Woolmer hails Asif the matchwinner
What a difference one Test and a year makes. Mohammad Asif's debut - a particularly unremarkable one against Australia at Sydney in January 2005 - was more memorable for a cool catch he took at long-on rather than his bowling, which went wicketless. It prompted Ian Chappell to remark during the Pakistan-Sri Lanka series that he remembered the Test but not Asif. And although he was blunted, like others, by a flat Faisalabad pitch, when he was recalled against India earlier this year, since then he has picked up 24 wickets in three Tests.
Seventeen of those came in two Tests against Sri Lanka, including a match-winning 11-wicket haul in the win at Kandy. He told The News, "To be honest the success Allah has given me in the last few matches has still not sunk in and seems like a dream. I still can't believe that the last three Tests have gone so well for me, especially when I think that in my debut Test in Australia I hadn't got a wicket."
Bob Woolmer has regularly cited him as one of the hardest-working - and most-improved - players in the Pakistan squad, though Asif himself was unable to explain how the transformation has come about. "I really can't pinpoint one particular area of improvement due to which I have got so much success. I've just been concentrating on strengthening my body and concentrating on line and length and the hard work has paid off. For a fast bowler it's very important to generate pace and I'm working on that without sacrificing my line and length."
On his performance at Kandy, Asif said, "It was a good pitch to bowl on and I particularly enjoyed both times I got Thilan Samaraweera. On both occasions he left the ball and didn't read its movement off the seam. That was very satisfying for me."
There is, though, little rest for the talented, or successful. Pakistan's next major assignment is the England tour in the summer, and some are already predicting his success there. Asif will have a headstart as from later this month, he will be playing for Leicestershire in the county championship. "There is talk about how good the English conditions are for seam bowlers but I think on any pitch you've to work hard and bowl sensibly. I'm keen to do well in England."
The sudden increase in the burden he is carrying - he bowled 74 overs against Sri Lanka, second only to Danish Kaneria - brings its own problems with it and Woolmer has already spoken to Leicestereshire to restrict the workload on Asif for fear of injury or burn-out. Woolmer said, "He is certainly a big find for us and he keeps getting better everyday. I don't think Pakistan for a long time has had a bowler like him, who bowls to a consistent line and length and hits the deck in the mould of Glen McGrath. Pakistan has had some great bowlers in recent years and I also see a bright future for this young man.
"The only thing is that we need to preserve him for the coming series as we are playing a lot of cricket in the run up to the World Cup. I've already spoken to the Leicestershire chief executive and asked him to keep the workload on Asif to a minimum."
Woolmer said Asif would improve from his stint with Leicestershire and will be an important part of the attack in the series against England. "The key is to ensure we don't overuse him and he does not face fitness problems. One of the positives from this tour we can take is the fact that our reserve strength is now maturing a lot. I think he is a quality bowler and at times he was unplayable. We just have to take good care of him. At the same time we need to develop the other young bowlers as well who were not that effective in this Test."
Woolmer also added that he was pleased the way his side had fought back in difficult conditions following the ODI loss to India. "It shows that some of them are mentally very tough. To come from a demoralising defeat and perform in these hot conditions says a lot about the character of this side. We were 109 runs behind in the first innings here and we still came back strongly to bowl them out for 73. That showed we have mental toughness, which is so important these days for any side."