The Great Lost Bowler

Mohammad Asif was a fascinating, enigmatic bowler.  As I wrote in the piece below, I first noticed his languid skills during Pakistan’s tour of England in 2006.  The years that followed were turbulent and uneven ones, though, and it wasn’t until he returned to England with Pakistan in the summer of 2010 that I was reminded of his craftsmanship. 

Sadly, little more than a month after this piece was written in July 2010, Asif was one of three Pakistan cricketers implicated in the bowling of deliberate no-balls during the Lord’s Test against England.  In February 2011 he was banned from all first-class cricket for seven years, two of which were suspended. 

It seems very unlikely that he will ever play Test cricket again.

The excellent short series in England between Pakistan and Australia was a contest of contrasts.  Pakistan youthful, unavoidably inexperienced, slightly disorganised but hugely talented. Australia, inevitably diminished, ageing in important areas, but innately professional and as naturally competitive as ever.  One side raging against the injustices and political complexities which compel them to play all their Test cricket away from home, the other against the passing of time and a cricket generation.

The lasting impressions include the manner in which Pakistan recovered from the Lord’s defeat and its anarchic aftermath to stagger over the line at Headingley, and the fact that, with the coming winter ahead, Australia look to be vulnerable in a way they haven’t been against England since Mitchell Johnson was in short trousers.

The abilities of Mohammad Amir are so self-evidently extraordinary as to require no elaboration, but some of the spells and deliveries bowled, at Headingley in particular, by Mohammad Asif, set the mind rolling over Pakistan’s lost years.

When he came to England for the first time in 2006 I was very impressed by Asif, and, for a time after that, he looked like taking his rightful place at the top table of world seam bowling.  It never quite happened, mainly because he simply hasn’t played enough, and his marginalisation carries echoes of the way in which Pakistan cricket as a whole has been confined to the shadows these past few years.

He looks slower now – presumably by choice, for he’s yet to reach 28 and has, amazingly, only played in 19 Test matches – but his memory is good.  He still knows how to probe a batsman’s weaknesses around off-stump with a precision and control rarely seen from anyone since Glenn McGrath retired.  It’s a commonplace in most sports that in order to be regarded as truly great you have to play for a long time, but it’s not an iron law.  Mohammad Asif may be one of the exceptions.

In Pakistan cricket little is ever clear or transparent, but one thing currently is.  Over the next few weeks Pakistan’s attack will test the England batting to its very foundations.

Different Shades of Green, 25th July 2010

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