Under fire for his T20I numbers so far, Asif Ali turned up in his Islamabad United avatar on Tuesday night to turn around Pakistan’s slide, and it could mean a massive boost to their T20 World Cup chances, writes Rohit Sankar.
Two balls during Pakistan’s run-chase on Tuesday night deserve special mention. Asif Ali had faced just two balls, carving the first of those for four mind you, when Tim Southee strolled in to bowl the 17th over. Pakistan needed 36 from 23 balls when Asif came on strike.
Two slower balls from Southee and both disappeared into the night sky. Asif moved to 17 off four balls. He swiped at two more and missed in the next two balls and got hit on the helmet off the final ball. Three dots. But the game had swung considerably already with those two sixes.
Before last night, Asif had batted 12 times in the top six for Pakistan since the start of 2019, averaging just 8.91 with the bat. But Asif’s six-hitting skills are arguably why he is in Pakistan’s T20I side despite his mediocre numbers at international level. In his Pakistan Super League career, Asif has hit 68 sixes and 54 fours. To hit more sixes than fours across nearly 50 matches is quite rare for a batter in the top six. No batter in the PSL to hit 15 sixes has a better balls/six ratio than Asif Ali. He hits a six every 7.8 balls on average.
At first glance, those ridiculous numbers aren’t quite evident, but that’s the reason Islamabad United, a team that prefers using data, have stuck with him through thick and thin. Asif has just three fifties and an average of 25.8 in his PSL career. But his ability to tonk those sixes and his soaring strike-rate in the death overs makes him one of the most potent, yet underappreciated, local batters in the league.
The discourse around Pakistan’s ability to pick up players from the street is second to none. Yet, in several ways the stories almost always center around fast bowlers or spinners. Rarely have we seen a batter come out of nowhere and make a mark for Pakistan in international cricket.
Asif Ali is no exception. His first ever professional T20 innings was in 2011 in a Faysal Bank Twenty20 tournament for Faisalabad where he walked in to bat after opener and national team player Mohammad Hafeez was dismissed off the first ball. Asif finished on a stellar 100 off 59 balls, batting alongside Misbah ul Haq and prompting the team coach to say he was “astonished” how Asif hadn’t been spotted and given chances earlier as he was around with squad for a year prior to that.
A decade later, Asif has gone through several ups and downs, most notably in 2019 when he lost his 18-month old daughter to cancer. The personal tragedy combined with a subsequent dip in numbers in international cricket and his place in the side was constantly questioned.
All the while, he churned out important knocks for Islamabad United. After being dropped from the Pakistan side, Asif turned up at the PSL and finished as the 13th highest run-scorer. Notably, only one above him had a better strike-rate than his 167.2. Only two had hit more sixes than him.
Following that, in the National T20 Cup, Asif was once again at his pulverising best, smashing runs at a strike-rate of 174.65 and hitting sixes every 8.8 balls on an average.
What Pakistan lacked in the middle-order was pretty evident: a power-hitter. Asif is just that. That he turned up to produce a knock as good as that this early in the tournament could potentially complete Pakistan’s batting line-up. Very few players in the team can turn up and switch gears instantly. Asif’s record in the death overs speak for itself. If numbers don’t tell the tale, re-watching his game-changing innings against New Zealand on Tuesday could do the trick.