When Pakistan’s cadres were announced for the World Cup, the exclusion of Mohammad Amir dominated the headlines. That was natural. The fascination with the potential revival of his amazing teenage talent has not yet abated, and the prospect of a World Cup in England where Pakistan had voluntarily left him was confusing to several. But if you’ve left the most obvious headlines, omitting Asif Ali was more surprising.
Not because his numbers are extraordinary; You are not. An average of 31 is far from sensational and the last 36-ball 51 is his highest ODI score in nine innings, four of which went against Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. Instead, it’s his hit ratio – 132.80 – that distinguishes him as the owner of a skill no one in Pakistan’s middle order can claim. Asif is a power hitter with more than six-four in his short ODI career so far. Apart from Fakhar Zaman, no other player in the squad of the preliminary World Cup has such qualities.
It was a point that Mickey Arthur repeated after Pakistan’s determined attempt to hunt Britain’s colossal first innings in Southampton. That Pakistan was as close as she was was a tremendous surprise to those familiar with recent batting problems, and Asif’s four sixes and two fours on the way to the half century were an important factor in their struggle. Without his efforts, this contest would have been a matter of course long before Chris Woakes sent the 50th over.
“We did well as a unit there, but came a bit short in the end,” said Arthur afterwards. “Asif played really well on the back of these really good innings of Fakhar, who was outstanding today, and it was disappointing not to cross the line.”
Arthur made no attempt to hide what that meant for Pakistan’s World Cup plans and where the 27-year-old stands in relation to them. “Asif was very impressive today, it’s no secret what we missed is a bit of punch and he has the ability to do that for us, he has not harmed his chances with the innings he has played.”
“It’s no secret, the only thing we missed was that we have a bit of power, he did not harm his chances with the innings he played.”
The idea of Asif not being allowed to take part in the World Cup seems even stranger when Pakistan turns to the other camp, where the hosts have become the favorites of bookmakers to take the trophy by their approach and their staff.
Apart from Joe Root, there is hardly a player in the top-7 of England who would not count as a ruler – not in any XI – and overlooking one of the few who can count Pakistan among his ranks would cause too much headaches.
Sure, it’s a dilemma in terms of the squad’s balance and what it means to play against a sixth bowler. Attempting to place Asif in sixth place of the Asian Cup last year did not work out, but for Pakistan, nothing has changed in the tournament. These are headaches that are worth washing off with a bitter tablet and a sip of water.
How to force him into the XI is a conversation for later, with the more pressing mystery being who he would replace in the 15-man team. Due to his performance today, it is unlikely that he will rest for the following game. Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik – both in the squad as it is – will be fit for the match.
It would be amazing if either were dropped for the World Cup, and that puts more pressure on Haris Sohail’s shoulders than might be justified. The left-hander could not sustain the momentum when he started with Fakhar and Babar Azam, who had left in quick succession. In his partnership with Asif, he scored only 14 of the 41 runs before dropping out at a low point. His three left-arm turns were more fuel-efficient than his teammates.
This could mean that Pakistan will ease the way out and get it back at the expense of Abid Ali, a player who has broken into the selector plans following a debut of a hundred in the fourth ODI against Australia in March.
While not a substitute for a similar company, it does remove the obvious absurdity of leaving Asif without giving up the experience of Shoaib or the all-round capabilities of Hafeez, which the two selectors seem to attach great importance to. But Abid’s own hit rate in List A and T20 suggests that he is more than capable of keeping things moving, and that confusing the most harmonious call with the most sophisticated can prove costly folly.
Make no mistake: Based on what we saw today at Ageas Bowl and later heard from Arthur, Asif did not go to England just to play a bilateral series. And if that’s obvious from the outside, it’s a point that will have been equally grave for the men who might be forced to make room for him. The pressure to face England’s bowler is considerable, but some Pakistani hammers may have more than that in mind when the two teams meet in Bristol on Tuesday.