The road leading from Lahore to Sialkot - the Grand Trunk road - has a police picket just as you start to leave the former city. The car I am in is stopped for a routine check, and a policeman asks me my profession. When I tell him I write on cricket, he complains that he's never heard of me, though he has played a lot of cricket and is related to a Test cricketer too. When I ask the name of this relative, he mumbles the answer, almost looking away. I tell him that is the very cricketer I am making this journey to go see in action.
I couldn't help but read the coincidence as an omen. Here I was, awake early on a weekend, travelling to see a bowler I had spent over five years waiting to see again, and the first person I meet is a cousin of Mohammad Asif himself. Wondering about this moment provoked exactly the sort of emotions that Asif's art - because it's too crass to just call it bowling - evoked in me. You never could tell what he was up to, but you could be assured he was up to something.
As I was thinking these thoughts, the car stereo served up a Kanye West song, and my mind became stuck on one lyric: "No one man should have all that power." Wasn't that the great tragedy of Asif's career? A bowler who seemed to have no end of ways to fool batsmen ended up banned because he was trying to fool all of cricket itself. If Salman Butt's sins are seen as greed, and Mohammad Amir's as naivete, then perhaps Asif's sins came from hubris.
All these grand narratives, however, are brought firmly back to earth by the sight of Jinnah Stadium, Sialkot. While both the outfield and the pitch are in good condition, the stadium itself seems like it is frozen in time. The stands are bare and concrete, and it's disconcerting to see a stadium without any branding: the only signage, hand-painted, is to do with commercial entities from another era, and for advertising businesses that possibly no longer exist. The match itself is in an underwhelming situation. Asif's side, WAPDA, have taken a few wickets overnight, and started the morning with two more, to leave the opposition, UBL, four down.
We were here, though, because a few days earlier Asif had added an entry to the modern phenomenon of the return to the mainstream via viral video. Much like Amir's comeback to domestic cricket last year, Asif's return was electrified by the release of a clip that showed him befuddling batsmen all over again. In both cases the videos answered the question everyone wanted to know: is he still as good as he used to be? It was a question relevant to only the two bowlers in the spot-fixing trio, since the lesser-talented Butt hadn't inspired such frenzy with his (televised) return to the domestic game.
Before leaving, I had asked Osman Samiuddin for tips on what to look out for when watching Asif. Few people have seen and written on Asif as extensively as Samiuddin, who said, "I'd say the key thing about Asif was always, always, always the lengths he hit." Once the length is there, he continued, "then come the fripperies - the hair, the lachak [elasticity] in the run-up… the flick of that wrist that makes it almost look like he's chucking".
Back in Sialkot, it took eight overs before Asif was brought on. There was no pretence of a warm-up and he basically just jogged into bowl. The first few deliveries were slow, soft and wide, but then on the fourth delivery he found it. The batsman came forward without fully being able to do so and had to defend a ball outside his off stump. Asif soon settled into that groove, making the batsman defend balls of slightly different lengths.
As he continued his seemingly innocuous spell, I was reminded again of how easy it is to undervalue his contribution. His ability to dry up runs is an asset for any captain regardless of the wickets he takes, but he has always been defined by the ability to bowl magic when you expect the mundane
As he continued his seemingly innocuous spell, I was reminded again of how easy it is to undervalue his contribution. His ability to dry up runs is an asset for any captain regardless of the wickets he takes, but he has always been defined by the ability to bowl magic when you expect the mundane. Asif would always make you realise that the innocent-looking deliveries that had led up to the dismissal were all part of a grand plan. So perhaps it's no surprise that when he finally conceded a run off a wide ball down the leg side, my friend and I watching both wondered if even that loose ball was part of a ploy.
If it was, it doesn't pan out as planned. The main contribution we witness is that after facing Asif almost exclusively during his spell, UBL's Sohaib Maqsood is dismissed immediately after by Asif's replacement, Mohammad Irfan. Asif's spell at that point reads 14 runs off 12 overs, with no wickets. We don't see the movement or the trickery he is renowned for, but we do see that the metronomic nature of his bowling is still there. He doesn't have his full bag of tricks, but his calling card - the delivery at a teasing length - comes out regularly.
When we meet him later, he both begins and ends our conversation talking about a side strain that he has been playing with. He also brings up the strain to explain why the keeper came up to the stumps after his first over, though he quickly adds that the main reason was to stop Sohaib shuffling.
For much of the conversation, he projects a sober, realistic outlook of his prospects. He talks about the need to ease himself into bowling long spells, of how nothing compares to the physical test of long-form bowling. He says that he isn't in a hurry to come back, not until he has found his fitness, which he estimates could take the whole season. When asked about the pressures of the last five years, he expresses remorse for the "mistake" made by the three, and says that no one should emulate them. He talks about the importance of not giving up, and says that had any of them lost hope at any point, they would have never come back.
It all feels like what you'd expect from a cricketer, particularly one seeking atonement, but somewhere in the middle, the unfiltered Asif comes through. Even the bare confines of Jinnah Stadium are briefly illuminated by his strut and swagger.
He reveals that side of himself first when asked about which format he'd like to return in - red-ball cricket only, or limited-overs as well? He sits up as he replies, saying he's ready for any format. He then says that the rule change with two balls used in 50 overs would help him, since it would mean that "one ball would be just with me, it would be mine, under my control".
When he's asked which batsman he is most eager to face again, he laughs with a soft, knowing chuckle. "I don't care, I can take on anyone." He explains that he doesn't believe in hyping up anyone he plays against. "When I step on the field, no one is bigger than me. I am the big man out there, that's what I always believe."
A point for surmise and conjecture is how Asif's style of bowling might have suited Misbah's hugely successful Test side. Few bowlers in history could execute Misbah's preferred tactic of drying up the flow of runs and picking up wickets as well as Asif. But when I put the question to him, his response is guarded. He talks - in a perfunctory way - about how well Misbah's side has used its advantages. His attitude reminds me of a quote by the footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who once said he wouldn't be watching the World Cup because he wasn't in it. It almost felt like despite the match in ideals, Asif wasn't interested in watching Misbah's Pakistan side because he wasn't in it.
The full spectrum of his swagger emerges in the answer to a question on modern batting, particularly how much the discipline has evolved during his time away. Asif waves away the question, arguing that cricket should always be kept as simple as possible - a bowler needs to hit the three stumps. He says that modern T20 has made bowlers scared. Often times, he complains, they don't even complete their follow-through if they've been hit.
I asked him what he thought of AB de Villiers, a player who had spoken of how Asif troubled him, who was now at the cutting edge of batting's possibilities. Asif laughs dismissively, and then says: "[Back then] AB was already AB. Him, Kevin Pietersen, they are all my bunnies. I was the same before, I'll bowl the same way now if AB faces me. We can see what happens."
And that is Asif at his most beguiling. A practitioner of cricket's most visceral skill, he has always set himself apart as someone who breaks the mind rather than the body. For him, the intimidation is not through fear but with absolute superiority.
Five years later, it isn't clear if his body can hold up, though. When he spoke about lasting the season, he wasn't just being practical - it was also an admission that he couldn't be sure if he would make it. That means perhaps the only people who see Asif's magic again will be those in empty stadiums hosting domestic matches. And so, while on that morning in Sialkot it was abundantly clear that the spirit of Asif was as devious as it always was, and that he still had the confidence of a world-class bowler, beneath the bluster his body might still betray him.
After all, no one man can have all that power.