Mohammad Asif: A master strategist
Time can really be a bastard. The last time I met Mohammad Asif properly for an interview, he was confident, full of wit and supreme in his own art. That was just before the England series of 2006, which now qualifies as another age of Pakistan cricket. Probably it was another life for him.
We spoke again briefly just before this New Year's Test in Sydney because it was a five-year anniversary for him; he made his debut at this very ground, notable only for a few no-balls and an Adam Gilchrist spanking. He took a good catch at long-on and stuck around with bat, annoyingly like a Melbourne fly but little else. Pakistan lost, he was discarded, came back, conquered the world and then lost it.
If the humour and bluster is still there, he doesn't show it so readily now. He had a casual easy lope then, though it not looks more like a weary trudge. When he talks, he seems to first calculate what possible headline could be twisted out of what he has said and is, as a result, cagier and measured. I did a story once about his Dubai detention that upset him and he let me know it. That is the way, so he is understandably wary.
Unsaid, it is nevertheless agreed we won't talk about what, probably, most people want to hear about. We agree to look ahead and we tread carefully while doing it.
The one thing that hasn't changed is the experience of watching him. I probably appreciate it more now. He remains as compelling as he was, though has he lost a little pace? He would hate to even talk about that for he is outside the faithful when it comes to pace.
Elsewhere he is intact. The wrist is still loose and cut forthcoming from it. In Melbourne, he even got more out of the old ball. The appeal still has the suddenness and abruptness of a Kathak dance movement and becomes a persistent Bhangra if he feels it is really tight. On the field he still smiles, beamingly for wickets and slyly for when something has just failed to come off.
The brain most definitely is still ticking. In each and every spell of his there remains a threat, a leg-before appeal, a play and a miss, an edge. Like those legspinners Shane Warne and Abdul Qadir, to close watchers he carries the sense every ball that something very clever he has been working on is just about to, or has almost come off.
In Melbourne, he was at the center of attempts to deny Shane Watson a hundred in the second innings. A simple plan was devised and I half-suspect he had something to do with it. An 8-1 field was set and over after over passed by as maidens of temptation, the ball hung out well wide of Watson's off stump and swinging away. Watson broke a couple of times, but all went on unscathed for nearly an hour before lunch. Then in the fourth over of Asif's spell one came straighter and dipped in late. Watson tried to clip it, overbalanced and the ball missed leg stump by no more than an inch.
The whole setup was so beautifully worked. He had drained Watson mentally, each ball a little water drop of Chinese torture. He then slipped one in when no one was prepared, the only straight ball in that entire passage. Consensus was that it was a poor ball and that Watson missed out on four. Watson probably believed the same. But that is to know nothing of Asif. Much like Verbal from The Usual Suspects, he had worked it from start to finish.
The grass was greener in Sydney this time.
Few Pakistani bowlers have ever really played this game that Asif does. Wasim Akram's mind was similarly sharp but his magic was unique. And he always had pace. Maybe Sarfraz Nawaz was like him, but went on like a bowler who thought he was quick. He got caught up often in bouncer wars and that isn't always a thinking man's game, especially at that pace. Asif doesn't have the mind of that kind of fast bowler.
He's been strangely underestimated in Australia on this trip, strange given this is the land of Glenn McGrath. Mohammad Aamer was the star of Melbourne and he has the pace, the youth and freshness to excite everyone. Nobody forgets he is left-arm either. Mohammad Sami also has pace and his burst made for a great story here. But Asif? Since he is not quick, people often don't get it. How can he be Pakistani and not quick?
He set about Australia from the Paddington End in his second spell with the care and precision reserved for PhD theses. Michael Clarke was done in by a fast bowler's googly. He had got him into driving the very first ball and for Asif, like spinners, that is victory. He kept doing it, mostly straightening the ball away. Eventually it came; same length, shape but straightening in and the deed was done.
Such plans were in place for his other victims. Essentially, he played on Michael Hussey's patience, giving him less room than a taxi full of elephants, before he eventually cracked. Poor shot? Probably. Smart bowling? You bet. Marcus North didn't know what hit him, saved by technology to one that came in and gone to one that kept going across. Brad Haddin thought he had an idea, stepping out to change the length and driving him, until Asif pulled one back a little more and Haddin drove anyway.
The tail took swings at him but he had their fates already written. Time leaves some things untouched.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo