Mushtaq Ahmed was just 21 when he travelled to Australia with the Pakistan team for the World Cup in 1992.
Then taking baby steps in international cricket, the leg-spinner stunned the world, becoming the joint second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 16 wickets from eight games. His performance helped Pakistan clinch the title.
On Wednesday, 28 years after Pakistan’s iconic World Cup win, Mushtaq, who is now a spin-bowling consultant with the Pakistan Cricket Board, walked down memory lane. “Imran bhai believed we can do it, and we did it,” Mushtaq said from Lahore, heaping praise on the then captain Imran Khan, who is now the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
In a conversation with Sportstar, the former spin ace speaks about the iconic 1992 World Cup, the state of spin bowling and more.
Q. You were part of the Pakistan team which won the World Cup in 1992, under the leadership of Imran Khan. It’s been 28 years since, but as you look back, what are the memories that you cherish?
A. The most important thing is what the leader believes about the team. And I still remember that speech of Imran Khan during our team meeting in Perth before the game against Australia. He said that if we could defeat Australia, we could win the World Cup. There was a lot of doubt among the players. As a youngster, I thought how was it even possible to bounce back? But Imran bhai kept faith in us and he had a firm belief. He never gave up. That became the turning point. In the game against Australia, we did play like cornered tigers, we were everywhere and all of us were full of energy.
In tough situations, it is important to have a good leader who can lead a turnaround. That’s exactly what Imran bhai did with that team. In Urdu, they say, “Jo aapka guman hota hai, allah waise hi faisla karte hain.” It was true for us!
Imran bhai believed we can do it, and we did it.
It’s been three decades almost and Pakistan still hasn’t won another World Cup. Does it hurt you?
There were plenty of occasions, where we went close but could not win the World Cup. In 1999, we lost in the final. In 1996, we lost the quarterfinal against India. In 2017, we won the Champions Trophy. Sarfaraz Ahmed had the belief that we could win [and] that’s exactly what happened. In 1999, the team played fantastic till the final, but in the summit clash against Australia, we could not deliver. The confidence, the self-belief, was missing among the players. So, it is important to have a captain who can motivate the team and help them overcome the odds – something Imran bhai did in 1992.
There was a time when Asian countries like India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were known for their star spinners who would dominate the world stage. But now, there seems to be a dearth of quality spinners from this part of the world. How do you see it?
There was a time when most of the teams from Asia would go abroad and lose. Our pace batteries weren’t that strong. As far as Pakistan is concerned, there was a gap after the exit of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar. When you travel to South Africa, England, you must have seamers in your ranks, because the pitches are such that the seamers get the maximum benefit and spinners find it difficult.
In India, the wickets are flat. In flat wickets, batsmen can score lots of runs, but in the last decade, the focus in India and Pakistan was to prepare more seaming wickets. In Pakistan, we had seaming pitches and the first-class games would be over in two days, because even the batsmen weren’t confident; the pacers, too, did not have to increase their pace. You just had to keep your line and length right. So, chances for spinners were less and we did not focus on them much.
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So, what’s the way forward?
Look at any successful team, it is a must to have a mystery spinner, especially a leg-spinner, who can have variations. So, for all the boards, the focus has to be the development at the grassroots level.
I have been offered roles by various cricket boards, with the target of scouting leg-spinners and then grooming them. Even the overseas boards have started planning and taking measures to improve the spin wing – that’s a good thing. England won the World Cup last year – Moeen Ali and Aadil Rashid are very good spinners, who give you breakthroughs in the middle-overs. So, to win Tests or any other tournaments, it is a must to have quality spinners.
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You spoke about mentoring young talents. What initiatives could the Asian cricket boards take to make that happen?
You need to spend lots of time, lots of money in grassroots. At the youth level, youngsters aren’t always nurtured well. At times, we fail to understand their capability. They give up. So, it is important to groom those young talents, help them improve the technique. As a leg-spinner, if you have a good action, you can win in any situation. For this, it is necessary to have a good mentor to guide you with the action. I feel happy to say this that before he went on to play for Pakistan, I spent a lot of time with Yasir Shah. I have worked with Shadab Khan, Usman Qadir. PCB is spending lots of time, and as a consultant of the PCB, I am trying to find out mystery, chinaman spinners. The effort is to find off-spinners like Moeen Ali, who can win you matches.
The focus has to be on the grassroots and ensuring that a player gets enough chances in first-class cricket. He should witness failure earlier, so that he can work on his errors and improve. Ultimately, a player is his best coach. If you can identify the mistakes, then that’s the most important [thing].
Memorable win: Mushtaq Ahmed (centre) celebrates alongside Inzamam-ul-Haq (left) and Wasim Haider in Melbourne after Pakistan’s World Cup triumph in 1992. – V. V. KRISHNAN
With the game witnessing an evolution, most of the teams are now banking on fast bowlers for the longer format of the game. Do you really think that the spinners still hold the key in Test cricket?
Yes, and that’s why, all the cricketing nations, including India and Pakistan, are working on spinners. Because, if you have to win Test matches, fourth and fifth day belongs to the spinners. The batsmen are still apprehensive about tackling spinners on the last two days of a Test match. Today’s batsmen don’t have much patience, so if you can manage to get a couple of maiden overs, [you can] be sure of getting wickets soon. That’s been the trend in Tests as well.
So, if you are a good mystery spinner, who has a fair idea about tactical game, things definitely help.
And, what about the T20s?
Even in T20s, which is considered the fastest format, spinners are becoming the highest wicket-takers, be it Adam Zampa or Kuldeep Yadav or Shadab Khan. The game is evolving, and in such times, you need a good coach to tell the spinners about setting up a good field position. It is important to understand the pitch, the conditions. In Australia, South Africa or England, you need to spin the ball in the air, which is called over-spin. But in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, you have to bowl into the pitch. These are the things you need to keep in mind. Small things, but very important.
For the last few years, India has banked heavily on Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. But lately, Kuldeep seems to be struggling. A section of former cricketers believe that batsmen have been able to read his action. What’s your thought on this?
India has two talents in Kuldeep and Chahal. As you play international cricket, your action definitely requires fine-tuning. That’s where you need a good coach, who knows the spin matters well and someone who can fine-tune these small areas. And also, it is important for the spinners to play tactical game. They themselves should realise how to change their approach, depending on the situation. This includes keeping the line and length in mind. When you understand this, then you don’t need to worry. You have all the weapons in your kitty. Look, even if a batsman can read your mystery element or the googlies, they still need to face you. And, it is difficult, trust me. So, spinners should play smart and be consistent.