Pakistan’s Asif Ali: ‘My role is to finish the game and I have to execute that plan’

This week Asif Ali was named the ICC’s male cricketer of the month for October, with barely a whisper of dissent. The remarkable thing about this is that he only faced 19 deliveries in the entire month – even if the recipient of the award was certain to come from the T20 World Cup, by October’s end 51 batters had scored more runs and 98 had faced more deliveries. It was what Asif did with them that counted, and within those 19 balls, spanning just 37 minutes, he won two matches, hit seven sixes, and became one of the stars of the tournament.

Asif’s 27 off 12, very much a marathon by his standards, dragged his team over the line against New Zealand, but his next match was where the real fireworks came. Against Afghanistan he arrived at the crease with his team needing 24 from 13 balls. Shadab Khan nudged the next ball to midwicket and wanted a single but Asif sent him back: he had this. Four of the next six balls went for six and Pakistan won with an over to spare, Asif’s contribution brief but jaw-droppingly brilliant. Player of the month? Yeah, and then some.

“I can’t express the feeling,” Asif says. “But what I can tell you is that I have a video of those four sixes and I have watched it 100 times. I will always enjoy seeing that video. In 2016 Carlos Brathwaite hit four sixes to win the World Cup for West Indies, and I still can’t imagine that I am someone who has hit four sixes in an over too. I still enjoy the memory and I can’t believe I was the one to do that.”

Asif’s job is to arrive late in the innings and take massive risks for potentially massive reward, and at this he is one of the best and still improving. Across his international T20 career he boasts a strike rate of 148.7 and at this World Cup it is running at 247.8.

Yet he has struggled to get into Pakistan’s team. He first broke into the setup in 2018 but drifted out again the following year, as his form suffered during a time of unimaginable emotional turmoil. His infant daughter, Noor Fatima, had been diagnosed with aggressive, advanced blood cancer and flown to the United States for emergency treatment; Asif was in England when she died that May. With the 50-over World Cup starting less than a week later he stayed with his team, but having played brilliantly during the warm-up series against England, scoring two half-centuries, his form faded.

Asif’s 27 off 12, very much a marathon by his standards, dragged his team over the line against New Zealand.
Asif’s 27 off 12, very much a marathon by his standards, dragged his team over the line against New Zealand. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

He played twice in that World Cup before being dropped – drifting out of the T20 side a few months later – and did not play for his country again until this spring. Even then he was picked for this tournament in the most niche of roles: a UAE-ready specialist for the closing overs. “The selectors nominated me for the World Cup even though I didn’t do well in the last series in Pakistan,” he says, “because of what I have done here, in the UAE.”

He may have won an award for 23 minutes’ work but it has also taken a lot of effort and resilience to reach this point. Asif has been regularly criticised at home, both for a perceived poor attitude and for technical deficiencies, principally against the short ball. But you could argue that the way he has confronted the second of those problems, with hours of specific training, suggests the first is not an issue either.

Asif Ali with Shadab Khan after defeating Afghanistan.
Asif Ali with Shadab Khan after defeating Afghanistan. Photograph: Michael Steele/ICC/Getty Images

“The practice I have done in the nets in the past is completely different to what I do now,” he says. “I have been given clarity by the management – my role is just to finish the game and I have to execute that plan. Earlier on, when I went to a practice session I would just do what all the other guys were doing, but now I’m doing specific practice for what I have to do in the match. I work only on the kinds of deliveries I will be getting – slower ones, bouncers, wider ones – and there’s a clear difference in the results.”

Pakistan were not among the favourites coming into the World Cup, but thrashing India in their opening game was “the match that gave us confidence for the whole tournament and gave us so much momentum”, and they proceeded to rocket through their group with the tournament’s only 100% record.

They face Australia in Dubai inThursday’s second semi-final, a challenge for which Asif has fully prepared. “They are a good team, but we are very confident in our strengths,” he says. “When it comes to me, yes, I did plan for every bowler and every delivery of those bowlers, all their variations. I have some plans for them.”

International cricket is gradually returning to Pakistan after a decade-long absence that followed a terrorist attack on Sri Lanka’s team bus in 2009, but after recent tour cancellations England have now not played there since 2005, New Zealand not since 2003, and Australia not since 1998. It will not be long, Asif hopes, before cricket’s coming home.

“It was not an easy decision to digest when they cancelled,” he says. “When it comes to the field we will give everything irrespective of what has happened in the past, we don’t think about that. But it was not an easy thing to digest. Pakistan is a cricket-loving nation and they want cricket to happen in their homeland, they want to see international cricketers playing on their home grounds. They love cricket too much. We want to win the World Cup, and then we want to bring cricket back to Pakistan.”