The perfect incoming delivery doesn't exist. Or does it?
Presenting cricket's saddest story in less than 20 words: Mohammad Asif's magic these days can be seen in club leagues in Nowheresville, USA.
No disrespect to US club leagues, but the stage isn't quite grand enough. Although, given the tragicomedy of Asif's career, perhaps it is exactly how he must go, a flame so fierce it couldn't be blown out, and so had to be left in a corner, where the oxygen of memory wanes.
Mood set, another sad story.
Asif doesn't think it was magic. That is, Mohammad Asif doesn't think the delivery that dismissed VVS Laxman in Karachi on January 29, 2006, was the work of magic.
The incutting delivery was the one that made Asif. It's the variation he didn't have when he first arrived on the international scene, in Sydney in 2004. Balls moving away weren't a problem, and he always had control. With the new ball, he beat the outside edge often enough in those first two Tests, though his only wicket was of Yuvraj Singh - and he was caught hooking. But it was a delivery he acquired in the old-fashioned, non-magical way of lots of bowling in domestic cricket and A tours.
"I kept bowling," he offers by way of explanation. "Practice makes you perfect."
It is an unsatisfactory origin story. Once, years ago, he spoke of a stint at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai under Dennis Lillee, which had not been great, but Lillee had passed on one tip that, Asif said then, had turned him into what he was.
Perhaps it was this? At the time he refused to say what the tip was. Now he doesn't remember.
Perfect is what his incoming delivery nearly always was, and it'll be the last memory to go when everything else is long gone. It worked off different lengths, batsmen as frequently bowled driving as they were defending as they were leaving. It worked off different degrees of movement. It worked to right- and left-handed batsmen alike.
It wrought a high-end list of victims. Michael Clarke at the SCG, reeled in hook, line and sinker; AB de Villiers driving in Port Elizabeth, leaving in Bangalore; Hashim Amla defending in Karachi, leaving in Lahore; Kumar Sangakkara leaving in Colombo; Thilan Samaraweera leaving twice in successive Tests in Colombo and Kandy, the former a ball that broke back from outside off to hit leg; Sachin Tendulkar in Karachi, crumpling like a low-rise building; Virender Sehwag also in Karachi.
It worked with white balls too, as Ed Cowan, Kevin Pietersen and Cameron White discovered, the last deserving some slack for coming upon a Test match delivery in the death overs of an ODI. But Laxman was the first, secondarily a wicket and primarily a foreshadowing for batsmen everywhere. Everything that made the wickets in the preceding paragraph was in play here.
The set-up: "Laxman had such great eyes and hands, he used to pick up off-stump balls and play through the leg side," Asif says. "On an off-stump-and-middle line, he played between mid-on and midwicket so I was just trying to bowl at the stumps to him."
Laxman had opened and Asif had opened the bowling, but until the fateful 12th over, they'd only sparred over five balls. Now, with Laxman on strike, Asif had a full over at him. Each ball was on or around off stump, each more or less good length, each forcing Laxman to play. The last was too.
The release: "I told him that batsmen can spot the shape of swing early on, that a good batsman will pick the swing or seam from your shape at release."
The "him" here will remain nameless but it was Asif advising a fellow international fast bowler, more than a decade ago on an away tour.
"You can't do the same from my action. I didn't used to have that shape. My action used to be the same for outswing or inswing. My deliveries would hit the pitch, seam fairly straight, and then move in or out."
This sounds like an idle boast until you put it alongside the number of batsmen bowled leaving him. Batsmen duped into thinking it was moving away or passing by straight and harmless, or who couldn't make out which way it would go but were leaving on line.
The break: Some sympathy for Laxman, because even if we allow that he knew which way this delivery would move, he could not have accounted for how much it would.
Wrong angles, but think Mitchell Starc to James Vince without a crack and minus 15kph. Think deviation somewhere between a big-turning Saeed Ajmal offbreak and a regular Murali offbreak, but add 20kph. Better yet, don't. Let it be what it is.
The reaction: Broadly speaking, the Four Stages of Laxman's Reaction became the template.
Check stumps to make sure they've been hit. Check.
Check your own position. Yup, more or less fine.
Scan the surface from whence it came. Nope, no gremlins.
Eyes to the bowler. You're kidding me, right?
Asif has a theory about why he used to get more out of a surface and ball. For one, he made sure that when new, the entire ball was being shined not just one side. Then, years and years of bowling had callused the tip of his right index finger, just in front of the nail. The more he bowled, the more pronounced that became and, he reckons, helped him put extra action on the ball at the moment of release.
This ball was a bit much though, even for him. "Jaadoo toh nahin tha [It wasn't magic]. I was trying to break the ball in, but didn't imagine it would break so much. Laxman was only trying to defend. Bat and pad together. He got in line. The ball swung and it continued swinging in. I bowled incoming balls well. But that ball cut so much it kept going in, kept going in. I don't remember one that did that much."
We spoke in Urdu so I assumed his use of the words "swing" and "cut" to be interchangeable, that he meant the latter because that is what the ball does. It cuts back. It seams. It doesn't swing per se.
But his description, that it "continued swinging in" or "kept going in", was curious. I slowed the video right down and until the ball bounces it has travelled arrow-straight. Then it breaks back, but watch it here. It could be the camera playing tricks, but it looks like the ball swings post-bounce, in its second flight, not unlike deliveries in England that swing after they've passed the stumps. Swing, as if the seam movement isn't quite enough to hit off.
Camera, or could it be the eyes? It could be the mind, who knows, because this is Asif and he doesn't do magic apparently.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo
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