x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Absence of outsider Mohammad Asif will be felt by Pakistan

Though tainted by drugs bans, spot-fixing and imprisonment, Pakistan have never produced a fast bowler quite like him, says Osman Samiuddin.

British police personnel escort former Pakistan cricketer Mohammad Asif (R) as he arrives at Westminster Magistrates court in central London, on March 17, 2011. Three Pakistan cricketers accused of spot-fixing in a test match against England last year appeared in a British court Thursday to face criminal charges. Former captain Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer were greeted by a scrum of photographers and cameramen as they arrived at City of Westminster Magistrates Court in London. AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA
British police personnel escort former Pakistan cricketer Mohammad Asif (R) as he arrives at Westminster Magistrates court in central London, on March 17, 2011. Three Pakistan cricketers accused of spot-fixing in a test match against England last year appeared in a British court Thursday to face criminal charges. Former captain Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer were greeted by a scrum of photographers and cameramen as they arrived at City of Westminster Magistrates Court in London. AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA

Quite unexpectedly but pleasantly, at around the same time he was being released from prison earlier this month, I rediscovered the recording of an interview I had done with Mohammad Asif almost exactly five years ago.

At the time, he had just missed the 2007 World Cup, officially because of an injury but unofficially because the Pakistan Cricket Board's (PCB) feared he would test positive for banned substances that still had not been flushed out of his system. The previous October, along with Shoaib Akhtar, he had tested positive for nandrolone in a dope test conducted by the PCB.

Though tainted, he still had a future ahead of him and was thus suitably cheery.

Pakistan had never produced a fast bowler quite like him.

He was a year away from testing positive again for a banned substance - this time in the Indian Premier League - and from being detained at Dubai International Airport for possession of illegal substances. Lord's was a lifetime away.

The interview was a reminder why, personally, more than Mohammad Amir and Salman Butt, I felt the loss of Asif most acutely.

That day, Asif talked for nearly an hour on bowling alone, to batsmen like Jacques Kallis and Kevin Pietersen, or at Karachi's National Stadium which was his favourite ground because both ends helped swing in the afternoon and about seam bowling and lengths.

He loved duping Pietersen in their first encounter in a side game on England's 2005/06 tour to Pakistan.

After hearing the non-striker tell the incoming Pietersen that Asif was mainly swinging it away, he naturally jagged his first ball in to trap him leg before.

He laughed hard at Danish Kaneria taking the catch at deep square leg to get him his first Test wicket because, well, Kaneria doing anything in the field always brought a laugh or three.

But he was articulate, knowledgeable and detailed about bowling, to a degree few Pakistani fast bowlers have been.

Wasim Akram was a genius with the ball but not always able (or willing) to talk about his art lucidly. For the first half of his career Waqar Younis operated under one instruction: to blow away batsmen. And Imran Khan, magnificent as he was, was never a man for details.

Mohammad Haroon, his first captain, (a leg-spinner who, incidentally, is now helping him out in the UK) in the famed Sheikhupura Gymkhana club side was influential, but Asif was an autodidactic product; mentors, coaches, senior bowlers were all useful, but didn't define him.

If you did not know your own game, he said, you should not be playing Test cricket.

Asif had a subversive appeal because he wasn't really a Pakistani fast bowler. He hated the obsession with speed guns and pace.

Given how ingrained bowling fast is in Pakistan, that felt wrong but precisely because of that, it also felt very right. In its fastest form, bowling can produce a frenetic, rising and uncontrollable beat inside the head of the watcher, but can only be tolerated in short bursts.

Asif planted a jazz beat inside your head, well-constructed, subtle and sustained. In fact, it was only catchy if it was sustained.

Further proof of his outsider-ness has been evident since Lord's, when the glare has rested mostly on Amir, for his youth and brief career, and Butt, for being the captain and orchestrator.

Asif's transgression has kind of slipped by as a reversion to stereotype. For him, this has been seen as the continuation of a pattern.

He gave no rehabilitative interview on his release, nobody wanted to know why he might have done it. No sympathy emerged and neither did he seek any. He came out and said something about fish not forgetting how to swim.

He can probably still, to use his own analogy, swim pretty well but if he ever comes back, cricket will have contorted itself through some serious loopholes.

Instead all that remains is that afternoon with a man not tall so much as stretched out, a dry wit and a little bristle, all enveloped within a casualness that suggests he will probably live through whatever he is living through.

And reconstructions in the head (and on YouTube) are at least available, of two Hashim Amla dismissals in Karachi and Lahore and the Cameron White dismissal on his last comeback (all bowled); of a near-miss of Shane Watson in Melbourne constructed over an hour's build-up; of a difficult catch at long-off he made look not so difficult on his debut in Sydney; of narrow but well-utilised wrists that gained him cut but also, as I discovered in a hotel in Faisalabad once, made him a crack table tennis player.

Each of his 106 Test wickets felt like the end of some beautiful passing wind of conception.

And we are also left with the plangent words of Amir himself, a day after the Doha tribunal banned the three for a minimum of five years each. "You'll find bowlers like me around Pakistan," he said, assessing the sense of loss, "but you won't find one like Asif."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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