The day Pakistan’s World Cup squad was announced, Mohammad Amir‘s exclusion dominated the headlines. That was perfectly natural; the fascination with the revival of his prodigious teenage talent hasn’t yet died down, and the prospect of a World Cup in England where Pakistan had voluntarily left him out was perplexing to several. But if you looked past the flashiest headlines, the omission of Asif Ali came as a more surprising move.
Not because his numbers are extraordinary; they’re not. An average of 31 is far from sensational, and today’s 36-ball 51 is his highest ODI score in nine innings, four of which came against Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. It is instead his strike rate – 132.80 – that marks him out as possessor of an ability no one in Pakistan’s middle order can claim. Asif is, with more sixes than fours in his short ODI career thus far, a power hitter. Fakhar Zaman aside, no other player in the preliminary World Cup squad can claim that title.
It was a point Mickey Arthur echoed following Pakistan’s spirited attempt at chasing down England’s colossal first innings in Southampton today. That Pakistan had got as close as they did was a tremendous surprise to anyone acquainted with their recent batting troubles, and Asif’s four sixes and two fours en route his half-century was a major factor in their fight. Without his efforts, this contest would have been a foregone conclusion well before Chris Woakes sent down the 50th over.
“We batted well as a unit there, but fell just a little short at the end,” Arthur said afterwards. “Asif played really well off the back of that really good innings from Fakhar, who was outstanding today. It was disappointing not to get over the line.”
Arthur made no attempt to conceal what that meant for Pakistan’s World Cup plans, and where the 27-year old stands in regard to them. “Asif was very impressive today. It’s no secret the one thing we’ve lacked is a bit of power hitting and he has the ability to do that for us. He did his chances no harm with the innings he played.”
“It’s no secret the one thing we’ve lacked is a bit of power hitting. He did his chances no harm with the innings he played.” Mickey Arthur on Asif Ali
The idea that Asif may not go to the World Cup is even more incredulous once Pakistan look across to the other camp, where the approach and personnel of the hosts has made them the bookies’ favourites to walk away with the trophy. Joe Root aside, there’s barely a player in England’s top seven who wouldn’t count as a power hitter if playing for Pakistan, and to overlook one of the few they can count among their ranks would lead to plenty of head-scratching.
Sure, it poses a dilemma regarding the balance of the squad, and what it means for playing a sixth bowler. Attempts to fit Asif in at No.6 in the Asia Cup last year didn’t work, but then again, nothing did for Pakistan at that tournament. This is a headache worth having, not one to be washed away by a bitter pill and a sip of water.
How to squeeze him into the team is a conversation for later though, with the more pressing conundrum being who he’d replace in the 15-man squad. His performance today mean he’s unlikely to be rested for the game that follows, a game for which Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik – both in the squad as it stands – will be fit.
It would be astonishing if either were dropped for the World Cup, and that puts more pressure on Haris Sohail’s shoulders than is perhaps justified. The left-hander couldn’t keep the momentum going when he came in with Fakhar and Babar Azam having departed in quick succession, scoring just 14 of the 41 runs in his partnership with Asif before holing out to deep point. However, his three overs of left-arm spin were more economical than any of those bowled by his team-mates.
It might mean Pakistan take the easy way out and put him in at Abid Ali’s expense, a player who burst into the selectors’ plans off the back of a debut hundred in the fourth ODI against Australia in March. While not a like-for-like replacement, it resolves the apparent absurdity of omitting Asif while not forgoing the experience of Shoaib or the allround skills of Hafeez, both of whom the selectors appear to set plenty of store by. But Abid’s own List A and T20 strike-rate suggest he’s more than capable of keeping things moving, and to confuse the most harmonious call with the most discerning one could prove to be expensive folly.
Make no mistake: on the evidence of what we all saw at the Ageas Bowl today and later heard from Arthur, Asif hasn’t gone to England just to play a bilateral series. And if that’s apparent from the outside, it’s a point that will have dawned equally gravely on the men who might be forced to make way for him. The pressure of facing England’s bowlers is considerable as it is, but some Pakistan batsman may have more than just that on their minds when the two sides square off at Bristol on Tuesday.