Only eight days ago, he charged at me like a hyperactive child at a birthday who had eaten too much candy, smearing my face with chocolate cake even as I walked into Room 1521 at the posh central-Delhi hotel where Mohammad Asif and his fellow Delhi IPL team-mates were staying. The party celebrating Delhi's qualification for the semifinal, thanks to Jaipur's win over Mumbai, was in full swing. Champagne flowed, as did beer, and the atmosphere was one of unbridled jollity. Today Asif is detained in a room in Dubai, on charges of possessing a narcotic substance.
When the news filtered through early on Tuesday the immediate reaction was one of incredulity. Just how on earth could he have been stupid enough to carry something like that into a place where laws are not just extreme but sometimes ridiculously so? It's suggested that Asif came from small-town Sheikhupura, was uneducated and naive. If you've met him just once - and some of us have been lucky to spend a few evenings over tall cold beverages with Asif — and you'll know this just doesn't wash. Asif is intelligent and quick-witted, aware of himself and his place in the cricketing firmament, thoughtful and humourous, and an excellent communicator.
A bit too much
Asif, 25 by his own estimation, will know now that even his best-case scenario — being found not guilty on a technicality or for lack of conclusive evidence, and there’s nothing to suggest that so far — his life will never be the same again. In a career that has spanned only 11 Tests, he has tested positive for a banned steroid, been hit with a bat by a team-mate, and widely been accused of ball tampering. This now, is one slur too many.
What is annoying is that while this latest scandal has little to do with the ones he has been involved in before, it will still be stacked together with all the others. Cricket, like any other sport where money follows success, is no stranger to players indulging in recreational drugs. While cocaine might be the preferred fix in county cricket in England, marijuana and hashish are enjoyed largely unchecked by cricketers in India, Pakistan, the West Indies and elsewhere. To debate whether this is right or wrong is beyond the scope of this piece, but it is certainly illegal. Therein lies the rub for Asif.
McGrath’s worthy successor?
In life there are many who enjoy the green tobacco all their lives without ever getting caught, but equally there are those who pay a huge price for a single toke. Asif, very much in the public glare, and richly rewarded for being a star, will naturally have the book thrown at him if found guilty.
What's a crying shame is that we all have, over the last two days, spent reams of newsprint and hours of TV talk-time on Asif, without once mentioning his bowling. With Glenn McGrath's retirement no-one bowled seam and cut with more subtlety and devastating efficacy than Asif - with all due respect to Australia's Stuart Clark. But now that high-arm action, perfect wrist position, deft release and wily snaring of a batsman might be lost to the world forever.
Only recently, Kumar Sangakkara, when discussing what makes a champion on a television programme, spoke about how so many cricketers who turned out to be legends, experienced an epiphany early in their careers, and turned their lives around.
If Asif gets away without serving time, he might still face sanction from the PCB, then this incident will be his last chance to actually fulfil his potential, and not end up as yet another of those Pakistani cricketers to fade away as quickly as they appeared.
If the substance he was carrying or his urine or blood samples, test positive for a narcotic substance, and charges are pressed, followed by jail time, this will be what they call a criminal waste of talent.