x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A case of 'what if' for Pakistan's tainted bowler Asif

As clever a bowler as we have seen, but too devious for his own good. The game is poorer as a result.

Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Asif has been released from prison.
Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Asif has been released from prison.

Few things capture the imagination of the sports lover quite like the what-might-have-been story.

Would Archie Jackson have been Don Bradman's equal if tuberculosis had not claimed him at 23?

How much might Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi have averaged if he had use of both eyes? Could Shane Bond have become one of the game's bowling greats but for injury?

Those are stories tinged with misfortune. But there are others who bring it upon themselves, who spurn the gifts given them through moments of stupidity.

Mohammad Asif was a serial offender. He did not test positive for steroids once. He managed it twice. He also managed to be caught at Dubai airport with traces of a recreational drug in his wallet.

After that came spot-fixing, for which he had to serve several months in jail. The ban from playing cricket of any sort extends to 2016, by which time he will be 34 years old.

He last played for Pakistan at Lord's in 2010. The road back is not impossible, but for the moment, it's a chimera.

With the Indian Premier League approaching its business end and Chris Gayle breaking a contract with Somerset to ease his return to the West Indian fold, news of Asif's release from prison last week did not really make the headlines.

For those that noted it though, it was a grim reminder of what cricket has lost, perhaps forever.

The pace bowling stock in international cricket is as low as it has been for a while.

Dale Steyn is destined for the pantheon, a perfect amalgam of pace, aggression and intelligence.

To watch the South African's spells to Sachin Tendulkar at Cape Town in 2011 was to witness cricket at its finest.

Even in the bat-orientated world of Twenty20, he has made his presence felt, with some of the most telling spells of this season's IPL.

England's James Anderson is another approaching greatness.

For him, the biggest test awaits, India later this year. It is an examination that Steyn has aced twice and Anderson will need to bowl as well as he did in the UAE and Sri Lanka to succeed against an Indian side that are unlikely to succumb as meekly as they did the last English summer.

India can call on Zaheer Khan. These days, he bowls at little more than medium pace, but his ability to work batsmen out with both swing and seam movement makes him one of the game's elite performers.

Asif was in that mould, only even more clever. Few noticed him on debut in Sydney in 2005 - he finished with 0-88 - but there were more than a few raised eyebrows at the quality of his display in his third game, against India at Karachi in 2006.

While Shoaib Akhtar steamed in from one end, Asif ambled, loose of wrist and extremely accurate. Seam movement - the almost-lost art of cutting the ball - fetched him most of his seven wickets, as one of the game's most feted batting line-ups succumbed by 341 runs.

There were other eye-catching showings - 17 wickets in a 2-0 win in Sri Lanka and 19 in three Tests in South Africa - but over the course of a career interrupted by both bans and injury, he played just 23 Tests.

Graeme Pollock, who played the same number, is another of those who-knows tales thanks to the Apartheid politics of his era, but at least the South African's name crops up each time the discussion veers round to the greatest batsmen to have played the game.

Because of what he did off the field, Asif will be remembered as cricket's Artful Dodger.

As clever a bowler as we have seen, but too devious for his own good. The game is poorer as a result.

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