Between October and December last year, when Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar were in a drug-induced limbo many Pakistani fans openly pleaded that they wouldn't mind Shoaib not returning but if Asif could be released, well that would be just dandy.
It said nothing new about Shoaib; he divides opinion, sometimes within the same being, during the same day. About Asif though it said all that needed to be said and just two Tests into his return, you can understand the dilemma: sure he's done wrong but he's just so good. His seven-wicket haul in the first Test at Centurion couldn't quite swing it, but with a titan's effort and a little help from some friends, Asif helped Pakistan equal the series at Port Elizabeth.
At times, watching him in the second innings, where he did most of his damage, was frightening. At any minute, as he rolled in for another over, you felt he could, he would, he should, just stop and say enough. After 38 overs who could blame him?
An attack one bowler short, Inzamam-ul-Haq was shuffling limited resources as shrewdly as he could. Still, Asif began the second innings with a lung-bursting 13-over spell. He rested 20 overs and ended the day with a three-over burst. Next morning, the third of the Test, he started with six then bowled one before lunch and nine immediately after. He wasn't done, bidding adieu with another six on the run after tea.
But what was scary was how alike each over was, each new one a kind of clone of the one just bowled. He hardly flagged in any spell, so much so that three of his five wickets came in his last 15 overs. Mark Boucher pulled a short ball solidly for four in the 104th over, Asif's 32nd. Robin Jackman, in commentary, observed "Maybe Asif is just tiring a little now." Next ball, Boucher was beaten by a snake of a delivery, slanting in and breaking away appreciably. The no-ball, that modern Pakistani curse and one that had gripped him in the first Test (24 no-balls) was shed, as he bowled only two.
The scariest was that each of his last three victims was almost set in stone at the crease and none was a mug; Jacques Kallis had been there for nearly five hours, Herschelle Gibbs and Boucher just under and over two, respectively. Gibbs and Kallis were the product of overs in which he worked away at them, a precocious child diligently working out a particularly tough problem.
In fact, you sense from his wicket-taking celebrations he prefers the challenge of a Kallis or a Rahul Dravid, what purists would call proper batsmen. When he bowled AB de Villiers in the second innings, there was barely a peep from him, no joy revealing itself in the follow through.
Cruel though it is to say, snooty even, it appeared as if de Villiers had been worked out too easily, too quickly, no challenge provided: Asif wanted him out of the way so the serious business of his bowling could begin - the dismantling of Kallis and Ashwell Prince. Ed Joyce, whom he dismissed at a Trent Bridge ODI last summer, was treated like this. Then, Asif ushered him on his way unsmilingly, eyes glinting at the prospect of lining up Ian Bell and subsequently Kevin Pietersen.
Boucher's wicket made it a fourth five-wicket haul in eight Tests and though a couple of his spells have been more destructive none so far have been quite as immense, as unstinting. Already, barely a year on from becoming a regular, he is just six short of 50 Test wickets. This may be the first time Mohammad Asif has been the subject of this column. It won't be the last.
"I feel a bit stiff." Asif's unsurprising first words to Ian Bishop on TV, after day three, having bowled 38 overs and taken 5 for 76.
He also says
"It was difficult but it was something I had to do. I have bowled that many overs in domestic cricket before. I was trying to keep hitting the stumps and not bowl any wides." Asif reveals the secrets of his genius.
"He is a modern-day fast bowler based on the likes of [Shaun] Pollock and [Glenn] McGrath. He gives you control and has the ability to hit the seam and make the ball move both ways. In Pakistan terms he is more Sarfraz Nawaz than Imran Khan. He is both humble and confident and very determined. He hates to lose and backs himself. He said to me when he left Australia (after an unimpressive debut in January 2005), "Don't worry coach I will show you what I can do. Just wait." - Bob Woolmer on Asif.