Asif toys with Australia's batsmen
This was the only way the Test was going to be interesting. Half the prayers were answered even before Shahid Afridi called the right side of the coin as a stubborn, large black cloud parked itself over Lord's. You did not need an octopus to tell you that Pakistan would bowl. And no one was more eager than Mohammad Asif.
He turned twice, keen to get on with his act, the second over after the delayed start. Both times, Shane Watson stalled Asif, busy marking his guard. The first ball pitched accurately on a length and seamed away to draw an instant smile from Asif. Even a boundary, a cover drive off a half volley, did not deter him as he galloped towards Watson and couldn't stop smiling. If the Australian was wondering why Asif was grinning, he would have understood by the end of the day. To begin with, Asif bowled a six-over spell in the hour-long first session. That included a maiden to Watson which played a role in the his demise during the following over by the unrelenting Mohammad Aamer, who maintained the pressure at the opposite end.
But after Aamer's initial burst of speed, swing and accuracy, combined with Asif's control, Pakistan had fallen by the wayside as they were hoping for a wicket rather than dominating and expecting one. Asif returned for a brief three-over burst which proved expensive as Michael Clarke picked his length neatly and dispatched him to the ropes a few times. Probably the 7-2 field was also proving to be irksome for Asif. Through the morning and then for the better half of the second session, Afridi had allowed only a couple of leg-side fielders for Asif. That took the sting out of his outswing as the batsmen left him alone and didn't go for the drives.
Another crucial mistake was to bowl Asif from the Nursery End when for generations, captains have operated their best men from the opposite side. Afridi soon corrected that. Three overs before tea, Asif lined up to deliver from the Pavilion End. Bowling into the slope, proved much easier as he gained ample bounce and movement. In the preceding six overs, Clarke and Simon Katich had cranked up the scoring rate and collected 40 runs. The pair seemed settled in their minds. It was also a period when the sun had managed to break through the thick clouds for the longest duration.
But Asif found a sudden spring in his step. The pace was markedly higher than the previous two spells. He knew Clarke was in high tempo. Unlike Aamer and Umar Gul, who had played a handful of matches before entering this Test, Asif had arrived with just a two-day warm-up clash against Leicestershire on a slowish pitch. The lack of practice was not going to be a deterrent especially in conditions tailormade for his art. He knew the turf, the conditions, the lovely seam on the Duke ball were all in his favour. He could now dictate the proceedings.
Already the rhythm had been established from the first ball in the morning. With the gait of a marathon runner, Asif, loose-limbed, charged in effortlessly to work his magic with those gifted wrists. Luckily, the batsman was already under his spell: in the over before tea, Clarke had been forced on the back foot after being beaten by a delivery that pitched and straightened a touch. Clarke remained wary for the incoming delivery, which duly arrived, beating his forward defence and trapping him leg before.
The outswinger took care of Katich while two balls later Marcus North was embarrassed with the in-dipper. The split-screen on TV highlighted his art as those wrists stood straight and supple while the seam was just adjusted a little to get the job done. Asif had bowled two wicket-maidens and picked up three scalps in a span of seven deliveries. Pakistan did not retreat from the dominant position thereafter. "That spell had a huge impact on the game now. That is the time we came back in the game," Salman Butt said.
Katich, who had witnessed Asif for the longest period, was not shy to admit who the most fearsome bowler in the opposition was. "He has got the ability to move the ball both ways. He is obviously not as quick as the other two guys but the thing with Asif is he has very good wrists. He generally hits very good lengths on those sort of wickets. All day we knew he would be tough and in that spell he bowled a couple of good balls and got his tail up."
Since his return to the Test team in New Zealand last November, following a two-year hiatus, Asif has been Pakistan's best bowler. He has collected 35 wickets at 22.82 in seven Tests and has 11 more victims than the next best bowler. Despite his off-field troubles and fitness issues, a confident Asif has always retained the ability to charm the batsmen, woo them, and then slyly get rid of them without as much as a blink. His body language could be lethargic, even casual, but his art remains lucid and it is never easy to not get tempted. Pakistan need more days like these and they need Asif smiling.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo