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Rabbit Holes

Which players have been the biggest losses to cricket this century?

Jesse Ryder? Shane Bond? Ryan Harris? The Mohammad Asif Sadness Club debate the players they regret not seeing more of

Mohammad Asif, patron saint of what-could-have-beens  •  Getty Images

Mohammad Asif, patron saint of what-could-have-beens  •  Getty Images

In this edition of Rabbit Holes, Osman Samiuddin, Andrew Fidel Fernando and Sidharth Monga gather for a round of lamentation and breast-beating over cricket's greatest unfulfilled talents and shed tears over what might have been.
Andrew Fidel Fernando, ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent: So, the biggest losses to cricket this century. I think given the people involved in the conversation, this will quickly degenerate into a Mohammad Asif support group. But there are so many others who've not had the careers we all wanted them to have.
Osman Samiuddin, senior editor: Wait, what? This is not the Asif Anonymous Group already?
Fernando: "Hi, I'm Osman, and it's been ten years since I last watched Asif bowl. (breaks down sobbing uncontrollably)"
Sidharth Monga, assistant editor: And the thing is, Asif don't care. Or at least doesn't seem to care.
Samiuddin: Although the thing is, I think Asif does care. In that interview with Umar Farooq it was clear he cares about how people remember him. Maybe just not enough to get bogged down by it.
Monga: He has moved on better than us. Which is him being kinda, "Yeah, this is life, what are you going to do about it?" But I also like that he is turning out in domestic cricket despite there being no hope that he will ever bowl at the highest level again. This is every ball of his first two spells of the QeA final in 2017-18. Cruelly, captained again by Salman Butt, who chose to field first, which is something you don't do in Test cricket these days. And the first two comments on the video!
Samiuddin: For the longest time - and even now - I believe that the careers of Kumar Sangakkara and AB de Villiers would have turned out different had they had to play Asif often.
Fernando: Sanga would have got out cheaply to Asif five times in a row one series and retired in shame in 2012 - that's how your fantasy goes, right?
Samiuddin: Earlier, ideally.
Monga: Hashim Amla, AB and Kevin Pietersen didn't even play him that much, but the little that they did was enough to convince them he was the best bowler they faced. Ahead of all the other legends of the time.
Samiuddin: But with the advances in batsmanship - though, I guess mostly in white-ball cricket - how would Asif have responded? It's not a bad time to be a Test bowler though, so he probably would have been okay still.
Fernando: I do think Asif would have loved some of the tracks Pakistan have played on in the last five, six years.
Samiuddin: The UAE? I mean, imagine Misbah captaining Asif - would he have turned him into an offspinner?
Fernando: Hah, true, but I meant more outside the UAE. Those New Zealand greentops where you can only see the batsman from the helmet up, because of the grass cover. He would also have adored a lot of the tracks Pakistan played on in Sri Lanka, in the middle of the last decade, when they were visiting every other weekend.
Samiuddin: Also can't help but think how he would have gone in Australia. He had one great Test there - in Sydney - but that surface was green that first morning and it had rained and clouds were around, so it was ideal. I think that's probably the last time Australia had anything other than a flat track. His set-ups were like Warne in conception - this one of Clarke especially. He bowled four-five balls to Clarke before this, all good length, on off-stump line, either not seaming or seaming away. Two-three he left alone to keeper. One he drove. This one he tried to drive again and it was the first one that seamed in. So, so, so simple.
Monga: Did you say set-ups? And he did it all without a perfect upright seam the way Mohammed Shami's is. Or maybe bolt upright is not perfect, who knows. Also, Marcus North getting out in three balls reminds me of Asif once saying he is sometimes disappointed with batsmen who don't let him set them up properly and get out before the payoff.
Samiuddin: There was also a great set-up of Shane Watson in a previous Test, where Asif bowled to an 8-1 off-side field for a couple of overs and well wide of off stump. Like, really wide outside. Almost unnoticed he was pulling Watson further and further out to the off side. And then suddenly, when literally nobody was expecting it, he bowled one a little straighter, quicker, it swung in a fair bit. Watson had moved out to off stump in anticipation and the ball ended up missing Watson's leg stump by millimetres. I don't think I would ever have seen a dismissal like that. All that work for one ball and it only narrowly didn't come off.
Fernando: I feel like we could be on Asif all day.
Samiuddin: The point of all of which is that I don't think I have regretted not seeing more of any cricketer than Asif. So that's decided. How about some others?
Though, I mean, Pakistan could put out three XIs of these players who were lost and they could play a pointless tri-series among themselves. Like Mohammad Zahid. Fastest four balls Brian Lara faced in his life.
Monga: Would Umar Akmal qualify?
Fernando: And if we're doing a long Pakistan lamentation, is Fawad Alam in the mix?
Samiuddin: Hundred per cent. Not lost so much as ignored. Overlooked. Spat upon. Trampled.
Monga: But we're drawing the line at Ahmed Shahzad?
Fernando: I'd like to throw two Kiwi names into the mix. Both of whom played 18 Tests. Both players of extreme quality. Lost to the game for reasons very different to Asif.
Samiuddin: Martin Guptill?
Fernando: Hah, no one so painfully vanilla. The first I'm thinking of, of course, is Jesse Ryder.
Samiuddin: Did you not once spend an entire six-month period of your life trying to chase him down?
Fernando: For a potential feature, yes, highly unsuccessfully. He was still playing. And still burning bridges. It was like the story hadn't actually stopped unravelling, so no one really wanted to talk about it.
Ryder just had such an instinctive feel for the game, whichever format he was playing. A rock-solid defence, a brutal pull shot, threw all of himself into those drives. When he middled it, you couldn't actually see the ball before it reappeared outside the boundary rope.
Monga: Underrated bowler and exceptional catcher to go with it. And he sold out stadiums. People came to watch Jesse Ryder.
Fernando: He was a monster at backward point.
Samiuddin: In that 2011 World Cup quarter-final in Dhaka, pitch like porridge - that was the only time I saw Ryder play and, my lord, if that wasn't the innings of that tournament. His timing that day was freakishly good. On that pitch - and the thing is, it's difficult to articulate - the difference in watching him bat and others that day was just so, so vast that you had to question yourself. Like, were you assessing the pitch wrong and were the rest just crap?
Monga: New Zealand is so not the country for Jesse. I remember him scoring a flawless double-century against India in Napier, and then breaking a chair or something in disgust when he got out. You can guess what got reported the next day.
Fernando: So I remember this crazy Ryder innings, where again, at the end, a chair got smashed (after a lot of Sri Lankan bowlers had also been smashed).
Samiuddin: I'm seeing a pattern here...
Monga: If I were the coach I would carry extra chairs.
Fernando: It was in the 2009 Champions Trophy. Ryder pulls a hamstring or a calf very early in this match. I think he was 7 off 7 or something like that. Basically can't run. And so he just starts blasting boundaries. Ten fours and a six - 74 off 58 balls.
Monga: He wasn't much for foot movement anyway, but somehow always played close to his body.
Fernando: Opening partner Brendon McCullum, who is supposed to be this shining paragon of Kiwi aggression, ambles to 42 off 74 at the other end. Eventually Ryder gets out, and he's clearly not happy. Just when he thinks he's out of view of the cameras, he absolutely lays into a plastic chair. Just destroys it with his bat. Except, of course, he wasn't out of view. This was seen and replayed many times. I'm sorry but I loved everything about that.
Samiuddin: Actually more than anything else, New Zealand need(ed) Ryder in their team to shed themselves of the "nicest guys in cricket" tag. I mean, yeah, of course, runs and stuff, but they need a guy in that side who does things like that.
Fernando: The New Zealand hill I will absolutely die on is that they would have converted one of their two World Cup finals into a win if Ryder was in the team. I don't blame the people who kicked Ryder out, really, because he's been given chances by many coaches in various continents - both domestic and international - and he's not managed to rein his behaviour in. But if Ryder had managed to improve the behaviour to juuust within that line, I think we would think of New Zealand as one of the great teams of the last decade, instead of just a very good one. And also just the thought of Williamson trying to captain Ryder - there could have been books written and films made just on that relationship.
Monga: I just feel cricket, especially the international variety, is very tough on someone like Jesse. It would have been a miracle if he had survived. Ross Taylor and Ryder were both discovered together. Neither came from a privileged background, but Taylor's privilege was that he had his act together. Mark Greatbatch, one of their earlier coaches, I remember, told me how Ryder was more skilled but Taylor was more rounded as a person. Ryder would throw up in the bin at the nets, Taylor would come home with a bottle of wine.
Samiuddin: Without knowing the details and insider stuff, was he so, so, so difficult to handle that they really couldn't find a place for him in the team at all? Or make it work somehow?
Fernando: They didn't throw him away lightly, tbf. They gave chances. And many people - agents, coaches, mentors - have tried various approaches and it's not worked out.
Samiuddin: I think that is the other point about these players, that they make so much of an impression, you're always left feeling somehow if the others - boards, teams, managers, agents - had just done something else/more he would have been okay.
Monga: More than anything, they also tell us that sometimes you have to accept things as they are. Especially when a team such as New Zealand does all it can get to keep you in. What joy it was to watch him in full flow. But it wasn't meant to be.
Samiuddin: Who was the other Kiwi?
Fernando: Okay, yes, enough Ryder. Someone who was at the other end of the spectrum in terms of temperament, but also glorious to watch in full flow. Guesses?
Samiuddin: Bond. The name is Bond.
Fernando: Nailed it. Like, Shane Bond with his yorkers.
Samiuddin: Bond is long gone as a bowler, but I feel like he's everywhere in the actions of so many modern fast bowlers.
Fernando: Huge influence on Tim Southee and Trent Boult.
Monga: Strike rate of 38 but couldn't play enough to get more than his 87 wickets.
Samiuddin: Adam Milne, Matt Henry - all their actions. Naseem Shah.
Fernando: And if we agree that aughts Australia had assembled the greatest ODI batting line up, Bond was the greatest destroyer of that top order. Seventeen matches v Aus: average of 15.79, SR of 21.4, economy rate 4.41 - there's no touching that in ODIs
Samiuddin: Bond, in a very different way, is the epitome of what Monga said earlier, about how it's just meant to be for some. No off-field issues (that I can think of), great guy to have in a team. But just had a body that couldn't sustain it.
Monga: In a way I agree, but you can continue working on the body, you can even come back as a bowler with less pace but more wiles, you can still cut yourself a career, but it is different with mental health.
Fernando: Bond just was incredibly, incredibly fragile, though. I'm not sure even turning himself into a medium-pacer - which he has said he was never interested in, btw - would have worked. There were unusual things as well: I remember he once went off the field in a match with a migraine and couldn't bowl, and caught absolute hell on talkback radio in New Zealand for being soft.
Samiuddin: Incidentally, Bond talked about the injuries stemming - ironically - from that action, in this great piece on him by Rahul Bhattacharya, at the 2007 World Cup. He talks here about losing a little of that pace.
Fernando: His last Test, which was a fantastic game against Pakistan in Dunedin, he blew them away with pace in the first innings, iirc.
Monga: It was a great Test. Akmal was unleashed in this game, right?
Fernando: Yes, Asif took 4 for 43 as well. Pity Ryder didn't play. It would have been the poster Test for everything we've talked about.
Monga: Ryder was a veteran of wistfulness by then.
Fernando: Fawad Alam was in that Test as well! Here's the wicket description from the first dig: "Bond's breathing fire here, he hits the deck hard from over the wicket, lands it short of a length on middle and Fawad barely had time to react and fend it off, he fails to drop his gloves down and the ball shaves his glove before landing safely in McCullum's hands."
Monga: While sticking with fast bowlers, I have a name that I am not sure you will agree with. It is more down to having been kept out by big names throughout his 20s, but what we saw of Ryan Harris in 27 Tests in his 30s (also cut short by a back surgery, which he went to after taking a last wicket in the dying moments of a momentous Test) makes me wonder with a little disappointment what a great bowler we lost out on.
Samiuddin: Absolutely, only four more Tests than Asif.
Monga: And what an Asif-like bowler too.
Samiuddin: But I also feel with Harris that Australia celebrated him so much, that he was part of so many big moments against South Africa and England - big series - that he kind of lived a full career… which, of course, he never did in reality
Fernando: And I guess that the injuries came at an age when you expect those things to happen to a quick. Whereas Asif's exit seemed so premature.
Monga: His wrist admittedly did less magic than Asif, but his accuracy was stifling. He lived by the Asif philosophy: if I beat the bat, I should be hitting the pad or the stumps; if I take the edge, it should go to keeper or first slip
Samiuddin: Except, quicker than Asif. Always felt Stuart Clark was the more like-for-like Asif bowler
Monga: We love Asif for the highlights reels his wickets make it to, but arguably Harris has provided us with better seam porn. Have a look at this. This also reminds me, I recently saw Harris seam a ball in the IPL. That I would never have believed had there been no video evidence.
Samiuddin: Asif seamed some balls in the IPL too - 2008.
Fernando: What a trip it is now to think that Pakistan players actually took part in the IPL.
Monga: The greatest loss to cricket: Pakistan players missing the IPL.
Samiuddin: Snap.
Fernando: Genuinely, though, they would have changed the dynamic of that tournament so much. And you suspect the IPL would have changed Pakistan cricket as well.
Samiuddin: But the PSL may not have happened also... Or maybe it would have happened earlier.
Fernando: Umar Gul would have cut it up.
Samiuddin: And Sohail Tanvir as the greatest T20 bowler ever?
Fernando: Lasith Malinga would still have crushed it, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Samiuddin: I know I'm being old and boomer-y but Malinga in Tests, I feel, is an unfulfilled thing.
Monga: Malinga would have made a bowler of great spells in Test cricket. Innocuous for long whiles, but then a switch would flick on and he would run through three-four guys in one three-over spell on a humid day at the SSC.
Samiuddin: Yes and that three-over spell would have turned the day, the Test, even the series.
Fernando: If you can hustle a fantastic batsman with a bouncer in Galle, you're a decent bowler. But then with Malinga, it's kind of a double-edged sword. You don't have Malinga if you don't have that action. And you probably can't have that action and a long Test career. What makes him is what breaks him. Unlike, say Bond, who could conceivably have had a long career with a better body.
Samiuddin: Before starting this I had made a list of all the players that would feature here: Shaun Tait, Vinod Kambli, Mohammad Zahid, Asif, Ryder, Wasim Raja, all of South Africa before return, Chris Lewis
Chris Lewis, man. I watch Jofra and I get strong Lewis vibes. Not in terms of the pace or anything, but in how easily he did things, without showing any signs of the strain and toll it takes on a body. Though who knows how quick Lewis was - no speed guns in his time and he was never celebrated for his pace. But he could bat a bit, great in the field, loose and easy action.
Monga: Did we get enough of Steve Harmison?
Samiuddin: Yes. Harmison played 63 Tests.
Fernando: But I think we've mostly exhausted this chat now. We're dipping into the '90s, and now discussing players who actually had decently long careers. We'll be talking about Kevin Pietersen next. I've just sat in on too many conversations in England about what a loss KP was. And he played 104 Tests.
Samiuddin: In England if you don't play 150 Tests, you ain't nothing.
Monga: And now the rhinos have him. Poor rhinos. Though I think he is actually doing something for them.
Fernando: He's probably trash-talking them behind their backs. Anyway, I think this conversation has degenerated. Like the actions of so many fast bowlers gone before their time.
Osman: Yeah, I think we're done.
Fernando: Let's call it. I don't know about you guys, but I'm going to put on some Asif highlights reels, eat huge quantities of ice cream straight from the tub, and cry myself to sleep.