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Ahmer Naqvi

The Asif enigma

Unlike other Pakistani cricketers who have strayed, he has not been at pains to show penitence

Ahmer Naqvi
Ahmer Naqvi
With Mohammad Asif, it seems impossible to separate the art from the artist  •  Getty Images

With Mohammad Asif, it seems impossible to separate the art from the artist  •  Getty Images

There was a time when every time I watched a Woody Allen film, it seemed to be specifically addressing precisely the very issues that I was grappling with in my own life. Therefore, it was quite shocking when I later learnt that he had been accused of various sexual crimes, including against his own adopted children.
Given that he did not face much ostracism despite these claims, a part of me wondered whether by liking his films I was contributing to the privilege that insulated him from scrutiny. One bit of advice I received was to "separate the art from the artist". It was important to hold the human being accountable for their sins, but that didn't mean that one had to judge what they created similarly. After all, the impact of a work of art is related to the meaning the viewer generates from it.
I was given that advice with the warning that it didn't absolve one of making one's own decision, and only served as a guide. I saw the wisdom in that when I started trying to deal with the wave of emotions associated with the end of Mohammad Asif's international ban last week.
Let me first make clear my thoughts on the matter. I believe all three men served their stipulated punishments, and as such are welcome to return to any team they can make on merit. If anyone objects to their return, then my feeling is that their issue is with the current laws of the game, which don't ensure lifetime bans for all offenders of fixing crimes.
But while that is the legal perspective, we all have an emotional take on the matter too. Salman Butt, the most privileged, and least talented, of the three, initially elicited the least sympathy. However, by being defiantly dishonest and mongering conspiracies on talk shows for half a decade, he has created a vocal minority of support. Mohammad Amir, the youngest of the lot, admitted his guilt the earliest, and even maintained a level of celebrity. Many in the game now fear that he only displayed a pretence of remorse, but his cause is largely supported across the game.
For a man capable of such elaborate deception in his bowling, is it outrageous to say that fixing could be regarded as an extension of that impulse?
Asif, however, remains an enigma. Before the spot-fixing case, Butt's biggest crime was being boring, while Amir's was ogling women instead of catching out Ricky Ponting. Asif, however, had a charge sheet as long as any - off the top of my head, the misdemeanours have included fighting with team-mates, getting caught with opiates overseas, taking banned performance-enhancing drugs, and swindling his film-star girlfriend.
In the case of Woody Allen and his like, there was a greater ease in separating the art from the artist. To me, the greatest insight his films offered into his personal life was that he was obsessed with sex and death within permissible, not criminal, levels of deviancy. But with Asif, it seems like the art is impossible to separate from the artist.
What else was he doing if not playing Pakistan for the long con? How exactly could a man show up in a country that was at the point of a two-decade culmination of obsession with pace and wow it with his seemingly gentle yet devious offerings? Even in super slow-mo high-definition, there was no guessing the intentions of his seductively wobbling seam. Even with pitch maps and lazy comparisons to Glenn McGrath, there was never any way of predicting what his next move would be. Even when he seemed like the most boring fast bowler running in, there was never a moment that Asif's bowling could be boring. For a man capable of such elaborate deception, is it outrageous to say that fixing could be regarded as an extension of that impulse?
It's not like Asif was the first fixer, but he was certainly unique in how he dealt with the aftermath. For example, the allegations of fixing against Wasim Akram had a noticeable impact - he blamed the pressure for developing diabetes, and was often found playing at his sublime best just when the din of accusations reached their peak. Others from that generation chose to embrace religion, changing the way they dressed and looked. Often the most flamboyant, hard-to discipline types were cleanest on this front - neither Shahid Afridi nor Shoaib Akhtar are famed for the choices they have made, but both steered clear of this particular morass. Asif, though, was both flamboyant and a repeat offender.
I was in London during Asif's trial and I attended a session where he testified in a mix of Urdu and Punjabi. At one point the stern judge asked the English translator to repeat what had been a rather colourful passage, and the largely South Asian courtroom burst into laughter. I remember staring at Asif, who stood impassive, his eyes looking down. It reminded me of my days of being called to the principal's office in school. Back then, first-timers would wear their guilt on their faces, while the veterans would sport the look of innocence and indifference that Asif wore that day in court.
It was then that I realised Asif's insouciance in the face of a criminal trial was similar to the #DGAF attitude that defined his bowling. If Shoaib was the so-called bad boy of that era, Asif was positively wicked. He loved reminding batsmen that he had just humiliated them. Gautam Gambhir got a mocking bow; Ed Joyce got a snort of derision; Laxman and Sehwag were given ecstatic I-told-you-so's. Asif even publicly regretted an AB de Villiers dismissal once because AB got out before he had finished laying his trap.
Like most societies, Pakistan is overtly forgiving of its celebrities. One of the nation's top-rated TV personalities is an evangelist who has shrugged off leaked videos confirming his hypocrisies. Many a cricketer has appeared with luxuriant beards or from hospital beds, radiating vulnerability and pleading for redemption. If Asif had wanted that, then despite all his sins, he could have had it. Instead, he has largely been invisible, and thus effectively unrepentant. That doesn't make him better or worse, but it certainly makes him more mysterious and fascinating.
Even after all this time, just like with the deliveries he used to bowl, there is no real way of knowing which way Asif will turn. But whether in his life or in his bowling, deception can never be far behind.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal