Australia v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Sydney, 1st day January 3, 2010

Mohammad Asif: A master strategist

In each and every spell of Mohammad Asif's there remains a threat, a leg-before appeal, a play and a miss, an edge. He carries the sense every ball that something very clever he has been working on is just about to, or has almost come off
19

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.

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

***

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Innovater on January 4, 2010, 20:32 GMT

    Asif is now currently the best seem bowler on display in the world today.He just needs just a slightest of help from the pitch to make the ball talk.

    Though its still to early to put him in the same league as that of Gleen McGrath but he had a great potential to achieve same heights as that Gleen McGrath did.Mind you Asif has a lot to do in order to be put on the same page as Gleen McGrath & it may possibly take him another 5 or 6 yrs.

  • Sri_chicago on January 4, 2010, 19:04 GMT

    Beautiful piece, as someone else has already pointed out. Osman's writing is wonderful to read. This is what provides the ultimate enjoyment for a true cricket fan; of being able to read and relive what he was not present to witness. Keep writing Osman .. and provide more pleasure to fans like yours truly.

  • Sarlana on January 4, 2010, 13:58 GMT

    Wonderful essay. This is a part of pargraph for a really good bowling larner. Definetely Asif is the most technique & talented bowler now a days we are watching.

  • fahadist on January 4, 2010, 9:45 GMT

    Really nice peace! I agree that M. Asif is really not taken very seriously by Aussies. Hearing their commentary I guess aussies are just to full of themselves to appreciate anyone who doesn't ball fast or bat at less than 3 an over. Pakistani openers did a really good job at holding their fort in the first session but the comentators kept on saying that Pakistan should push the scoring rate! Hello~ that is what got the Aussies out in their innings!

  • DrRafiKhan on January 3, 2010, 23:11 GMT

    Muhammad Asif was superb as he showed complete mastery over swing and seam, and sometimes he did move the ball both ways.Awsum display of genuine fast bowling along with Mohammad Sami..somthing that rocks and kicks australians.Pakistan's Flag is Up.

  • Rahulbose on January 3, 2010, 21:55 GMT

    Sorry too much analysis and praise for a simple bowler. Its not that complicated this business of fast bowling. And were is the interview you mention?

  • no_second_chance_for_batsman on January 3, 2010, 21:47 GMT

    I am happy for Asif. He is back.

    If Asif continues to bowl that line & length -- he will keep getting wickets. Its a treat to watch such nice bowling.

    Cheers, Kumar

  • J.C.Narasimhan on January 3, 2010, 21:06 GMT

    Beautifully written. Part of cricket that makes it so romantic is write-ups like this. But yesterday, it was Sami who laid the groundwork for Asif's six-for. This is in no way to lessen Asif's brilliant spell & can be compared to the '99 WC match between IND & SL. There, it was Dravid, who first negated the enormous movement off seam and in the air in english conditions to score a brilliant attacking century. But the limelight was Ganguly's for his 180+ who capitalised on Dravid's initial taming of the bowling pack.

    No wonder they say, pace bowlers hunt in pairs !

  • waqaslone on January 3, 2010, 20:57 GMT

    Asif is back - He is surely the next McGrath totally majestiC*

  • IndusKnight on January 3, 2010, 20:42 GMT

    Asif writes no ones fates, he should be grateful to Allah for this. A great bowler indeed though. We should be working on producing more such talents. I think Sami went to his usual self after the first burst, which is disappointing.

  • Innovater on January 4, 2010, 20:32 GMT

    Asif is now currently the best seem bowler on display in the world today.He just needs just a slightest of help from the pitch to make the ball talk.

    Though its still to early to put him in the same league as that of Gleen McGrath but he had a great potential to achieve same heights as that Gleen McGrath did.Mind you Asif has a lot to do in order to be put on the same page as Gleen McGrath & it may possibly take him another 5 or 6 yrs.

  • Sri_chicago on January 4, 2010, 19:04 GMT

    Beautiful piece, as someone else has already pointed out. Osman's writing is wonderful to read. This is what provides the ultimate enjoyment for a true cricket fan; of being able to read and relive what he was not present to witness. Keep writing Osman .. and provide more pleasure to fans like yours truly.

  • Sarlana on January 4, 2010, 13:58 GMT

    Wonderful essay. This is a part of pargraph for a really good bowling larner. Definetely Asif is the most technique & talented bowler now a days we are watching.

  • fahadist on January 4, 2010, 9:45 GMT

    Really nice peace! I agree that M. Asif is really not taken very seriously by Aussies. Hearing their commentary I guess aussies are just to full of themselves to appreciate anyone who doesn't ball fast or bat at less than 3 an over. Pakistani openers did a really good job at holding their fort in the first session but the comentators kept on saying that Pakistan should push the scoring rate! Hello~ that is what got the Aussies out in their innings!

  • DrRafiKhan on January 3, 2010, 23:11 GMT

    Muhammad Asif was superb as he showed complete mastery over swing and seam, and sometimes he did move the ball both ways.Awsum display of genuine fast bowling along with Mohammad Sami..somthing that rocks and kicks australians.Pakistan's Flag is Up.

  • Rahulbose on January 3, 2010, 21:55 GMT

    Sorry too much analysis and praise for a simple bowler. Its not that complicated this business of fast bowling. And were is the interview you mention?

  • no_second_chance_for_batsman on January 3, 2010, 21:47 GMT

    I am happy for Asif. He is back.

    If Asif continues to bowl that line & length -- he will keep getting wickets. Its a treat to watch such nice bowling.

    Cheers, Kumar

  • J.C.Narasimhan on January 3, 2010, 21:06 GMT

    Beautifully written. Part of cricket that makes it so romantic is write-ups like this. But yesterday, it was Sami who laid the groundwork for Asif's six-for. This is in no way to lessen Asif's brilliant spell & can be compared to the '99 WC match between IND & SL. There, it was Dravid, who first negated the enormous movement off seam and in the air in english conditions to score a brilliant attacking century. But the limelight was Ganguly's for his 180+ who capitalised on Dravid's initial taming of the bowling pack.

    No wonder they say, pace bowlers hunt in pairs !

  • waqaslone on January 3, 2010, 20:57 GMT

    Asif is back - He is surely the next McGrath totally majestiC*

  • IndusKnight on January 3, 2010, 20:42 GMT

    Asif writes no ones fates, he should be grateful to Allah for this. A great bowler indeed though. We should be working on producing more such talents. I think Sami went to his usual self after the first burst, which is disappointing.

  • Koshur on January 3, 2010, 19:27 GMT

    After watching Asif wreck the Indian batsmen in the famous Karachi Test it was obvious he was going to be something special. The way he sets up batsmen is beautiful to watch.

    I just wish the PCB recognize that their strength now lies in their seam bowling and instruct the curators to make pitches that assist guys like Asif and Aamer.

  • javedk on January 3, 2010, 19:23 GMT

    Love to watch Asif bowl...truly a great bowler and a national asset for Pakistan and its cricket team. Hopefully he has learnt his lesson from his past mistakes and will surround himself with good people and true friends while staying away from sycophants and the likes of people like Shoaib Akhtar.

  • SachinForLife on January 3, 2010, 19:19 GMT

    One of the best bowlers in world cricket at the moment, and one of the best writers in cricket journalism at the moment!

  • badal on January 3, 2010, 18:27 GMT

    Mohd Asif, a treat to watch. If he keeps his head on his shoulder, I am sure, he will be the best bowler Pakistan would have ever produced. In him, I find the genius,fire of Wasim and eagerness,excitement of Waqar. Him and Mohd Amir, should bring back the glory days of yester years of Pakistan (If we can only find one decent batsman). Is there any end to Pakistan's bowling talent, as one after another from somewhere a very exceptional bowler is keep emerging.

  • jokutty on January 3, 2010, 18:26 GMT

    What struck me most was how well the Pakistani bowlers stuck to their strategy - not just Asif, but everyone. What is also impressive is how despite being isolated and despite not having the funds and foreign that other leading teams have, Pakistan has played so very well. I am an Indian -- but will root for Pakistan in this and other series. For the moment, I hope the Pakistani batsmen come off tomorrow, so that the bowlers can come back and humiliate Australia by day 4. I hope that their country takes courage from this, manages to rid themselves of terrorists, and develop into a prosperous, wealthy and peaceful nation.

  • Hassan.Farooqi on January 3, 2010, 18:15 GMT

    Actually the only time Sarfaraz was caught in the war of bouncers was during Pakistan tour of West Indies in 1977. That too in just one test. It was not the intention of Garner or Croft to hurt him, but Sarfaraz lost his cool. Then again, it was not just Sarfaraz who threw fruitless bouncers but Imran joined too. They ended up gifting Garner with a 50.

  • Ayaz-from-Toronto on January 3, 2010, 17:46 GMT

    I absolutely agree with you on this. What a treat it was to watch Asif bowl. In the last match he was a bit unlucky getting only two wickets after bowling such a wonderful line and length. Pakistan should cash in on this oppertunity. They might not get an oppertunity like this again in the near future. They should make australia pay this time.

  • Rahul_78 on January 3, 2010, 17:20 GMT

    Asif is a poetry in motion. Every ball is worth something. I cursed the technology so much for denying him the hat trick, May this superb bowler remain unfazed and unafected in his second coming.

  • usmanrahim on January 3, 2010, 16:40 GMT

    Muhammad Asif bears seam movement uncharacteristic to Pakistani fast bowlers; let us hope he can bring stability in his bowling performances uncharacteristic to Pakistani culture.

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  • usmanrahim on January 3, 2010, 16:40 GMT

    Muhammad Asif bears seam movement uncharacteristic to Pakistani fast bowlers; let us hope he can bring stability in his bowling performances uncharacteristic to Pakistani culture.

  • Rahul_78 on January 3, 2010, 17:20 GMT

    Asif is a poetry in motion. Every ball is worth something. I cursed the technology so much for denying him the hat trick, May this superb bowler remain unfazed and unafected in his second coming.

  • Ayaz-from-Toronto on January 3, 2010, 17:46 GMT

    I absolutely agree with you on this. What a treat it was to watch Asif bowl. In the last match he was a bit unlucky getting only two wickets after bowling such a wonderful line and length. Pakistan should cash in on this oppertunity. They might not get an oppertunity like this again in the near future. They should make australia pay this time.

  • Hassan.Farooqi on January 3, 2010, 18:15 GMT

    Actually the only time Sarfaraz was caught in the war of bouncers was during Pakistan tour of West Indies in 1977. That too in just one test. It was not the intention of Garner or Croft to hurt him, but Sarfaraz lost his cool. Then again, it was not just Sarfaraz who threw fruitless bouncers but Imran joined too. They ended up gifting Garner with a 50.

  • jokutty on January 3, 2010, 18:26 GMT

    What struck me most was how well the Pakistani bowlers stuck to their strategy - not just Asif, but everyone. What is also impressive is how despite being isolated and despite not having the funds and foreign that other leading teams have, Pakistan has played so very well. I am an Indian -- but will root for Pakistan in this and other series. For the moment, I hope the Pakistani batsmen come off tomorrow, so that the bowlers can come back and humiliate Australia by day 4. I hope that their country takes courage from this, manages to rid themselves of terrorists, and develop into a prosperous, wealthy and peaceful nation.

  • badal on January 3, 2010, 18:27 GMT

    Mohd Asif, a treat to watch. If he keeps his head on his shoulder, I am sure, he will be the best bowler Pakistan would have ever produced. In him, I find the genius,fire of Wasim and eagerness,excitement of Waqar. Him and Mohd Amir, should bring back the glory days of yester years of Pakistan (If we can only find one decent batsman). Is there any end to Pakistan's bowling talent, as one after another from somewhere a very exceptional bowler is keep emerging.

  • SachinForLife on January 3, 2010, 19:19 GMT

    One of the best bowlers in world cricket at the moment, and one of the best writers in cricket journalism at the moment!

  • javedk on January 3, 2010, 19:23 GMT

    Love to watch Asif bowl...truly a great bowler and a national asset for Pakistan and its cricket team. Hopefully he has learnt his lesson from his past mistakes and will surround himself with good people and true friends while staying away from sycophants and the likes of people like Shoaib Akhtar.

  • Koshur on January 3, 2010, 19:27 GMT

    After watching Asif wreck the Indian batsmen in the famous Karachi Test it was obvious he was going to be something special. The way he sets up batsmen is beautiful to watch.

    I just wish the PCB recognize that their strength now lies in their seam bowling and instruct the curators to make pitches that assist guys like Asif and Aamer.

  • IndusKnight on January 3, 2010, 20:42 GMT

    Asif writes no ones fates, he should be grateful to Allah for this. A great bowler indeed though. We should be working on producing more such talents. I think Sami went to his usual self after the first burst, which is disappointing.