Mohammad-Asif
Illustration: Vasim Maner

To judge a complex cricketing character like Mohammad Asif, it is imperative to keep his on-field and off-field demeanours separate. In the lone instance both overlapped, the result was disastrous – not only for Asif but also for the cricketing fraternity.

Pakistan is a nation known for its seemingly unending supply of pace bowlers. Mohammad Asif, though, was not from the normal mould. He wasn’t a tearaway fast bowler resembling Waqar Younis or Shoaib Akhtar; nor was he uncannily quick like Wasim Akram or Imran Khan. He had his limitations with pace but more than made up for it with tact. With most fast bowlers in the modern age clamouring for the 90mph mark, Asif was a breath of fresh air to the art of seam bowling.

STRAIGHT INTO THE ACTION

Asif made his debut in 2005 in Australia and produced what would be the lowest impact performance of his Test career. After being dropped for almost a year, Asif failed again in his comeback Test against India. This time around, however, the selectors stuck with him and he delivered – a series-defining performance ( SD ) in the third Test at Karachi with match figures of 7 for 120 against a strong Indian batting line-up. It was after 19 years that Pakistan had beaten India in a Test series.

In his very next series, Asif picked up 17 wickets in two Tests to deliver another series-defining performance – this time against Sri Lanka away from home. In particular, his effort in the series decider at Kandy stood out (match figures of 11 for 71). After Asif picked up 6 for 44 to reduce Sri Lanka to 279, the Pakistani batsmen capsized in their reply to manage only 170. In the Sri Lankan second innings, it was again Asif’s performance which wrested the initiative back for Pakistan as he blew the Sri Lankan batting lineup by picking up five of the first six wickets to fall to end with figures of 5 for 27. Sri Lanka managed only 73 as Pakistan chased down 183 with eight wickets to spare. Out of the 11 wickets that Asif picked in the match, 10 were of top/middle-order batsmen.

It was, and remains, the highest impact bowling performance of his Test career, the eighth-highest impact in the history of Test cricket and the third-highest by any Pakistani bowler.

Asif, therefore, already had two defining performances in his first three series. Quite a rare feat, considering that the likes of Courtney Walsh and Zaheer Khan had two SDs in their entire career. Waqar Younis had only one.

CHART-TOPPER

If we consider a minimum of 20 Tests (which we do not, normally, because it is just not enough for a sample size), Mohammad Asif emerges as the ninth-highest impact bowler – and the fourth-highest impact pace bowler after Sydney Barnes, Colin Croft and Dennis Lillee – in the history of Test cricket. Needless to say, he also emerges as the highest impact Pakistani bowler. That is how influential he was in his short 23-Test career and it wasn’t due to SDs alone.

Asif’s proportion of top/middle-order wickets is the best for any Pakistani bowler and the fourth-best for any pacer after Barnes, Lillee and Croft in the history of Test cricket. His failure rate of 26% is also the third-lowest for any Pakistani pace bowler, after Imran Khan and Waqar Younis, in their Test history. In fact – even if we discount the value of his series-defining performances , Asif still emerges as the highest impact Pakistani Test bowler.

His heroics against India and Sri Lanka aside, Asif delivered another defining performance in a Test series in New Zealand. In the four series that Pakistan either won or drew during Asif’s career, he registered a series-defining performance in three of them (including two away from home). His ratio of series-defining performances to the number of matches played (one in every eight Tests) happens to be the second-best for any bowler in the history of Test cricket after Bobby Peel (one in every five Tests) and the best for any pacer. That is Test royalty.

A WASTED OPPORTUNITY

With Pakistan boasting a new ball attack comprising Asif and Mohammad Amir, the future looked rosy. In the year leading up to the infamous Lord’s Test, Asif and Amir were the second and the third-highest impact bowlers in the world respectively (after Dale Steyn). As fate transpired then, both were caught bowling no-balls in exchange for money. At one point, England were 102 for 7 in their first innings before staging an epic comeback, courtesy Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad. Had Asif and Amir played without any external pressure and not gone astray, Pakistan could well have levelled the series 2-2. But it was not to be. Asif, who already had a history of disciplinary issues (which included testing positive for banned substances and being caught for possessing drugs), was banned for seven years and given a one-year prison sentence. Amir, meanwhile, was handed a five-year ban.

Almost six years on, Amir is back in the international fold for Pakistan. But at 33 years, Asif is definitely past his peak and will struggle to don the whites again – a bowler who had the potential to be amongst the very best reduced to being a perpetrator of one of the most dreadful crimes in cricketing history.

Should he make a comeback, his off-field demeanours might show a marked improvement but reprising his on-field heroics would be an incredibly hard ask.

 

 

Soham Sarkhel

NOTE: This piece is up-to-date as of August 2016