Interview by Rvel Zahid
Bilal Asif made his first-class debut in 2011 and the all-rounder was recently spotted playing cricket with his old man in his house and the video went viral on social media. The tall off-spinner ambles up to the crease slowly and tries to befuddle the batsman with his sleight of hand. He saw a change in his fortunes when he decimated Australia on his Test debut by returning figures of 6/36 in October 2018 on a slow turning track at Dubai Cricket Stadium. It was a dream debut for him and he managed the third-best figures by a Pakistan bowler. He was dropped in 2015 after his action came under the scanner but from thereon, he wasn't lost in the labyrinth that is Pakistan domestic cricket and kept working on his skills. Bilal has been adamant that he has always bowled within the permissible 15-degree limit and remarked the suspect action incident as an 'error by the umpire'. Bilal was roped in initially for his power-hitting skills but he got a national team call-up again primarily because of his canny off-spin. Now he is sanguine to tumble records, become an ace-all-rounder and aims to win as many games as possible for Pakistan in the years to come.
You took a fifer against Zimbabwe back in 2015 and your action got reported in that series; how big of a setback was that for you?
It wasn't such a big issue and it was like four-five years ago that umpire thought my action was not right and he got that wrong by observing it from the naked eye but there was no problem (with my action). I gave the test in Chennai and I am one of the rare bowlers whose doosra is clear and I can bowl that legally. My off-break was obviously clear. Since then I have been playing my cricket without any issues.
The last Quaid-e-Azam trophy season was very successful for you and you managed to take 43 wickets at an impressive average of 23.16. That performance probably paved the way for another comeback in the team and you were in the squad for the Bangladesh Test series. You are part of the 25-player squad for the England tour so how are you planning for the all-important series?
It was a fantastic season for me. The kookaburra ball made a lot of difference as I had been playing with the ball from a long time and while representing Pakistan - for five Tests - and even before that, I had been bowling for like five years with the kookaburra which helped a lot in performing well. I wanted to perform on green wickets and we got green surfaces in Abbottabad and Quetta where I managed to perform up to the mark. In the end, I finished on the second number in the bowlers' list and finished the season on a high note.
I got picked in the squad for the series against Bangladesh and I was keen to represent Pakistan but then it's about the team combination and now I am hoping that I will also get a chance in the One-Day and T20 side after performing in the Test format. I have been working really hard on my batting and worked with Shahid Aslam at National Cricket Academy recently. Before the lockdown, for like one and a half months, I worked on several areas of my batting. I am trying to fix any remaining issues in my bowling and focusing on fine-tuning it. If I get selected for the England tour then I am going to make sure to perform to the best of my ability and I want to emerge as a top all-rounder in the series. I realize that I haven't been able to score a lot of runs in Test cricket so I am trying to make up for that and working on my shortcomings so I can make handy contributions with the bat.
You uploaded a video recently on Twitter where you were practising with your father at your home. What has been the role of your family in your career? Also, how are you keeping yourself focused on cricket during the lockdown and what sort of challenges are you facing as a sportsman in this entire situation?
My father has always been my biggest supporter and he is the one who introduced me to cricket. My Chachu (uncle) Zahid Saeed, left-arm fast bowler, played cricket professionally and represented Pakistan A, Under-19, played side matches and he has got a terrific first-class record.
I started playing cricket with him and used to watch him play. My father used to take me for Under-13, 15, 16 and Under-19 trials and wherever I went - I didn't use to know much - but my father was there for me and conducted practice sessions with me. When I didn't get selected in Under-19 team, my father supervised extensive bowling practices and he would bowl like 300 deliveries and then keep when I was bowling so he has a massive role in my career. My father hasn't played cricket professionally but he has got great knowledge and insights on the game and many things that coaches tell me, my father tells me before them. He understands the game deeply and analyses my game very closely. He comments on my wrists position and that whether I was bending my body correctly while bowling and notices other aspects.
My Dady is my partner nowadays#Friday#???????????? pic.twitter.com/Giwn9DTfyx— Bilal Asif (@bilalasif2411) May 29, 2020
Even during this lockdown, my father is giving me a lot of time and during the month of fasting around midnight, he was with me while I was exercising at a small gym kind of facility at my place. My brother was also with me while I was working out and this has been my routine since Under-16 I mean that my father has always been by my side and these days (me and my father) have found a little place near my house where we have made a pitch and I do spot bowling there. The wicket is quite rough and the conditions are not ideal but in order to keep our muscles working and for remaining in practice, we go there regularly.
My father never gets tired of talking about cricket and we can chat endlessly about the game. We have a great time together. Everything we do is for our parents and no matter how much we do for them, it's not enough so whatever I can do to make them happy is always my goal. My father backed me at a difficult time when my entire family was against me playing cricket because I wasn't getting many chances after the under-19 level setback and my family members wanted me to switch careers not to mention, we weren't that strong financially but my father fought for me, took a stand, he remained steadfast and that is why I have become a Test cricketer. All credit goes to my father for whatever I have achieved so far.
In a lockdown, I am focusing a lot on maintaining a healthy diet, while staying at home, and I am following a training schedule to stay fit. I hope we can get over (COVID-19 pandemic) situation as early as possible and normality resumes.
Did you make any adjustments in your action after the initial jolt and have you been working on improving your variations such as refining your Doosra?
I haven't changed my action since day one and my action was reported in 2015 due to a naked eye observation. There wasn't anything wrong with my action but an umpire is well within their rights to report an action if they find an anomaly. I didn't change my action and a committee was formed which was headed by Ali Zia and there were like five-six people in the panel. Upon watching videos, they told me not to change anything in my action so I have the exact same action. I am trying to increase my Doosra variations which I can bowl differently. My aim is to improve my performances in the Tests and continue to perform well. Thus, my focus has been to break the ball more and build my game further which is crucial to be successful at the international level.
You are a tall off-spinner. Do you see extra height as an advantage for an off-spinner or it could go against you perhaps while searching for LBWs on a bouncy wicket?
Height is a very useful factor for a spinner especially on a flatter wicket because height allows you to become a great exponent of variations as you can bowl with a lower trajectory and give more flight. It's a beneficial thing and there is no drawback. I think tall spinners have an edge over other spinners.
What is your opinion regarding the following spinners: Muttiah Muralitharan, Saqlain Mushtaq, Saeed Ajmal, Nathan Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin. Do you follow their game and what have picked up from erstwhile and current leading spinners?
All these spinners are world-class. Among off-spinners, Graeme Swann, Muralitharan, Ashwin, Saqlain Mushtaq and Saeed Ajmal have got terrific records and high success ratio. Whoever reaches the international level has a special ability. I have learned a lot by watching Saqlain Mushtaq's videos and learned the doosra by watching him and that's how I become cognizant of my wrist position. In Sialkot, Amir Wasim helped me an immensely in my career and he taught me off-spin. He made me an off-spinner and apart from him, Shoaib Malik had a big role in my development as we played a lot of cricket together for the same club. Saqlain has always been my ideal and most favourite off-spinner and among contemporaries, Nathan Lyon is a world-class spinner. You learn from their (leading spinners) bowling and observe their tactics in various match situations so you pick those things from everybody and the more you watch bowling, the more you learn.
Bilal Asif celebrates after returning figures of 6/36 against Australia on his debut ©Getty Images
While bowling, do you focus more on deceiving the batsman with flight, variations or do you try to contain them and create pressure by building up dots?
I bowl according to the situation of the match so in the last overs in a One-Day game, batsmen are trying to go for the big shots and if a partnership is building up then you have to go with an attacking approach and you got to keep experimenting. I usually like to step up when the team is struggling and I don't hesitate to ask the captain to give me a chance to try for a breakthrough because I think I have an extra ability to fight till the last moment and I want to become a frontline attacking off-spinner. I want to change the perception in Pakistan that off-spinners cannot succeed on green wickets and I did that in the last domestic season.
I think your power-hitting skills can greatly benefit Pakistan and provide a lot of balance to the side. However, you haven't been very consistent with the bat as you would have liked so have you made any technical chinks in your technique and how do you plan to improve your conversion rate?
Yes, indeed. When I started playing cricket, I smashed the fastest hundred in Super9 T20 Cup and after that, I scored two more hundreds in first-class but you are right that I haven't been able to maintain consistency. As far as power-hitting is concerned, I know I got a reputation as a power-hitter and I do have hard-hitting skills but you can often get out early while going for the big shots way too often and so I made my mind to become a proper batsman. When I tried to bat with a measured approach, I struggled to make runs and I went into a negative frame of mind because of my insipid performances. Thereon, I analysed my batting and recently worked a lot with Shahid Aslam, who has helped Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam, and many other batsmen and so I went to him and he guided me. I took special time from him and worked for one and a half months with him on my basics, worked on my weak-links and practised a lot. Everybody is amazed that despite having lots of batting ability why I am unable to get into the runs column? But it's okay, I and my coaches are very confident that I will turn the tables and score consistently in the upcoming series. It's my dream to score the fastest fifty, hundred and a record number of sixes for Pakistan so I am sure my hard work will pay off in the future. A good finisher can make all the difference to any team at the end of an innings and I plan to chip in with my bat in all formats.
You took six wickets against Australia by only conceding 36 runs in 2018 at Dubai Cricket Stadium. How memorable was that performance for you and will you regard it as a turning point in your career? Also which one was the most prized wicket for in your Test debut?
Yes definitely. It was a turning point for me because it's a dream come true to perform so well, that too, on Test debut. When I got out of the team in 2015, I struggled big time and once you get out of the side, you have to work really hard on your skills and game to make a comeback. I didn't lose my heart in all those years.
I will always remember my Test debut. Whenever I play for Pakistan, it means everything to me because representing Pakistan is a huge honour. The most memorable wicket was of Travis Head because, in Australia side, I like his style of play but when he got out I was a bit confused and asked Haris (Sohail) and Imam-ul-Haq 'When will Travis Head come out to bat?' and they were like you just dismissed him so that was a special moment and Usman Khawaja's wicket was pretty special too. I just want to win many awards and play my role in as many wins as possible for Pakistan and become a standout performer.
You are really into singing and got a good voice. Do you prefer classical singing only or like other genres too? Should we expect to hear more songs from you in the future and are you considering making an album?
I have always been interested in singing from my school days. I used to sing national songs and took part in singing competitions. I haven't learned it professionally but it's just my hobby. Whenever I get free time, I write my own songs and the area (Allo Mahar Sharif) from where I belong, people are really into movies, music and entertainment and everybody wants to become a superstar. I wanted to become an actor and I plan to pursue this interest alongside cricket. I don't care much about making it big in the music industry but I have always wanted to do something in this field and I believe in hard work. I don't plan to make an album but I have made a song and I am just waiting for the right time to release that song. Classical singing is the best and I like to sing classical songs according to my limited understanding and command. In future, if I get a chance to act then I will make sure to avail that opportunity.
Who are your best friends in the various teams that you have played for and would you like to share any interesting incident from your career?
I usually gel nicely with all the players and I try to create a pleasant environment in the dressing room. But if I were to name only one player then Usman Salahuddin is my good friend. Against New Zealand, something funny happened. The partnership was growing as Kane Williamson and a leftie was set on the crease and everybody was tense. I was bowling from round the wicket, Saifi (Sarfaraz Ahmad) suggested me to try bowl from over the wicket to create a wicket opportunity. I was on my mark and informed umpire about the change in angle but the umpire couldn't hear me and I repeated it twice and so then I said to Kane Williamson (William bhai thoora udhar ho Jana) to move on the other side and that's when everybody burst into laughter. That was a light moment which diffused the tension and I think the partnership was broken after a couple of overs after that.