has great expectations of himself. At 37, he’s clinging to the last wisps of hope, he believes he still could turn out for Pakistan one day.
But it’s in Sussex that he has found a home away from home. Sussex have won the county championship just twice — for all the names they can boast of, like Ranji, CB Fry, Duleep, Pataudi, et al! — in 2003 and 2006. Mushtaq took 103 wickets the first time, 102 last year.
Time hasn’t taken the edge off his competitiveness. Informed that Muthiah Muralitharan tops the charts among bowlers this county season, Mushtaq demands evidence, which is brought in the shape of the day’s newspaper.
He does not seem to like what he sees — he has been the top county bowler over the last five seasons. He remains competitive, very competitive. And hopeful.
“Whenever Pakistan need me -— as a coach, as an assistant coach or as a player — I will be there,” Mushtaq says.
As a player? At 37, with someone like Danish Kaneria around? “I’ve been playing county cricket and performing well,” Mushtaq insists. “I wasn’t getting a chance to play for Pakistan, but I’m willing to do anything for my country. When they offered me the coaching job, I jumped at it. I was happy to take the coach’s job when I got the opportunity and have enjoyed it.”
Things did get a bit too hot to be enjoyed in the West Indies during the World Cup, after Pakistan were knocked out and coach Bob Woolmer was found dead in his hotel room the next day. “When bad times get over, one need not talk about it,” he says.
“It’s by God’s grace that we got out of it. Sometimes, even if a man is innocent, there often are times when he gets into trouble. But we should try to think of the future, of the present, should try to think what good we can do in the present.”
The episode did affect his peace of mind, his game. “It affected domestic life, and affected the game,” Mushtaq says. “In such circumstances, a man is likely to become a victim of depression. Here, belief, religion play a big part in coping.”
The cloud blew over, the trouble got over. Mushtaq now says that it was God's way of testing the team's patience and strength.
He himself has been a pillar of strength at Sussex, in the middle for his team and for his mates away from the game. Rana Naved-ul-Hasan says that it was Mushtaq who convinced him to stay on after the paceman battled loneliness after joining the club two years ago; Saqlain Mushtaq, now a British citizen, obviously looks up to the senior pro.
Mushtaq himself looks up to the skies, to God, for strength. And he seems to feel for the others in the sidelines, people who've done it all and are out of action for one reason or the other.
“When your match-winners are going through bad times, the cricket boards should back them,” he says as talk turns to Harbhajan Singh. “When you drop your match-winner, you'll face problems. You'll try someone else, then you'll have to get him back.”
That's exactly what Mushtaq wants to be done to himself — be brought back into the Pakistan team. Time, he knows, is running out, but hope is too dear to resist.