The spirit of Saqlain
In early 1999, as a Delhi newspaper celebrated five years of existence, a few Pakistan players simply walked into the party at the hottest nightspot in town. A fresh-faced, cheerful young man was among them, at 22 the youngest of the group, and also the most tireless dancer.
He was the centre of attraction, the star on the floor despite the presence of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis — just days ago, his 10 wickets had taken Pakistan to a stirring victory over India at Chennai.
Eight years on, I ask Saqlain Mushtaq if he remembers that night in Delhi. So much has changed in his life in the last eight years: the mastery of the doosra, acclaim and ignominy, injury and insult — and now a new British passport. Monty Panesar should soon have competition.
Saqlain, though, wishes to play down this talk. He is in his 31st year, a stage in life when spinners peak, but injury troubles have made him prudent, and he's not looking too far ahead — or at least not speaking about it.
“If I start saying that I want to play for England, and my body doesn't allow me to play, it would be very embarrassing,” he says. “Yes, if my body is okay, if all goes well, then I'll see what happens…”
“I haven't even kept that in mind. I'm trying to just play cricket, trying to remain fit and play well,” he says. “I'll see in October-November what the position is, the condition of my body. Then I'll decide what to do.”
He sinks deep into the sofa in his simply furnished living room. “You know about your fitness when you play regular cricket,” he adds. He wants a breather — he had to fight with the bat for Sussex as India pressed for victory, and we have just walked into his apartment right next to the Hove ground.
At his best, Saqlain could simply have walked into any team in the world, let alone England. But he is happy in England, he says it feels like being among family at Sussex. He has signed up his own agent, TBL Sports. And he has actual family ties with England — his wife was born in England and has been living there for the last 15 years.
“She had a British passport, and my children were born here, they are British citizens,” Saqlain says. “And because my wife was here and I played for Surrey, we got a home here.”
He says he's at home at Sussex Club, which owns the property he lives in, a 10-minute walk from the seashore. “They have been very good to me,” Saqlain says. “When I was going through bad times, they told me to come here, they told me they would look after me and help me recover from injuries.”
Suddenly, the door opens and Sussex coach Mark Robinson and two others walk in, carrying a sofa. It's huge, but the three men are big. Saqlain smiles and thanks them, and explains in Urdu.
“It's like a family here, it's a small town, everyone knows everyone else,” he says. “I'm enjoying my life here. Then these guys are really very nice, they help me out with chores at home.” Then, of course, there are Mushtaq Ahmed and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, the overseas pros for Sussex.
Twenty-four hours after he got his British passport — after some efforts from the Sussex county — Saqlain debuted for his new county in a Twenty20 game.
He says he was sleepless the night before, but then bowled four neat overs as his team won.
The game against India was his first first-class match in two years. Dinesh Karthik was his first victim for his new county, and he dismissed VVS Laxman twice. But he seems regretful about getting Laxman on 95.
“Unfortunately, he got out to my doosra,” he says. “He had read it earlier, had hit me for a few fours. But this ball landed in the rough, bounced suddenly… But he deserved to make a century.”
Isn't this strange, sympathy for a sporting foe? “As long as I don't wear a uniform, sympathies would be with India,” he laughs. “Since I haven't donned the England colours yet, I cannot say anything about that. But the Indian players are like my brothers. Last night, we had a dinner at Mushtaq bhai’s home, and most of the Indians were there. We had a great time together."
And yes, he does remember that night in Delhi, eight years ago. But those are unwanted remembrances of things past. “Why do you make me remember the days I wish to forget?” he asks, but his manner is still affable. “God will punish me for the way I lived those days.”
Perhaps he might be judged with a bit of indulgence, for he's a changed man now? Saqlain, though, says there is no real change in his life.
“Life is going on as it was. I'm playing cricket the same way, travelling the world, having the same food,” he says, before getting a bit more serious. “I'm just trying to do the things I should have done earlier in life and did not, that is all.”
And any change in his bowling?
“Well, there was no real problem in bowling, but my body is stiff at the start, and then again gets stiff after 15-20 overs,” he says.
“My back has been bothering me, my knees are better but the left one hurts sometimes.
“With experience, one learns… But the effort one makes (at one's best), I was not able to make,” he says.
The spirit is willing, he says, and hopes the body will join the effort. If that happens, the England spinners' stakes, with the entry of an acclaimed master, will get really exciting.