Just a day after announcing their limited overs and Test squads for the upcoming tour of the UAE, the Australian’s received the best possible news.
Pakistani mystery spinner Saeed Ajmal has been given an indefinite bowling ban by the ICC.
The 36-year-old had been ordered to the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane for expert tests after his action was deemed to be illegal for all of his repertoire of deliveries. He was reported by umpires Ian Gould and Bruce Oxenford during the first of his side’s two Tests in Sri Lanka last month.
The news of course comes as a massive blow to Pakistan. Ajmal has been the world’s leading wicket taker across formats in the last three years and is the spearhead to his side’s commonly spin orientated attack.
Although the PCB could have appealed the decision to the ICC straight away, it could have risked inducing a longer ban on Ajmal in the long run. Instead the spinner is set to begin work with former Pakistan favourite Saqlain Mushtaq next week in an attempt to rectify his action with a hopeful timescale of 3-6 weeks being muted.
With such a timescale being indeed optimistic for a full renovation of a bowling action and with Ajmal having to go through a thorough re-assessment process after modifying his bowling – It is now certain he will still miss the entire Australian programme, which starts in less than a month’s time and includes a T20I, three ODI’s and two Test matches.
For Australia the news must come as a huge boost. It is no secret that the current set of players, Michael Clarke and Steve Smith aside, have regularly struggled against slow bowling in helpful spin conditions and the absence of Ajmal will ease many a heart rate in the camp.
Although Pakistan still have solid spin options in fellow veterans Abdur Rehman, 34, Mohammad Hafeez, 33, Zulfiqar Babar, 35, Atif Maqbool, 32 and Adnan Rasool, 33, it was Ajmal, the current No. 1 ranked ODI bowler and a man also inside the top ten ICC rankings in both T20I’s and Tests, who was deemed their most potent weapon.
Without their key weapon to lead the line, Pakistan must now be looked at as very much outsiders especially in the two Test series. Apart from the five veteran candidates named above it remains to be seen who they will draft in to replace the mystery and nous of Ajmal – who has 67 Test wickets over 12 matches in the UAE.
The likes of 22-year-old left-armer Raza Hasan have been touted as the next spin sensation, but despite bursting onto the scene with impressive first-class and T20I form two years ago, injuries have taken there toll and he remains on the outside looking in.
The current Australian outfit have had a retched time against quality spin bowling on turning surfaces in recent times and their last Test tour of the subcontinent ended up in complete shambles with a 0-4 whitewash to the Indians 18 months ago.
The general theme of that series was the complete inept that the Australian’s played the trio of Indian spinners Ravindra Jadeja, Pragyan Ojha and Ravi Ashwin with. The tour famously ended with an injured Australian captain, three players being suspended for not doing their homework and it was also the beginning of the end for then coach Micky Arthur.
Such a low ebb of course brought about change and the appointment of Darren Lehmann has brought about a change in mentality and an improvement of team sprint and on field success. Despite all of this and the fact that Lehmann was such an aggressive and productive player of spin bowling in his own playing career, his sides struggles against the turning ball still remain.
This was most recently highlighted in Harare last month – where the side were restricted to a total of 9-209 in an eventual 3-wicket ODI defeat to Zimbabwe.
The bowling quartet on that occasion wasn’t the likes of Ajmal or Ashwin it was the lesser known names of John Nyumbu, Prosper Utseya, Sean Williams and Malcolm Waller who each had the Australians in a stranglehold. They would go on to bowl 36 of the allotted 50 overs and claim impressive match figures of 36-3-117-6.
It was unsurprising that Clarke (68no) was the only player to truly get to grips with the Zimbabwean attack before he limped off with a troubled hamstring. Post match the captain was annoyed at the selectors decision to omit Smith for the starting XI that day and said that they had got the decision undoubtably wrong.
Clarke’s hamstring remains a problem, especially after a long haul flight, but he is set to arrive early ahead of the ODI and Test series in the UAE to allow himself extra time to recover.
One area in which CA have sought to improve their handling of spin bowling for the tour of the UAE is the hiring of former Sri Lankan off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan as a coaching consultant. Murali will not only be used as a net bowler and brain to the batsmen but also as a bowling mentor to Nathan Lyon and the freshly called up New South Wales left armer Steve O’Keefe.
O’Keefe’s call up is a deserved one. The 29-year-old topped the Sheffield Shield bowling charts last season with 41 wickets at just 20.43 and has been the leading spinner in the competition for the past two years during a career that has brought him 128 victims at 24.72.
Elsewhere, Clarke has been given a 15-man squad for the two-Test series, which seems to have all based covered. Alongside the spin duo of Lyon and O’Keefe the party includes all rounders Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh – who have both impressed in ODI and first-class cricket in the recent past.
So with a settled Australian side coming into the series on the back of series wins over England and South Africa, it’s hard to look beyond the baggy green’s against an unpredictable Ajmal-less Pakistan outfit.