Weekly Sports Newsletter: Why Mohammad Asif, why?

One tends to get melancholy when hearing news about banned cheaters. There is a certain relief when bad apples are spotted, picked and thrown away. Accompanying this virtuous emotion is the simmering feeling of regret. It’s painful to see a talent go to waste and it’s heartbreaking to speculate what it might have been.

Over the years, bookmakers and fixers have dealt cruel blows to the sport. The last fish in the net being former Zimbabwe captain Brendan Taylor. The ICC banned him for interacting with a shady cartel of potential repairers. At 35, he was a have-been, his best years were behind him. It’s not their best take; Bookies have a habit of snatching the young sports player with a much brighter future ahead of them.

About a decade ago, match-fixing tricked out a bowler of unlimited skill. He wasn’t just a wicket taker, he was an entertainer. They cut short the career of Pakistan’s Mohammad Asif, probably the most skilled point guard of all time.

The world had wept for Mohammad Amir, the teenager who, along with Asif, notoriously crossed the line at Lord’s. Asif, understandably, hasn’t received much sympathy. Amir was 17 when the court ordered him behind bars for cheating. He showed the promise of being great. Asif, 28, was a big one, promising to be the biggest.

Shoaib Akhtar, who is not known for giving undeserved compliments, would agree. In a not too old television program in Pakistan, he was, out of the blue, asked about Asif. “He is the best fast bowler Pakistan has ever produced. Period. Khatam.

The other experts around him whisper their disapproval. The names of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram circulate but Shoaib does not change his mind. He goes into raptures visualizing his former rhythm partner. “He was a magician…”.

The panel is not convinced. Shoaib pauses and makes another attempt to convince the panel. “Remove my spell and watch. What you’ll see is fast bowling, simple, fast bowling. Ab tu Asif ka spell nikal le, tujhko Art nazar aayegi (Now take out an Asif spell and you will see art)”. There is a collective nod by the semi-circle of pundits.

Shoaib is even ready to undermine himself to let the world know what he missed. “When I saw Asif on TV, I said ‘Shame on you Shoaib Akhtar, that’s fast bowling’.”

Smiles as wide as a referee’s outstretched hands emerged on the faces of the men on TV. As expected, the Karachi test was mentioned. It’s a game that Pakistan keeps talking about. This is their Venkatesh Prasad – Aamir Sohail moment. This is the game where Asif not only rode India’s legendary batting order, he played with them.

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There are a few balls of Asif that made the best Indians helpless. Youtube has several clips of these two special deliveries that wiped out VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid. They all have over a million views.

These wickets are not only a source of comfort for Pakistan, they are a must for cricket fans around the world. Regardless of your loyalty and nationality, the sight of stumps performing like a gymnast on the floor is spellbinding.

Asif argued he liked the Dravid wicket more, but it’s Laxman’s dismissal that’s often played on repeat in Pakistan, pinched on internet tik-toked around the world. This bullet provides proof of Asif’s potential, it shows how far the Special One would have gone if he hadn’t given in to the bookies. High heights awaited the pacer with 23 tests, 106 wickets and an average of 24.36.

Now that Laxman’s dismissal. There was hardly anything wrong with the Indian drummer. His bat was dropping perfectly to stick to the pad. Everything was ready to close the door to the stumps. But the ball launched to that perfect length and line that forced Laxman to play. As the bat reaches out, the bullet dodges it and turns into a homing missile. Asif recalls the day when he could do no wrong: “That day the ball was moving through the air and creeping in.” With a hint of a smile he adds: “People call it the ball of the century”.

There is another fan video on the internet that explains Pakistan’s frustration at the loss of a bowler who could have broken all records. It’s a recent clip of a slightly overweight and aging Asif with inside nets giving a masterclass to budding stimulators.

You can hear the voices of those behind the phone camera. “Kya bowler tha, Kevin Pietersen ko bol ke out karta tha“says one. “Yaar mat nikal iski videosays a voice of regret.

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Pieterson’s comment is not exaggerated. That same ball of deadly length – the one that goes through the air and shoots up after throwing – troubled England’s most able batsman of that era. Hashim Amla, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Clarke all had problems with the ball, which Asif said only swung “3 inches” in the air.

Towards the end of this Shoaib 2020 video, he shares some news about Asif’s current life. A panelist intervenes: “first he ruined his career, now he is ruining his life”. They give clues but do not go into details. Shoaib’s single line deepens the mystery. “Agar uski biwi usko na sambhale, toh aapko khabar aa jani hai.”

Luckily, on the day Taylor is banned, a YouTube search for Mohammad Asif returns an 11-day-old video. This is another fan video, this one is from Washington.

Asif is in the backyard of what looks like a comfortable suburban home. He answers questions from a middle-aged man who seems to have grown up watching Asif.

Pacemaker looks healthy and happy. The hair that kept clogging his face during his playing career is now being pulled back by a bunch. He laughs as he is asked about his favorite wicket. “Dravid had few flaws and excellent defense. This ball that I threw at her, she floated inside and after throwing, she flew away,” he says.

And then he says something that sums up his talent and also his career. “Dikhaya kuch aur, huaa kuch aur.” He talks about deception, the dominant theme of his cricket and his life.

In the comments section is a post from someone who identifies as an Indian fan. “Please tell him we all remember him…” A tearful emoji underlines the regret.

Things get emotional when you scroll down. Zahid Iqbal writes, “Watching Asif’s career is like watching a failed Apollo mission… crash and burn spectacularly. Why Asif, WHY!!!!?

It’s painful to see a talent go to waste, it’s heartbreaking to speculate on what might have been.

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