When Mohammad Asif says the word "outswinger", his right hand, with those long, slim fingers that you'd expect to see on an artist - a pianist perhaps - rather than someone who practises a profession as rugged as fast bowling, effortlessly assumes a certain position. When he says "inswinger", the fingers do something else. As he talks about fast bowling, an art he clearly has thought deeply about, and has a high degree of command over, it's mesmerising the way his hand dances in tune, like the hood of a cobra almost. "When I close my eyes at the top of my mark, I can just see exactly where the ball pitches, how it swings in, and hits the top of the off stump," he told TelePK in a chat recently. You believe him. Batsmen who didn't, have suffered.
What are the basics a fast bowler needs to remember irrespective of the pitches he is bowling on and the batsmen he is bowling to?
There are three are four different types of fast bowlers. Some depend on swing, some on seam, and some on raw pace. I am the kind of bowler who depends on seam and swing. I try to bowl within the stumps. If the batsman is beaten or deceived, the ball should go on to hit the stumps. My line and length is such that the ball should not go over the height of the bails. Some bowlers just like to see the keeper gathering the ball over his head. That looks good, but it's not much use.
You don't seem that keen on pace. But the talk around the world from fast bowlers is breaking the 100 mps mark?
Speed is a factor. You should have speed. But if you try and bowl too fast you lose out on line, length and variations. When you strive for pace alone you won't be able to pitch the ball where you want to. Bowlers like [Glenn] McGrath, [Shaun] Pollock and [Wasim] Akram were successful because they always focused on the important things: line, length, swing, seam - not pace.
What do you typically look to do when you bowl?
When I began, I was able to swing the ball and my line was good, so people began comparing me to McGrath. Of course, I didn't mind that! It is an ability of mine, to be able to bowl a certain line and length. That's my strength and I just concentrate on that.
Do you look to bowl that unplayable, wicket-taking ball each time, or are you setting the batsman up?
I always have a game plan, looking specifically at one or two batsmen. I generally know what a certain batsman's weakness is, and then try to bowl in such a way that I can exploit that. If someone is weak against the inswinger, I'll make sure I don't give him any outswingers, and keep bringing the ball in to him. The main thing, as I said before, is line. I try to bowl the same thing to top-order batsmen and tailenders, and that's the wicket-taking ball. There are obviously variations and different tactics you have to use for different batsmen.
Is there a particular kind of batsman who has troubled you?
I've got top-order wickets against many countries. But someone like Jacques Kallis has given me a tough time because he survives. He sticks to his game plan, no matter what you bowl. If he has decided to defend, then he just plays defensively, even if you bowl a loose ball. Batsmen like that are tough to get rid of. But then, for me it's like a hobby to get the best players in the opposition out.
Even on tough pitches it's only bowlers who bowl a good line and length who are successful. As a bowler you should never forget that
How do you fine-tune your bowling for tough conditions like those in the subcontinent?
Cricket is now played at all times. June-July in the subcontinent is not a time to play cricket. Especially on some pitches it becomes difficult to survive as a fast bowler. But there are times when you come across a sporting pitch and you have to make it count. But it's always been that in the subcontinent there are very few wickets that are sporting for fast bowlers. But even on tough pitches, it's only bowlers who bowl a good line and length who are successful. As a bowler you should never forget that.
When the ball leaves your hand, do you have a clear idea of what it's going to do - how much and which way it will swing or seam?
With the new ball, you have a fair idea of control. When you're bowling an inswinger, it should start at a line so that it ends up on the stumps when it's done swinging. It shouldn't be outside the stumps or down leg. With the outswinger it's the same. The ball should end in such a way that an edge lands in the hands of the slip fielder.
And what about reverse-swing? There's plenty of talk of reverse-swing these days?
There's barely a chance for the ball to reverse swing in one-dayers these days. Nowadays the ball is changed as and when the batsmen want it. So how can a bowler even get reverse-swing going? Also, matches are mostly day-night, and with the dew coming into play, what little chance there is of reverse swing is killed off.
Already in your short career you've seen plenty of highs and lows - the doping ban, the Oval Test fiasco, the unfortunate death of Bob Woolmer at the World Cup. How do you cope?
It [lows] happens in everyone's career. But in my case it all happened very fast and very early, and the burden came earlier. I've survived. I always look at it positively, thinking that since the bad times had come early, the good times were bound to follow. I worked hard at staying fit. I knew that good times would come and when they did I'd be able to hold on to them for as long as I could and make the most of it.
You have an air of confidence about you. What makes the difference between being a very good cricketer and being a great, a legend?
If you have natural talent and then work hard, you can become a legend. Every third player has talent. But you have to work hard and continue to perform and succeed. This is what separates the great from the good.
How is it that Pakistan manages to produce a steady stream of fast bowlers? India is not that far away, just across the border, and they seem to struggle?
India has always produced batsmen and Pakistan have had strong bowling attacks. In Pakistan, especially from Punjab, fast bowlers come through. I don't know what it is about Punjab. But the aggression and physicality you need to be a fast bowler, that's something you see in people from Punjab. Maybe it's the diet plan, what you eat, what you drink. I don't know what it is but they're strong people.
Are you also helped by the fact that you have more role models? Do they pass on the tricks of the trade better than India's former cricketers?
Wasim, Waqar, Aaqib [Javed], people like this are very keen that young bowlers in Pakistan learn the tricks of the trade. They help young fast bowlers a lot. They always hope that more good fast bowlers should emerge from Pakistan.
One thing you've managed to do quite successfully is pick up wickets early in an innings. Does that put more pressure on you now?
The pressure on me is so much now that there's an expectation for me to get an early breakthrough every time. Thanks to God, I've been able to get breakthroughs at the top and then later break partnerships if the ball is thrown to me. But now the public's expectation has increased so much that they think I'll get a wicket every time the ball is thrown to me.
With Indian fast bowlers especially, we've noticed recently that someone is quite sharp when he comes on, but in a season or two the pace drops away noticeably. Why is this happening?
Too much cricket. Playing almost every day. You have no time for proper rest or proper training. Automatically injuries increase. Once your rest and training schedule is hurt, it is bound to show. That's also why people bowl below their full capacity and pace reduces.
It's not unheard of, but is a bit unusual for a fast bowler to be made vice-captain. Captaincy has traditionally been the preserve of batsmen. What do you think is the logic behind your being made vice-captain?
It's the cricket board's decision. But whoever made the decision has obviously seen something in me and made the decision. They've been able to see that I have the ability to think and read the game.
Another hot topic these days is foreign coaches. All teams in the subcontinent seem to want foreign coaches. Is this the right thing?
There are plenty of coaches in the world. We also have coaches in Pakistan. Wherever the coach is from, he should be able to extract the maximum performance from you. He should be able to make you perform above your ability. That should be criteria in choosing a coach, not whether he is from India or Pakistan or abroad.
Just like bowlers give certain batsmen respect, do you think it's important for batsmen to give a dangerous bowler - like yourself - respect?
Batsmen should respect good bowlers. Especially if the bowler is in the middle of a good spell.
They must respect someone who is bowling well, show patience, and then go after someone else who comes on to bowl later. If they don't show that respect, then they will get out. It's that simple.