One tends to get wistful on hearing news about cheats getting banned. There is a certain sense of relief when the bad apples get spotted, picked and thrown out. Accompanying this righteous emotion is the simmering feeling of regret. It’s painful to see a talent go waste and heart-breaking to speculate what it could have been.
Over the years, bookies and fixers have dealt cruel blows to sports. The latest fish in the net being the former Zimbabwe captain Brendan Taylor. The ICC has banned him for interacting with a shady cartel of potential fixers. At 35, he was a have-been, his best years were behind him. This isn’t their best catch ever; bookies have a history of snatching away from the sport younger player with a far brighter future ahead of them.
About a decade back, match-fixers trapped a bowler with limitless skills. He wasn’t just a wicket-taker, he was entertainer. They cut short the career of Pakistan’s Mohammad Asif, probably the most skillful pacer ever.
The world had shed tears for Mohammad Amir, the teenager who along with Asif infamously over-stepped the line at Lord’s. Asif, rightly so, wasn’t extended much sympathy. Amir was 17 when the court ordered to send him behind bars for cheating. He was showing promise to be a great. Asif, 28, was a great, showing promise to be the greatest.
Shoaib Akhtar, not known to dish out undeserving compliments, would agree. In a not too old television show in Pakistan, he was, out of the blue, asked about Asif. “He is the best-ever fast bowler Pakistan has ever produced. Period. Khatam.”
The other pundits around him whisper their disapproval. Names of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram are floated around but Shoaib doesn’t change his opinion. He goes in raptures visualising his one-time pace partner. “He was a magician …”.
The panel isn’t convinced. Shoaib pauses and makes another attempt to convince the panel. “Pull out my spell and watch. What you will see is fast bowling, simple fast bowling. Ab tu Asif ka spell nikal le, tujhko Art nazar aayegi (Now bring out one Asif spell and you will see art)”. There is a collective shaking of heads by the semi-circle of experts.
Shoaib is even ready to undermine himself to make the world understand what they have missed. “When I used to see Asif on television, I would say ‘Shame on you Shoaib Akhtar, this is fast bowling’”.
Smiles as wide as an umpire’s out-stretched hands emerged on faces of the men on television. As expected the Karachi Test got mentioned. It’s a game Pakistan keeps talking about. It’s their Venkatesh Prasad – Aamir Sohail moment. It’s the game where Asif didn’t just run through India’s fabled batting order, he toyed with them.
There are a couple of Asif balls which made India’s finest look helpless. Youtube has several clips of those two special deliveries that annihilated VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid. They all have over a million views.
These wickets aren’t just comfort-watching for Pakistan, they are a must-watch for cricket lovers everywhere. Regardless of your loyalties and nationality, the sight of the stumps behaving like a gymnast on the floor is bewitching.
Asif has maintained that he liked the Dravid wicket more but it’s the Laxman dismissal that is often played on loop in Pakistan, pinched from the internet tik-toked around the world. That ball provides evidence of Asif’s potential, it shows how far the Special One would have gone had he not indulged the bookies. Lofty heights awaited the pacer with 23 Tests, 106 wickets and a 24.36 average.
Now that Laxman dismissal. There was hardly anything wrong that the Indian batting stalwart did. His bat was coming down perfectly to stick to the pad. It was all set to close the gate to the stumps. But the ball pitched at that perfect length and line which forced Laxman to play. As bat reaches out, the ball dodged past it and turns into a heat-seeking missile. Asif recalls the day when he could do no wrong: “That day the ball was moving out in the air and seaming in”. With a shade of smile he adds: “People call it the ball of the century “.
There’s another fan video on the internet that explains Pakistan’s frustration over losing a bowler who could have broken all records. It’s a recent clip of a slightly over-weight and ageing Asif at indoor nets giving a master class to budding pacers.
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 video,” utters a regretful voice.
The Pieterson comment is no exaggeration. That same deadly length ball – the one that goes away in air and darts in after pitching – troubled England’s most proficient batsman of that era. Hashim Amla, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Clarke all had problems dealing with the ball, that Asif say, swung just “3 inches” in air.
Towards the end of that 2020 Shoaib video, he shares a bit of news about Asif’s present life. A panelist chips in, “first he wasted his career, now he is wasting his life”. They drop hints but don’t go into the specifics. Shoaib’s one line deepens the mystery. “Agar uski biwi usko na sambhale, toh aapko khabar aa jani hai.”
Thankfully, the day Taylor is banned, a Mohammad Asif youtube search throws up a 11-day old video. It’s again a fan video, this one is from Washington.
Asif is in the backyard of what looks like a comfortable suburban home. He is answering questions of a middle-aged man who seems to have grown up watching Asif.
The pacer looks healthy and happy. The hair that would keep crowding his face during his playing career are now pulled back by a band. He laughs as he is asked about his favourite wicket. “Dravid had few flaws and great defence. That ball I bowled him, it floated in and after pitching moved away,” he says.
And then he says something that sums up his skill and also his career. “Dikhaya kuch aur, huaa kuch aur.” He is talking about deception, the over-riding theme of his cricket and his life.
In the comments section is a post by someone who identifies as a Indian fan. “Please tell him that we all remember him … ” A teary emoji underlines the regret.
Things get emotional as you scroll down. Zahid Iqbal writes: “Watching Asif’s career is like watching a failed Apollo mission … crash and burn in spectacular fashion. Why Asif, WHY!!!!?
It’s painful to see a talent go waste, heart-breaking to speculate about what could have been.