Swing and cut

THOUGH NOT QUICK, ASIF OPERATES AT A LIVELY PACE, NOW TAKING THE BALL AWAY, NOW GETTING IT TO JAG BACK SHARPLY.-AP

It's his strong wrist action that separates Asif from most pacemen. With his rhythmic run-up, a high-arm action complementing his height and the strong use of his wrist, Asif probes the batsmen, writes S. Dinakar.

Mohammad Asif moves the ball in the air and achieves deviation off the pitch. It's a lethal combination. V.V.S. Laxman stood transfixed, his stumps in a shambles, on a dramatic afternoon in Karachi. The Indian, probably, could have been more decisive in his footwork as he moved forward, but could the batsman still have covered the angle as the ball cut back so viciously?

The batsmen's feet are drawn by Asif's swing and then the `cut' does them in. The 23-year-old paceman from Sheikhupura is a rarity.

It's his strong wrist action that separates Asif from most pacemen. With his rhythmic run-up, a high-arm action complementing his height and the strong use of his wrist, Asif probes the batsmen.

Though not quick, the Pakistani operates at a lively pace, now taking the ball away, now getting it to jag back sharply. He uses the crease cleverly and brings about changes in pace.

And he can retain the intensity in his bowling over long spells. He is aggressive, rightly so for a paceman, but needs to temper this quality — he has already been pulled up for excessive appealing.

It is never easy for batsmen to settle against him, particularly if there is a hint of assistance in the conditions or the surface. They often try to read him from his hand and come a cropper since he disguises his deliveries well. Asif can get the ball to reverse and bowls a much fuller length with the old ball.

Not that he is the very definition of perfection. The position of his non-bowling arm in his delivery stride is far from being the ideal one. Says T.A. Sekar, head coach at the MRF Pace Foundation, "Asif came here in September 2005 and we found that his load up position was awry. His left hand was falling away."

A right-arm paceman `loads up' by bringing his left hand down from an elevated position, ideally in a straight line, during his delivery stride, using it as a lever for his bowling arm. "It is much better now, but it can be improved upon further. If he does so, he can be a couple of yards quicker," points out Sekar. That will not be a comforting thought for those facing Asif, already harried by his movement and the extra bounce he is able to extract due to his height.

Happily for Pakistan, responsibility appears to be stoking Asif's combative instinct. When the injured Shoaib Akhtar missed the Sri Lankan tour, Asif slipped into the role of a lynchpin effortlessly.

Perhaps the foremost challenge before Bob Woolmer when he stepped in as coach in 2004 was to usher in a measure of discipline into the Pakistan pace attack. The bowling had firepower, but was often misdirected. The Pakistani pacemen had disappointed in the crunch moments of the Test series earlier, spraying the ball around and providing width to the wristy Indian batsmen. Inzamam-ul-Haq's men were unable to create pressure from both ends — crucial to forcing mistakes from the batsmen — and India romped home in the decider at Pindi.

Under the circumstances, it does not come as a surprise that Woolmer has been Asif's biggest backer. Even after the lanky paceman went wicketless on his Test debut in Sydney last year where Australia completed a 3-0 rout, Woolmer looked beyond Asif's 18 fruitless overs. Here was a bowler with control over his line and length, who had got his basics right, zeroed in on or around the off-stump. He was bound to figure in the short-list of the selectors and the team-management.

Asif's subsequent success, not least due to a rewarding stint under the canny former Pakistan paceman, Aaqib Javed, at Lahore's National Cricket Academy, has been stunning. He had 25 wickets in his next four Tests, 24 of them in his last three matches. And two of his performances, in Karachi and Kandy, have impacted hugely on the verdict of a series.

Potentially, he and Akhtar could form a deadly pace bowling combination; there was evidence of this in the Karachi Test against India.

Akhtar can soften the opposition with his brute pace and hostility, while Asif cleans them up with his movement. But then, Akhtar's fitness has been a major cause of concern for Pakistan.

Given Akhtar's injury concerns and the inconsistency that has crept into the bowling of Mohammad Sami and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Asif, with his accuracy and deviation, will be a critical element of the Pakistani plans in the days ahead.

The chances are that Mohammad Asif will keep Pakistan's rich pace bowling legacy alive.

DRAMATIC PROGRESS

Mohammad Asif has made dramatic progress in his last three Tests after just one wicket in his first two matches.

His figures in Tests so far: Versus Australia in Sydney 16-3-72-0 & 2-0-16-0 Versus India in Faisalabad 34-6-103-1 Versus India in Karachi 19.1-1-78-4 & 12-1-48-3

(Including wickets of V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar)

Versus Sri Lanka in Colombo 16-5-41-4 & 23-4-71-2 Versus Sri Lanka in Kandy 23-7-44-6 & 12-6-27-5

(Man of the series Asif's victims in the two-Test series against Sri Lanka included Upul Tharanga, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumara Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera, Dilshan Tillekeratne).