Illustrations: Vasim Maner

Mushtaq Ahmed, who led the Pakistani spin attack in the early 1990s, played the second half of his career in the shadow of his namesake, Saqlain Mushtaq. Saqlain made his debut in 1995 and tasted phenomenal success in ODI cricket. His bowling average of approximately 22 is the best for any spinner in ODI history (min. 60 matches). His frequency of picking wickets (bowling strike rate) – a wicket every 5 overs – is also the lowest for any spinner after Ajantha Mendis. He also holds the record for being the fastest to 100 and 200 ODI wickets reaching these milestones in his 53rd and 104th match respectively.

Saqlain picked up 288 wickets in 165 innings. Mushtaq Ahmed, on the other hand picked up just 161 wickets in 142 bowling innings. His average of 33 meant that he conceded more than 10 runs per wicket than Saqlain. His strike rate of 47 showed that he took approximately two and half overs more to pick up a wicket as compared to Saqlain.

In the 40 matches they played together between 1995 and 2000, it was Saqlain who took the majority of the wickets at a better average and strike rate.

Even through Impact, Saqlain has a much higher propensity to pick top/middle order wickets than Mushtaq Ahmed and is not only more restrictive but also much more consistent (Saqlain’s failure rate is 30% whereas Mushtaq Ahmed’s is 42%).

All these parameters, both conventional and Impact, overwhelmingly suggest that Saqlain was a greater bowler in ODI cricket than Mushtaq Ahmed.

But interestingly it is the leg-spinner who emerges as the higher impact of the two.

The sole reason for this was his big-match temperament.


The ability to rise to the occasion and perform in the big-matches (matches that ultimately decide the fate of a series/tournament) for your respective team shows the true character of a player.

A series/tournament defining performance is a high impact performance in a match that enables the player’s team to win or draw level the series. This is the true legacy of a player.

India vs Pakistan, 5th ODI, Sahara Friendship Cup, Toronto, 1996:

The series was tied at 2-2 with all to play for in the decider. Pakistan, batting first, put up 213 for 9 in their allotted 50 overs. Jadeja and Tendulkar gave India a solid start in the chase before the latter was run-out. Mushtaq Ahmed then ran through the Indian top and middle order. His series-defining performance ( SD ) – 5-36 in 10 overs – included the wickets of Jadeja, Azharuddin and Dravid. India were bowled out for 161 in 45.5 overs. Pakistan won the match by 52 runs and wrapped up the series 3-2.

Saqlain, who had been a higher impact bowler than Mushtaq Ahmed thus far in the series, gave a par performance in the decider – 2-34 in 7.5 overs – accounting for the last two Indian wickets to fall but the match (and series) had long been sealed for Pakistan by the leggie.

This performance summed up their ODI careers. While Saqlain was the more prolific wicket-taker, more restrictive and consistent, when it came to the big-matches it was Mushtaq Ahmed who raised the bar and outshone his more illustrious teammate.

Mushtaq Ahmed gave 4 SDs in just 143 matches as compared to Saqlain’s solitary SD in 166 matches. Only Wasim Akram (10 SDs in 349 innings) produced more (purely as a bowler) in Pakistan’s ODI history. This big-match temperament is the only reason why Mushtaq Ahmed has a higher impact with the ball than Saqlain Mushtaq despite the latter’s dominance in all the other individual parameters.

Saqlain’s overall record in big-matches is also poor. He just gave two high impact performances in 29 big-matches. In comparison, Mushtaq Ahmed had 5 such performances in 26 big-matches. It gets worse. Saqlain failed in 10 out of the 29 big-matches he played in whereas Mushtaq Ahmed failed in 8 out of 26 such matches.

Mushtaq Ahmed’s performance in World Cup matches is also an indicator of his liking for the big-stage. The bigger the stage, the better was his performance. He was the highest impact bowler of the 1992 World Cup. His 3-41 in 10 overs against England in the final in Melbourne gave him a tournament-defining performance in what remains Pakistan’s greatest and perhaps most significant achievement of their cricketing history.

In fact, so consistent were his performances Down Under in 1992 that for a minimum of 10 matches, he remains the highest impact bowler for Pakistan in World Cup cricket history.

On the contrary, Saqlain’s performance in World Cup matches for Pakistan is poor. His overall Bowling Impact and consistency in World Cup cricket are both 50% lower than Mushtaq Ahmed’s.

Saqlain is widely credited to be the first spinner to master the doosra. For a bowler with such variety and ability to innovate and who often outthought the batsman with his imaginative bowling, his lack of big-match prowess certainly remains a big blot in his career and casts a shadow on his greatness.

On the other hand, Mushtaq Ahmed’s big-match prowess demands that his status as an ODI bowler be elevated.



Nikhil Narain

NOTE: This piece is up-to-date as of August 2016