Australia v Pakistan, Champions Trophy, Group A, Centurion September 30, 2009

Worth its wait in gold

If only to know that he can still bowl it, that he can still pull out that one magic ball, waiting for Mohammad Asif to return from the pit of hell he had thrown himself into in the last couple of years was almost worth it.

It came unannounced from the 38th ball of his comeback in Centurion against Australia. James Hopes had just been dismissed in that very over, caught at mid-off for his first wicket back and Pakistan were just beginning to sniff that something might be up. This one was special but; it pitched on that awkward non-driving length, measured out to hit the top of the off stump. It slipped in just a touch, so slight that maybe it didn't at all but these are the things Asif makes you think, right through a gap the size of Africa. Cameron White is no Andrew Symonds, but he's no mug; that though is precisely what he looked as his off-stump - the top of it obviously - went.

To be frank, nothing Asif had done till then prepared anyone for this, only his past. Knowing nods were being exchanged by all, fans and hacks after his first five-over spell; a little rusty, might take some time, good to have him back though, and all that. There were good things about it, but mostly just that he was back and presumably clean: the ambling run-up, in it all the threat of a loaded paperclip, that easy, unremarkable action all coming together to produce that silent whip of the wrist at the end, often poisonous as a scorpion sting.

The comeback began with a wide down leg, though as it swung, everyone thought it was no bad thing. He was slow, but not really stray with it, until suddenly Tim Paine pinged him high over square leg, with the ease and absoluteness with which a man might spit. The radar was still being tuned in the next over when a cover drive was hit for four - which to Asif is often a victory.

But the nip was missing, that extra zip off the surface which was what had been given to him. The third over produced his fastest ball, which at just over 83mph, just about matches Shahid Afridi's faster one. In the same over came the first 'ooh'. Paine pulled into a drive that, like Keyser Soze, was never there. It popped up, but fell well short of mid-on: 'Aaah'.

Thereafter, nothing of interest for two overs. A couple of waist-high full tosses said only the obvious: coming back from 14 months out of international cricket is not going to be easy. He was mostly dead-straight, though there was nothing, not even a rumour of movement any which way. After five overs, he was gone, strolling around picturesque deep square leg, conducting the important business of signing autographs for Aussie fans with yellow wigs before coming back for a second spell and resuming his career.

For over a year cricket-obsessed Pakistanis have agonized over this man. They have remembered, with the sadness and fondness saved for those passed, his ability to bowl the ball that bowled White, the balls that sent back men such as Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Kumar Sangakkara, Kevin Pietersen and Virender Sehwag.

They have hoped that the last of him hasn't been seen, they have cussed him and wished his career dead, wondered whether he will ever sort himself out and not go the way of you know who, wondered whether he will ever do what he used to and even tried to forget him. It's ridiculous for a man so new to international cricket, but he was believed to be that good.

Fresh men have come in since and Pakistan have learnt to live without him. A place in the semi-final lineup cannot be guaranteed such are Pakistan's resources. It's good in a way and his captain will have to handle the comeback carefully. It'll help Younis Khan to know, however, that his man can still bowl the kind of the delivery that was his 38th today.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo