England v Pakistan, 4th Test, The Oval, 1st day August 17, 2006

A much-improved image



Mohammad Asif cashed in on the first day © Getty Images

When Cricinfo last spoke to Mohammad Asif, just as he was about to have his first bowl after injuring his elbow at the start of the England tour, he signed off by asking whether the site would replace the profile picture on his player page. "I am better looking than that now," he reasoned. Ladies, judge for yourselves, but since that photograph (admittedly not the best) was taken - just before his debut in Australia in January 2005 - he has become an inestimably better bowler.

The most remarkable aspect of his return, of course, was that it was precisely what was expected of him. Not that it should've been; this is only his sixth Test and his first competitive match in nearly two months. But such has been his impact over the last three Tests he played in (24 wickets) that expectations were unreasonably high.

It's difficult to determine which nut and which bolt of his bowling was the most impressive. Was it his accuracy? After conceding nine runs, one run and four runs in the first over of the previous three Tests, Pakistan would've given an arm and a leg for Asif's first, a teasing, testing little maiden. The remaining 18 overs weren't much different, Asif settling mostly on the type of stifling off-stump line which has marked his short career, and which Pakistani bowlers mostly find notoriously difficult to replicate consistently. Six maidens were produced in his first innings back; Mohammad Sami bowled 15 all told in the five innings he bowled in this series.

How about his stamina? A 13-over spell first up is worthy in any context, but after a long period of inactivity, it was startling. So it was interrupted by rain and lunch but he's put in similarly mammoth spells in more oppressive conditions - a humid Colombo for example and Sydney as well. A not-too-strenuous run-up and action helps and, for once, so too does an inability to bowl blindingly fast.

But his most striking attribute is what he gets the ball to do, which is a fair bit. And given the way he had bowled at Karachi against India and in Sri Lanka, no wonder Javed Miandad once drooled at the prospect of Asif at Headingley. It isn't just that he seams it. It's that he does so both ways, to both right-handed and left-handed batsmen, in varying degrees, from the right areas and irrespective of the state of the ball. As the icing on top, he does so apparently at will.

Andrew Strauss was dismissed in a wonderfully thought-out over with one that jagged away sharply; Kevin Pietersen was beaten next ball by one that pitched full and slyly snuck away. Marcus Trescothick was nearly done in by a ball that straightened into him sharply and Paul Collingwood, having edged one that went away, was snared by one that diverted into him.

Matthew Hoggard must have thought he was facing a new ball, not one in its 51st over, when he edged one. And by then, as is every Pakistan paceman's birthright, he was also bowling some nice reverse. He is different to what we are used to in Pakistan. Add a chirp here and there, no little machismo, the occasional longer and meaningful follow-through, shampoo-advert floppy hair, mix it all together and it means Pakistan are onto something special.

His presence, for want of a better word, spiked Pakistan (though admittedly Faisal Iqbal hardly needs an excuse, as Trescothick and Pietersen will testify). For once, Umar Gul had a man at the other end who wasn't leaking runs, wasn't taking wickets and in fact was doing the exact opposite. His four wickets confirmed his emergence as Pakistan's biggest plus from a poor series. The fielding was sharper and though he retired hurt later, Mohammad Hafeez's presence helped. Kamran Akmal had another indifferent day but even he managed a sharp catch. And in the biggest shock since the infamous Crying Game twist, one of their openers even managed a fifty. And when that happens, then you just know it can't have been a bad day at all.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo