Can Pakistan get the real Asif Ali to show up more often?

For Islamabad United, he is a free-stroking middle-order attack machine; for the national side, a shadow of that player

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Asif Ali: "In international cricket, in a team environment, you can't discuss things with a free mind, unless you are a senior player"  •  Visionhaus/Getty Images

Asif Ali: "In international cricket, in a team environment, you can't discuss things with a free mind, unless you are a senior player"  •  Visionhaus/Getty Images

Asif Ali is mad. This is an event because Asif Ali doesn't look like a man who gets mad a lot. If he does, he looks like the kind of man who does mad like Misbah-ul-Haq does mad, by burying it way deep behind dead eyes.
Even here, in these 24 seconds, he's not looking or sounding mad but what he's saying is coming from a place of anger. Anger, some frustration and plenty of vindication, which make for one dynamite cocktail.
The 24 seconds are from a post-game interview that lasts barely a minute in all. He has hit 75 off 43 balls for Islamabad United against the Lahore Qalandars and turned 20 for 5 into a thumping win.
"And as far as my batting goes," he says, looking for all the world like this might be the routine note of thanks to team, coaches and fans that is produced in these circumstances, but instead launching an arson attack on it all, including, potentially, his international future, "other than Islamabad United, nobody has trusted or backed my batting. Some people think I'm a batter for just four overs. For them my message is, I am not a four-over batter. When I get an opportunity, like I did today, wherever, I will prove it."
Twenty-four seconds is short but here's a precis nevertheless: To hell with you all (but not you, United).
This was coming. Ali had spent the last couple of months with an entire ecosystem essentially telling him that he was not good enough and that he was wasting everyone's time. On Pakistan's tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe, he played in three of seven T20Is, didn't bat in one and made 5 and 1 in the others. In these two he was part of two mighty middle-order fails, from 98 for 2 to 115 for 6 in the first, against South Africa (though Pakistan scraped through) and then from 78 for 3 to 99 all out, in Pakistan's first-ever T20I loss to Zimbabwe.
To many, these two failures were two more than they could take. For three years Ali had been given every opportunity for Pakistan and had spurned them. He was supposed to be their Andre Russell, or Kieron Pollard, or Rishabh Pant; instead, he was the poster boy for the country's bare cupboard of power-hitting finishers.
Finally, earlier this month he was cut from Pakistan's squads for tours to England and the West Indies.
What those 24 seconds also did was strike at the heart of the bewildering duality that is Ali's T20 career: for Islamabad United and for Pakistan. In one he averages 26, strikes at 165, and has won multiple titles. In the other, he averages less than 17, strikes at 123.74, and was an invisible member of the world's top-ranked team. In one, his strike rate from the first ten balls of an innings is 165 and, on average, he hits more than two boundaries off those first ten. In the other, it's not so much a strike rate as a surrender rate: 110 off the first ten balls.
In one career, he is the answer to Pakistan's problems. In the other, he is the problem.


Not long after Ali returned from Africa, United's analysts sat him down and showed him some numbers for middle-order batters from around the world. Don't worry about averages was the message. Don't worry about not coming off all the time; make sure to capitalise when you do.
More than the detail, the act itself was instructive, a manifestation of the trust and backing Ali spoke of. This was the reassurance and security needed to perform in one of cricket's newest, least understood, most difficult roles, in an already cut-throat sporting environment.
A few days after those post-game comments, Ali had a more considered and expansive take on what he meant.
"You know, international cricket, the environment is different," he said. "In international cricket, in a team environment, you can't discuss things with a free mind, unless you are a senior player. You can't do it under any management or captain. You can't speak to them freely about things.
"And especially if you're a player who is in and out of the team, and then when he comes back, he starts talking about the game and roles, people look at him and think… well, you understand, right?"
The gist of it, perhaps, yes, if it is that people look at him and think he needs to be put in his place, or that he's some overhyped PSL star too big for his boots. That ultimately he has not felt like he belongs when playing for Pakistan.
"In a franchise, you are much freer in your mind. You can talk to the coach, whether he's a foreigner or local, you can talk about your training or batting plans. About that four-over line, well there's some players, some senior players, who think I'm a four-over batter and I just wanted to let them know that I am not that. There's no player who doesn't know what he is inside and what he can do. I know what I can do."
It is a revelatory take, though ultimately not surprising. And it doesn't necessarily indict Pakistan's treatment of him. A dressing room houses a range of personalities, some in need of little attention, others in need of more, and not everyone will always get what they want.
Ali did, initially at least, get opportunities. From his debut in April 2018 until Misbah took over as coach and selector, he played in each of Pakistan's 20 T20Is - the only player to do so. It was a winning side, so his slightly middling numbers didn't matter so much.
After Misbah took over in September 2019, those opportunities thinned drastically. Ali has played in nine of 27 T20Is since.
"I can say that I got chances and I didn't perform," Ali acknowledged. "But that's fine. Koi masla nahin [no big issue]. Players have to perform ultimately. I'll keep trying as hard as I can and whatever is in my fate will happen. People talking about it is not going to make it happen.
"I know that I worked hard and performed to get into the national side. The team is not run by my family. If you're working hard and the performances aren't there, you leave it in Allah's hands and the good days come eventually."
The fatalism aside - that somehow it simply isn't meant to be - the sense that this is still about Pakistan not understanding the role, or its terms of reference, hangs heavy. Shoaib Malik observed recently that Pakistani selectors still judge middle-order positions by how many fifties they find on the sheet. If that really is so, it's like gauging the depth of the ocean with a tape measure.
If that sounds anecdotal, or too much like an ex-player's gripe, look at the selectors' decisions. In less than two years they have tried 19 batters across numbers four, five and six and none have had a run of more than nine innings. These are not the actions of men who know who - or what - they are looking for.
Foremost, the role requires that those who judge it have patience. There aren't many of this kind of batter around who didn't struggle for long early in their careers. Nicholas Pooran, as just one example, averages less than 20 for West Indies and has a strike rate of 121.36, yet he is the T20 team's vice-captain.
If the selectors had had that patience, it makes little sense that Ali has played only a third of Pakistan's matches under Misbah as coach. Even if you include the dead weight of his Pakistan numbers, Ali has the second-best strike rate globally in T20 since February 2017 for middle-order batters who have made over 1500 runs, and averages over 25.
With that patience, it also requires an intelligent recognition of relevant data. Like his death-overs strike rate of 195.51 since April 2018, which puts him just outside the top ten globally (with a minimum of 300 runs). Or that among middle-order batters post-powerplay, his strike rate and balls-per-boundary figures are second only to Russell over the last four years (across the IPL, PSL, BBL, CPL, T20 Blast and Mzansi League). And that he's one of only two Pakistani batters among those in the top ten for best strike rates in PSL history (for batters with at least 500 runs). In each of these lists, he is either the only Pakistani, or one of a couple of them, so it's not like there is a cache of alternatives selectors can look at.
A more evolved measure could consider the impact of middle-order batters on an innings, in terms of the burden of scoring they take on, as well as of their scoring rate. If you take batters outside the top three who come into an innings with more than five overs left and end up making more than 50% of a team's runs from there on and at a better strike rate than their team-mates, Ali is mingling with some T20 bling. With a minimum cut-off of 50 such occasions since the start of 2017 (again across the top six franchise leagues), Ali has done this 11 times out of 51, at a rate behind only Pollard, AB de Villiers and Russell. That is, from the moment he arrives, he scores more than half the team's runs at a better rate than his partners more often than anyone other than three of the greatest T20 batters ever.
Cast your mind back to that wild difference in his strike rate for the first ten balls of an innings for Pakistan and for Islamabad United - 110 for the former and 165.4 for the latter (until June 20). It seems even more profound, and can only really speak either of a difference in how he's asked to bat for both sides, or a hesitation borne from the sense that if he's not careful, he'll be out of the national side. And once you start hesitating and worrying in this role, you're already not fit for it.


If there is a sense that Ali is not taken seriously by those outside Islamabad United, it perhaps has something to do with the route he has taken to get here.
In his younger days he was a tape-ball professional, playing in tournaments across Punjab. That was his grounding - practising on cement wickets, which sharpens bat speeds and reflexes. Friends on the circuit pushed him to join a club and start playing hard-ball cricket, but he took that up late, and for a while, not seriously. He could only play club games on weekends because his job as a quality inspector in a steel factory in Faisalabad left him no time during the week. But he could play tape-ball in the evenings, so he continued.
One weekend his club took on Combined Cricket Club, a prominent local team that had several first-class cricketers. His own team called in Mohammad Salman, a wicketkeeper who played ten internationals for Pakistan in 2011, as a guest player for the game. Ali and Salman eventually opened, chasing a modest target of 130-odd. They got there in ten overs, Ali hitting 120. It left both Salman and opponents alike astonished enough to make sure Ali was, through a white-ball camp for Faisalabad, mainstreamed.
Eventually he would make his T20 debut for the Faisalabad Wolves in the much loved and missed Super Eight T20 tournament, and hit a 59-ball 100. He couldn't believe the boundaries at Iqbal Stadium were so small for that game, because when he played there for his club, the boundaries were never really marked and invariably were wherever the stands began. And he was so raw, so untrained as a professional athlete, he remembers getting to 39 and running out of breath. But it was only after that hundred that he gave up his factory job for a full-time tilt at cricket. If he could hit a hundred in a national tournament against national-level players, he figured, imagine what he could do if he trained to become a professional cricketer.
This is a familiar route in Pakistan - tape-ball nursery, maybe alongside club cricket, spotted by a coach or player, and suddenly, bang, straight into the pipeline. Except that it is a familiar route for fast bowlers. Pakistan is an orthodox, conservative cricket environment, especially for batters, who are required to conform to some vague notion of correctness; to have come through multi-day, red-ball cricket, where they learn about footwork and technique and patience.
Ali did not come through like that. He only played three first-class games before his T20 debut, no age-group cricket, and barely any district-level cricket. He does not even now seem hugely hung up on a red-ball career.
This is not a career path Pakistan's cricket establishment can readily get its head round, least of all that tape-ball cricket has had such a formative influence on his batting. Fine for fast bowlers but it corrupts batting. It's easy to imagine that in the minds of decision-makers, Ali probably produces a frisson of the same unease they associated with Shahid Afridi's batting, just with a fancier job title and new-fangled data decorating it; that he is essentially the same good-time-not-long-time, hit-now-think-never batter.


In his first innings after those 24 seconds, Ali walked in at one down instead of his usual five or six. United were soaring, 98 already with the tenth over not done. It was a typical United move, having understood the situation and calculated there was nobody better than Ali to double down - not consolidate - on that start. Ali was gone before the end of the 13th but not before he had hit 43 off 14. Next game, he hit 25 off 16, all but killing a chase that, with him not there, eventually still went to the last over.
These were not unusual Ali innings, but they were also simmering around the edges with a new, clear-eyed anger. There was a mean-spirited triumphalism about these, like the dictator who doesn't want to just win a majority in a sham election but wants the opposition dead as well. One six he struck off Peshawar Zalmi's Sameen Gul, on one knee, over extra cover, didn't just take six off Zalmi's total, it exacted a bit of the bowler's soul with it. It was personal. When he pulled Sohail Khan in the next game high into the night sky, so too he sent with that ball some of the bowler's spirit.
This was batting as venting and maybe there's the trick. That what he needs is to corral this anger and funnel it one day straight through an innings for Pakistan.
Stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman. All stats current to June 20, 2021

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo