ANALYSIS: Brittle Pakistan must resolve Asif Ali enigma before T20 World Cup

Published April 25, 2021
Since debuting against the West Indies at Karachi in April 2018, Asif has hardly made an impact in whatever role he had been picked for. — Dawn/File
Since debuting against the West Indies at Karachi in April 2018, Asif has hardly made an impact in whatever role he had been picked for. — Dawn/File

IT may sound outrageous and somewhat out of place, but Pakistan’s first defeat in a Twenty20 International against Zimbabwe couldn’t have come at a better time after the African country had previously lost all 15 fixtures against them! The tag of unpredictability associated with Pakistan cricket yet again reared its ‘ugly’ head on Friday in Harare on Friday.

Notwithstanding the now predictable failure of the unpredictable Asif Ali, the misfiring ‘white-ball talent’ in our midst, Babar Azam earned the dubious sobriquet of being the first captain to oversee Pakistan’s maiden T20 loss to Zimbabwe in a performance that can be described just shambolic, if anything else, with the chase confined to more balls (120) and less runs (119) at the start of the modest chase.

It would be totally a pointless and time-wasting exercise to dissect the root cause behind Pakistan’s 61st defeat — and undoubtedly one of their most painful ones as Babar admitted afterwards — from 169 Twenty20 Internationals or Zimbabwe’s only fifth triumph against a major team, their other wins came against India (twice), Australia and the West Indies — and 19th overall in 84 T20 fixtures because signs were forthcoming during the opening game which Pakistan, somehow, miraculous won after Zimbabwe provided glimpses of one of the worst catching ever witnessed in any international game.

And if Zimbabwe had managed to cling onto some of the easiest of catches during Wednesday’s opening fixture, the hosts would have been celebrating a rare series win in a year when they won’t be part of the Twenty20 World Cup because of administrative problems in their cricketing setup, which eventually prevented them from participating in the qualifying event for the global competition.

Younis Khan was the last link of Pakistan’s golden era in the first decade of the 21st century as he, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf formed a formidable batting triumvirate that was almost equivalent, if not less or more, to their contemporaries in other top sides. After retiring as the country’s highest Test run-getter, Younis is part of the backroom staff as batting coach.

During last week’s virtual media conference, Younis made it clear that the onus of putting up decent totals on the board not just depends on a handful of batters — Babar, Mohammad Rizwan and Fakhar Zaman — but the entire line-up. Unfortunately for Pakistan their batting worries have multiplied with runs almost dried up from the middle order.

Even the vastly experienced Mohammad Hafeez has had a horrendous trip thus far — 65 runs across both white-ball formats in South Africa and Zimbabwe from five innings with a best of 32 in the second T20 against South Africa at the Wanderers — while young Haider Ali and the embattled Asif Ali had both been shunted in and out of the T20 side.

The biggest and most obvious flop is Asif. Touted as a game-changer even before being considered to play international cricket, no one can’t recall previous instance of a Pakistan player being afforded so many opportunities to showcase his supposedly overrated ability as either a power-hitter or a finisher. Since debuting against the West Indies at Karachi in April 2018, Asif has hardly made an impact in whatever role he had been picked for. His T20 numbers explicitly show a sorry reading: 344 runs in 27 innings with a pathetic average of 16.38 and a career strike-rate of 123.74 with an unbeaten 41 — versus Zimbabwe at Harare in July 2018 — being his best effort.

At the age of 29 and they say, Asif surely isn’t going to set the Thames on fire. The general feeling among the diehards of Pakistan cricket is no matter what Younis and company attempt to do from the sidelines, Asif’s lack of improving on the job is the main reason behind his continuous struggles. Secretly, head coach Misbah-ul-Haq is now confronted with a dilemma with the Asif conundrum. Misbah’s predecessor Mickey Arthur probably saw something that others have not seen because the incumbent coach of Sri Lanka had been Asif’s biggest fan during his days with Pakistan.

Shoaib Malik, who had not donned the green shirt since the T20 series in England last summer, is now itching to settle scores with Misbah and company. He was axed for not scoring enough runs for Pakistan to command a regular spot. But even Malik would have surely done better as illustrated by Asif’s run of woes in recent outings. Since making 38 against New Zealand in November 2018, Asif’s T20 scoreline reads: 2*, 13, 2, 25, 3, 6, 29, 1, 11, 4, 7, 5 and 1.

Regardless of whether Pakistan win Sunday’s final game — and the series — against Zimbabwe, the question is: when will the selectors, head coach and captain decide what is the way forward from now on in the remaining fixtures that Pakistan play in the lead-up to this year’s T20 World Cup.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2021

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