How to find Mohammad Asif? How to find someone who doesn't care about being found, who doesn't care what the media say or write about him, who doesn't want to get his narrative out there? Who doesn't do social media?
Somewhere, recently, Kevin Pietersen had once again remarked that Asif was the most difficult bowler he faced in his career. Pietersen isn't alone in saying this but he has said it more than others. And no Pakistani cricketer is more lamented than Asif. So I decided to find him and ask him about it. The phone number I had for him was switched off and WhatsApp wasn't showing up anything either. I asked someone I suspected would have a contact for him - Salman Butt, with whom he will be forever linked - and sure enough, got a number. I was then told by others that Asif had moved to the US permanently (not true) and was stuck there at the moment because of the Covid-19 pandemic (true).
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I sent him a WhatsApp message, introducing myself and asked for some time to chat. He replied the next day, initially suspicious. Why do I want to chat, what do I want to chat about? Why now? It took three nights - late nights - of chats with him, calls, messages and voice notes - to get him to agree. I wanted to talk about fast bowling, his career, his finest spells. He wanted to talk on his own terms and at first did so in the style of a tell-all exposé , giving me all kinds of amazing headlines and stories, none of which, of course, would be fit to publish. He wanted the truth out there, all of it, but it couldn't happen.
Three days later I caught up with him again and this time, managed to convince him to talk about what I wanted to talk about. He agreed.
Do you have any regrets about the way your career ended?
Of course. My ambition was to finish my career on a better note and I do have regrets. But that's a different story. I think whatever happened it had to happen and that's okay. Everyone has regrets in their life and a few want to talk about them, but I think I am fine. Everyone makes mistakes and I did too.
"My job is not to scare batsmen but to make fools of them and then get them out"
Players had been indulging in fixing before me [in 2010] and even after me. But those before me are working with PCB and there are few after me still playing. Everyone was given a second chance and there are few who never got the same treatment [as me]. PCB never tried to save me regardless of the fact that I am the kind of bowler who was highly regarded by everyone in the world. But anyway I'm not sitting around brooding about the past or hung up on it.
What happened is history. However much I played in my career, I made it count, duniya hila ke rakh de thi (I shook up the world). That is more important for me to think about. Even today, so many years later, the best batsmen in the world still remember me and they talk about me. Just think how big the impact was that I had on the world. So this is what makes me proud - that there is a reason KP, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla talk highly about me. That is what makes me happy.
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But don't you regret that you really could have established yourself as a genuine legend if your controversies hadn't overshadowed and then cut short your career?
Yes, I could have ended up with a different standing without the controversies, but I am still somewhere with whatever I have done. Yes, I should have behaved better off the field. That is where I had issues. But I didn't die of hunger then and I'm not going to die of hunger now either.
I want to give the kids this message that when you cross the boundary line into the field, your ambition should be to do well for yourself and for your team. And when you cross the rope back towards the dressing room, you should go in with your head held high and no doubts about your performance. And even if you didn't get a wicket, your figures should be good enough [for people] to acknowledge your contribution and effort.
I was selfish as a bowler because I wanted to take wickets, and that was to help the team win. Being selfish isn't bad if you're playing your part for the team.
You did certainly leave an impression on people… Muddy pa [Mudassar Nazar] once asked me to bowl to someone at the NCA [National Cricket Academy in Lahore] as part of a trial. The guy I was bowling to, I asked if he had his guard on. He didn't and I made sure he put one on. The very first delivery I bowled to him, he left on line, only for it to come back and hit him on his guard. Muddy Pa laughed at me and said, "You bastard, how the f**k do you have such control?"
One time I was bowling in the nets at Gaddafi Stadium and Wasim Akram was there. He asks me how many balls I would take to get the batsman out. I said, third ball I'll hit the stumps. The batsman was a lefty and he let my first two balls go, which were outswingers, and then he left the third one as well - but his stumps went flying, because this one came in, and I looked at Wasim and saw the amazement on his face.
Even Mohammad Abbas, who said to Wasim Akram publicly in an interview on YouTube that he learnt a lot from me - he should've actually said that it's you [Akram] who is my idol but instead he said it was me. Not a very smart move, because he didn't realise that if he wants to have a long career, he's better off saying Akram is his biggest influence and not me!
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I proved myself not just once but repeatedly. I got the same batsmen out more than once, and it's not like I bowled one fluke great delivery and never did it again. I kept doing it. With ball in hand I was in control. Moving the ball in and out wasn't just a one-off thing. And I didn't learn to do it in days. It took me years and I worked really hard for it.
I do miss playing cricket. Everyone does. You ask Viki bhai [Waqar Younis], Wasim Akram, they all do, but you are never going to play your whole life.
"You can't break anyone with pace. Selectors think fast bowlers can blow any team away, but nobody really fears pace as such - or if they do then it is sustained pace"
You talked about Abbas. He has done well, in a way similar to you.
He is seriously good. I told him to increase his bowling speed by 5-6kph and he can easily make into the ODI team as well. But with his age now, at this stage, it might be tough for him.
One of the basic problems we have in our system is that a lot of our selectors, over the years, had very minor and ordinary playing careers. For them, picking express fast bowlers is the only thing, because they probably struggled to handle really quick bowlers when they were playing, or didn't play enough to understand the importance of bowlers like me and Abbas. They just judge a fast bowler on the basis of his pace, ignoring that fast bowlers come in many different categories: there are some who bowl really fast and there are some who take wickets. But in Pakistan, the instinct is that only a fast bowler with express pace can win you games. I wouldn't know for sure but I'd guess that the times we played together, I had more wickets than Shoaib Akhtar [Asif took 15 wickets in the four Tests he played alongside Akhtar, who took eight.]
You can't break anyone with pace. Selectors think fast bowlers can blow any team away, but nobody really fears pace as such - or if they do then it is sustained pace. But the longer a batsman spends at the crease, the more that fear goes away. The real fear is of getting out. Phillip Hughes was so unfortunate and tragic because he got hit on the one unprotected spot, but the odds of it happening are very low. Our system remains inclined to looking for fast bowlers, but these days it seems like we've had more quantity than quality.
There are quite a few in the current batch although they're coming up without having played much cricket. Shaheen Afridi is a great find and right now you are playing him in every format, making him play everything. But at the end of the day when he stops performing, you'll drop him and pluck another young kid out from nowhere. There are 20 to 25 bowlers in the range of 130 to 140kph, but in Test match cricket I don't see pace. A fast bowler who can take a ten-wicket haul is the quality I'm looking for. How many fast bowlers have taken ten wickets for Pakistan since 2010? Only Abbas after me.
But these days, isn't pace important on flatter pitches in some countries?
All you have to do is understand your limits and play within those. I played well within mine. I'm not saying you don't need a really fast bowler in a team. Some teams need an express bowler who can push a batsman on to the back foot. I bowled within my limits and this is what worked for me. I'm not saying you have to have an entire team of bowlers like myself and that this is the only successful formula. My job is not to scare batsmen but to make fools of them and then get them out. Bowlers like myself are essential in the team, but bowlers like myself often need more patience and time to prove our worth. But unless you're going over 140-plus, people are somehow never convinced.
What did you make of Mohammad Amir retiring from Test cricket at the age of 27?
I curse the PCB for how they rescued his career. But it was his obligation to help Pakistan cricket in a tough situation and he should have stayed, especially when they had helped him return. Anyway, it's the PCB's decision to let him go, but if he is meant to leave Test cricket at this age, it really is a curse upon those who fought so hard to bring him back. And did anyone ever take Amir's name, saying he was the toughest bowler to handle? Definitely no.
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It's about how compassionate you are. If the PCB invested so much in you then it's your duty to rescue them in Test cricket. If they had done the same with me, then I'd still be available to rescue Pakistan in Test cricket for the next two years. I know there are fitness standards, but I can work that out and whatever is required I can do it.
What do you remember as the best spells of your career?
I enjoyed playing cricket to the core. I really loved it and that means that I loved every spell I bowled, because each spell had a story, a context and purpose to it. If for instance in some spell I wasn't getting a wicket, I was still learning something important about the batsman and how to get his wicket next time.
"With ball in hand, I was in control. Moving the ball in and out wasn't just a one-off thing. And I didn't learn to do it in days. It took me years and I worked really hard for it"
So my all spells were good, but if I had to narrow it down, I'd remember the Karachi Test against India. The biggest batting line-up of the time. I remember Shoaib Akhtar in the dressing room worrying about how we'd get them out. I just got them out and showed him. So that particular game I remember, and then that Kandy Test where I don't really remember who but either Umar Gul or Rao Iftikhar Anjum came to me and asked how the hell I was making the ball swing, when for them the ball wasn't moving at all. Anyway, I don't know, either I was in a hurry or probably they [Sri Lankan batsmen] were in a hurry (laughs). Those 11 wickets were fun.
I tell you one thing - I never had to "make" [tamper with] a ball. Otherwise there are bowlers - some regarded as the greatest - who just wait for the ball to go rough so that it starts reversing. [Asif bowled in the Oval Test that Pakistan forfeited over allegations that they had tampered with the ball.] There were so many figures you will find with the team at 200 for 1 and suddenly they are 250 all out. But I always had taken wickets with the new ball and upfront. The reason why I probably am still haunting KP - for which he is talking about me every fourth day - was because I did test him as a bowler. He was a great batsman to bowl to and getting that kind of wicket makes you feel equally great. A tail-end wicket never really gave me the same satisfaction.
Any plans to get into coaching? I'm sure there are many who would want to learn your skills.
I am working here in the US, between New Jersey, [Washington] DC and Pittsburgh. There are some wonderful academies here and I've also been playing some league matches. It's a great opportunity and facilities here, with a lot of Indians and Pakistanis who want to learn cricket away from their native country. I will go back to Pakistan as well and work there if required but our circuit has no space at the moment. There are players from '90s still cramping the system, so no chance for us. I had plans to set up my own academy but this pandemic has come in the way for now. But I'm determined to do something and pass on to kids what I know.