Monday, 25 April 2011

The Art of Mohammad Asif

I suppose in the light of recent events talking favourably about Mohammad Asif puts you in the position of someone who likes Gary Glitter's music. You can eulogise about his killer riffs all you want, but you're rather skirting around the elephant in the room.

So any discussion has to start with the match fixing, I guess. It was inexcusable. And there are all sorts of other allegations about his character which, if even half-true, mark him out as unpleasant. With that out the way, we can talk about his bowling in a vacuum, as it were. And my contention is this: he is the most skilful seam bowler the world has seen since - well, since Alec Bedser, and then only if the reports are true.

Let's start with the pace; or rather, the lack of it. I watched most of his bowling last summer, and his average speed for most of it was 77mph. 77 miles per hour. Let's just put that in context. He's barely a yard quicker than Collingwood or Ravi Bopara. He bowls slower than the majority of county seamers. Professional batsman practise with the bowling machine up around 85mph most of the time. It might only be a few mph more, but within the upper limits of reaction time it's a huge, huge difference. Every Test Match he essentially turned up to a nuclear war with a spud gun, some floppy hair and a cheeky grin. I saw him bowl at the Oval in 2006 when I didn't know much about him, and at first I thought one of the batsmen was just filling in a few overs.

But then I wondered why this occasional bowler was getting everyone out. And the answer is this: pure, unbridled skill. First is the accuracy. Michael Atherton talks about a spell from Curtly Ambrose he faced, and how once it was over there was an area of red marks on the pitch about the size of a tea towel where he had repeatedly pitched the ball. Well, in Asif's case, said area would be about the size of a handkerchief.

But however accurate you are, if you're bowling to good players at just-above-medium-pace, you're going to go the distance. What stops Asif being cannon fodder? The answer is his mastery of movement. Here, he is untouchable. It's a rare seamer who moves the ball both ways at will. Often, like James Anderson, Ed Giddens or Praveen Kumar, they're so reliant on swing that they're usually a real threat only when conditions are in their favour.

Asif differs from them in two regards - first, the aforementioned accuracy, and second - and most importantly - he complements the swing by extracting movement from the pitch with uncanny regularity. That's the real reason he's so deadly. 77mph with the seam up may not scare anyone, but a good spin bowler who can turn it both ways at that pace certainly would, and with Asif that's not far off the reality. You may have plenty of time to ready yourself against a fast ball as it leaves the hand, but once it reaches the final foot of its trajectory you've got next to none.

Watching him bowl to the Australians in England was like watching Chinese water torture. Not being batsmen who play the ball particularly late at the best of times, he tore them to shreds. He cut the ball past the edge, so they left the next one, which invariably seamed back in. They tried to take their guard miles down the wicket to negate the movement, but he's so slow that even Kamran Akmal could stand up to him and only put down half his chances. Later in the season he showed off his bowling brain, committing Alastair Cook to the front foot and so preoccupying him with the implications of the late moving ball that he was able to get him out with one of the most unexpected bouncers I've ever seen.

It's not just the seam movement - it's the degree of seam movement, even on very flat pitches.You really need to watch a full spell, rather than just the wickets.

Look at how Gibbs ends up edging a ball that does nothing because, having faced what are essentially three or four fast off breaks, he doesn't want to commit his front foot and get trapped in front:

My theory as to how he does it is that while the seam is always vertical enough to get in or out swing, it's also scrambled enough that it regularly fails to catch the pitch flush, meaning there's force operating to push it laterally. Angus Fraser, another bowler who didn't exactly strike the fear of God into anyone, had a similar talent. In the 90s and noughties he was England's best bowler, and don't let anyone tell you it was Darren Gough.

People say the real tragedy of the match fixing - besides the betrayal of trust - is that it took a great young talent out of the game in the shape of Mohammad Aamer. That might be the case, but that reading almost misses the point: we also lost one of the most talented bowlers the game's produced in the last 50 years. I'm not sure I'll see another bowler like Asif in my life time. Have a look at 1.10 and see if you disagree. It's almost like there's a magnet in both the stump and the ball, and as far as I know there's no pending News of the World investigation in that regard:

And that's not to mention the loping run up and whirligig action. Can't have been great getting out to him. Not only had a medium pacer owned your ass, he'd done it while looking like one of the Raggy Dolls.


  1. Since Bedser might be hyperbole. Since Wasim and Waqar might a more telling. For seam movement at non-express pace McGrath is also worth thinking about - remember 2005 at Lord's. The dismissal of Gibbs was very much of that school, pinning the batsman to the crease with cutters and inducing the edge with something fuller and wider.

  2. Spot on re. McGrath, but then quite apart from the movement he was also surprisingly fast and certainly capable of getting obscene amounts of bounce at times. He's probably the best fast bowler who ever lived, and I just found it hard to mention him in a post alongside Ed Giddens. The two Ws were a different kettle of fish imho-they were at their best with the old ball, reversing it at high pace-they needed to be quicker than Asif or they wouldn't have moved the ball. Another name I wanted to mention was Brian Statham.

  3. Yes, the Gibbs wicket is quite McGrath-ish but for the others Asif gets far more extravagant movement than old Pige used to. The tedious old bastard was so accurate he didn't need massive in-dippers to shift people -- he just managed to keep every ball almost, but not quite, completely identical. Those tiny variations -- half a ball's width to leg, a bat's width to off, a fraction more bounce -- were the cracks that sent so many innings crumbling.

    For wild movement off the deck, but about 10mph quicker than Asif, try Dale Steyn. There's a clip of him basically getting turn like Shane Warne but at 85 mph, but I can't find it on YouTube. This clip -- -- doesn't illustrate my point but it's bloody great anyway.

    More generally on Pakistan, it's intriguing that in the last 10 years they've been rattling out high-class seamers for fun, partic left armers of late -- Junaid Khan the latest model to roll off the production line -- but haven't produced a really top class batsman since Inzy / Younis Khan / Mohammad Yousuf.

  4. Also, comparisons with bowlers of Bedser's days are a bit problematic: he played on uncovered pitches; bats now are bigger, heavier and more powerful; boundaries are smaller and fewer professional batsmen have had their strength ruined by TB and rickets. Also, have you ever picked up a ball from that era? The seam stood up about half an inch off the surface and was rough enough to file steel -- if you couldn't get that to move off the deck you must have been bowling underarm.

  5. You're spot on re. McGrath and from what I understand Bedser was a very different bowler too. He had massive hands - the ball was like a marble in them - and he bowled essentially fastish leg breaks. It sounds a lot like Kumble/Afridi, which I imagine was quite hard to face on uncovered wickets. It's just that I can't think of many who had test cricket success bowling at medium pace - Terry Alderman?

    Wonderful HQ Steyn clip - I'd say on the whole though that he's really got most of his wickets through swing/reverse swing - I can't think of anyone who's got so much seam movement wherever he plays as Asif. Again, Fraser is the one that comes to mind, but really he was more like McGrath in terms of how far it went.

    Re Pak fast bowlers, Boycs says that it's always been the way - on tour every net practice hundreds of guys would show up to bowl at him, mostly handy. I guess like Brazil and football, it's a way out. People talk about genetics and diet too, but I'm pretty sure social factors have more of a part to play. A lot of Pakistani fans worshipped Shoaib with the same kind of fervour Indians saved for Sachin and I Trescothick.

  6. A bit late to enter into the debate above, so I'll content myself with saying that I agree completely about Asif - and wrote as much both before and after the fixing.

    Sad (up to a point) that he's gone.

  7. what about Tom Cartwright? He strikes me as very similar in method to Asif.