“The other players failed to offer any resistance and folded up for just 202, as Asif, with his extra bounce and sharp turns remained the secret weapon for a side who never fails to surprise”
“The backbone of a surprise is fusing speed with secrecy”, is an oft-quoted adage by Carl von Clausewitz, but it was spin that was unfurled as the biggest weapon by the Pakistan team in the first Test against Australia at Dubai. With all attention creeping towards senior pro-Yasir Shah, whose effectiveness in the match was severely hindered by the hip surgery that he underwent a few months ago, debutant Bilal Asif was the wrecker-in-chief as he forced the Aussie batsmen to commit harakiri after a sedate start that fetched 142 runs.
En route a competitive total and with the openers, Usman Khawaja and Aaron Finch started off on an attacking note, taking the team total for the opening wicket above 100 for the first time since October 2014 in Asia. Though the more experienced opener had a poor average of only 16.20 against the spinners away from home, he looked at ease against Shah, constantly sweeping and reverse sweeping the spinner. 53 of his first 68 runs came against Shah and Wahab Riaz, as the former was clearly struggling with the number of revolutions that his hip could garner after the recent operation.
With the top-flight player looking harmless and with the rival team threatening to come close to the first innings score of 482, skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed turned to 33-year-old Asif, who rose from the shadows to steal away all limelight.
From almost giving up cricket to tormenting Australia
When Australia head coach Justin Langer led out his left-handed batsmen to the field just moments after the day’s play ended, to impart valuable lessons on how to tackle wristy offbreak bowling, it should have come as a huge confidence boost to Asif, who sent back all the three left-handed Aussie batsmen that are playing the game. He also scalped the wickets of Marnus Labuschagne, Tim Paine and Nathan Lyon to end with figures of 6/36, the third best figures for a Pakistani bowler on debut.
Considering that the player was contemplating retirement around ten years ago, his feats appear all the more enticing and awe-inspiring.
Eager to leave the field to join his father as an electrician in Kuwait a decade back, it was on the insistence of Shoaib Malik that Asif continued to fight for a spot in the side. His journey though was mired with lack of chances, as he played just five FC games in his first two seasons for Sialkot. He got his chance in the national ODI team after impressive performances in domestic cricket in 2014/15 and he made his debut against Zimbabwe three years ago. He displayed his potential but was soon called out for suspect bowling action, which Asif admits was the toughest phase in his career.
“I was out of the team since 2015. I was at the National Cricket Academy camp where I worked with head coach Mushtaq Ahmed. I got the reward for that hard work.”
Despite being cleared by the ICC soon after, he lost his standing in the national side but never once lost focus on his sole aim and at an age when cricketers often lose hope, he continued with his consistent showings to finally seal a spot in the XI after Shadab Khan was ruled out of the series with injury.
Forcing the batsmen to make mistakes
The greatest skill of a bowler is to force a well-set player to make a mistake. It was to be found in abundance during the Australian innings as he constantly forced false shots from them. By bowling a tight line, the players were unable to attack him either and were instead drawn up inside the crease with no room available.
His first victim was Khawaja who failed to judge a shorter ball from Asif and in an attempt to sweep the player, edged the delivery to short leg. Travis Head, yet another left-hander, was clueless against his accurate bowling, drawing forward against the spinning balls outside off and looking lost against the slower balls on the rough. Just two deliveries later after Head was sent back, Labuschagne inside-edged a straight delivery to leave Australia reeling at 171 for 5.
The other players failed to offer any resistance and folded up for just 202, as Asif, with his extra bounce and sharp turns remained the secret weapon for a side who never fails to surprise.