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Former Pakistani spinner Saqlain Mushtag, left and Maurice Holmes are helping New Zealand's batsmen prepare for Sri Lankan slow bowlers. Pic: NZPA
Former Pakistani spinner Saqlain Mushtag, left and Maurice Holmes are helping New Zealand's batsmen prepare for Sri Lankan slow bowlers. Pic: NZPA

By Chris Barclay of NZPA

Colombo, Aug 12 NZPA - They resemble New Zealand's cricket's odd couple, the pioneering Pakistani offspinner and the gangly English kid from the Kent second 11 who just happens to have cloned Muttiah Muralitharan's repertoire.

Saqlain Mushtaq and Maurice Holmes might occupy opposite ends of their chosen profession but they stand shoulder to shoulder at New Zealand's net sessions in Colombo, doing their best impressions of Sri Lanka's slow bowling superstar and his heir apparent Ajantha Mendis.

Saqlain's involvement with the New Zealand camp since his day-long tutorial at Derby during the ICC World Twenty20 in June has grown into a 12-month secondment.

Holmes, by contrast, is working up a sweat in team issue gear by sheer coincidence.

The 19-year-old offspinner very nearly pulled out of the bowling duty he had volunteered for at The Oval before the Twenty20 tournament's sudden death phase in London.

But fortunately for head coach Andy Moles, Holmes stuck to his original plans and proceeded to give some perplexed batsmen a work out of Muralitharan-like inventiveness.

"He rocked up there and the boys said `Bloody hell, this is like Murali'," Moles said.

"He has the same traits, the same action with the doosra."

Captain Daniel Vettori faced the bulk of Holmes' deliveries and immediately recommended the teenager, who hadn't played a "proper" game of cricket until he was 15, join the tour as mini-Murali.

"I never thought I'd end up here," Holmes said.

"I just volunteered to do some bowling there (at The Oval) and the guys were really welcoming. I had a long bowl at Dan and he had a kind word to say afterward."

And ironically Holmes, who is on a gap year between secondary school and college, insists he never initially studied Muralitharan's technique.

"I never knew he bowled like that, it just felt normal for me."

Now he is confident he can mimic an authentic doosra -- the ball that spins away from the batsman despite being bowled with an offspinner's action -- though his control of the top spinner fluctuates.

Holmes says he has noticed a definite improvement in the New Zealand batsmen's handling of him since The Oval.

"As time's gone on they've started to really play me well," he said, nominating Martin Guptill and Brendon McCullum as the most comfortable on strike.

Saqlain, who is credited with inventing the doosra during an international career that realised 496 test and ODI wickets, is in charge of demystifying Mendis -- a task his countrymen successfully achieved on their current visit here.

Mendis collected just five wickets at 43.30 before being culled from the third and final test.

The question is can New Zealand cause similar angst should he be reinstated?

Saqlain's original chat before New Zealand's Twenty20 clash with Sri Lanka two months ago was too little, too late -- Mendis's first encounter with New Zealand translated to three for nine from 18 balls.

However, Saqlain has had more time to demonstrate the entire Mendis catalogue from googlies and offbreaks to the devious carrom ball, delivered with a flick of the middle finger.

"The problem was they were not picking the ball at the point of release, they were trying to do it in the air of off the pitch. After three or four sessions they are better at it," he said.

Perfecting the sweep shot is also imperative says the man who once drove Shane Warne to distraction.

"I set myself that I would play the sweep shot and I got 50 against him in Sharjah. He kept giving me (the) bouncer after that, then I realised I'm really torturing him from inside," said Saqlain, who played the last of his 49 tests in 2004.

Meanwhile, Saqlain is obviously not all about assisting the batsman, his old prey.

He has also worked with Vettori, Jeetan Patel and Nathan McCullum on how to finesse their thought processes and tactical approach.

It hasn't yet extended to Patel adopting the doosra, though in Saqlain's eyes his top spinner was artful yesterday.

"I was saying to him, `Watching you, I was feeling like I was having curry when you are hungry'. I had the taste in the mouth, the way he was bowling."

Saqlain and Holmes return to England tomorrow, their job done for now.

Whether they were gainfully employed should be apparent when the first test of the two-match series starts in Galle on Tuesday.

 

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