T20 World Cup: The sixes that heal Asif Ali’s pain

Asif Ali has a gut-wrenching backstory. For the rest of his life he will carry the pain of losing his daughter. Cricket can never be an adequate solace.

Two years ago, ahead of the 50-over World Cup, Ali’s daughter Dua Fatima succumbed to stage 4 cancer. She was just 19 months old. A day after the funeral, Ali joined the Pakistan squad in England.

Media, both social and mainstream, showed enough insensitivity to tear into Ali when he didn’t score runs. In the toughest fight of his life, which ended in heartbreak, Ali had his Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchise Islamabad United by his side. At the post-match press conference after Pakistan’s win against Afghanistan on Friday, he spoke about not being a social media nerd, trying to hide years of hurt.

A seven-ball 25, including four sixes in an over, saw off a tense chase for Pakistan. A cryptic message on Twitter followed.

“Aur koi hukam Pakistan? Shukriya @isbunited aur woh sub log jinho ne mere per belief rakha mere mushkil waqt mai. (Any more command Pakistan? Thank you Islamabad United and the people who kept faith in me in tough times)”

A congratulatory post came close on its heels, from England all-rounder Ben Stokes. “Remember the name @AasifAli2018”.

Pakistan’s former National Cricket Academy director Mudassar Nazar praised Ali’s resolve, how the 30-year-old middle-order batsman fought through the pain. “It was hard, but he has come through those times. Hats off to him,” the ex-Pakistan opener told The Indian Express.

He addressed the media flak issue with a hint of sarcasm.

“You can’t talk about the media, because the media will have a go at you, especially Pakistan media will chase you if you aren’t getting runs or taking wickets. They will come very hard. When a couple of years ago he lost his daughter, he was just coming into the Pakistan team. It was a very, very difficult time for him. His form suffered a little bit and also, he was going at a number that almost always gave him the task to chase 12 runs-an-over. And no way can you be consistent (batting in that position).”

Improved short-ball game

Coming into the ongoing T20 World Cup, the biggest concern was Pakistan’s brittle middle-order. Ali was called an “enigma” by local press, someone who sizzled in domestic cricket and fizzled at international level. People questioned his ability after Pakistan’s loss against Zimbabwe earlier this year. After the series against South Africa, his weakness against the short ball was mercilessly highlighted.

“Yes, pacers started to bowl short at him and he didn’t cope very well at the time. In white-ball cricket, he couldn’t hit the short ball over mid-wicket. He worked on his short ball technique, about getting into a good position, and the result is there for you. He went back to the drawing board and sorted himself out,” Nazar observed.

In June this year, after smashing 75 runs off 43 balls for Islamabad United against Lahore Qalandars, Ali spoke about his hurt.

“Except for Islamabad United, nobody trusts my batting and backs it. Some people think that I’m only a player who can bat four overs and my message to them is that this is not the case and whenever I get the opportunity, like today, I will perform well,” he had said.

Two years earlier, on May 25, 2019 he wrote a deeply touching message on Twitter: “My daughter my angel returned to Allah last night.”

Talking about Ali’s daughter, former Islamabad United coach Dean Jones broke down during a press conference. When the former Australia batsman died of cardiac arrest, Islamabad United general manager Rehan-ul-Haq wrote on social media how Jones supported Ali through thick and thin in crisis.

“I normally wouldn’t share screenshots of any convos but I think ppl should know the kind of man #DeanJones was off the field. One of the most compassionate ppl. This he sent to me when Asif was going through a tough time, he believed in Asif & Asif delivered that season,” he posted on Twitter, sharing a screenshot of Jones mentioning his desire to raise money for Ali and his family.

In-form pinch hitter

Ali has hit seven sixes off 19 balls at the ongoing T20 World Cup, playing impact knocks against New Zealand and Afghanistan and helping his side pull off wins in pressure situations. Following his four sixes in an over off Karim Janat on Friday, his PSL franchise tweeted: “Leave a reply below this tweet if you have ever doubted Asif Ali’s abilities! WE WILL WAIT!”

The player’s comment at the post-match presser oozed self-confidence, sometimes misconstrued as arrogance in the sub-continent.

“I don’t notice criticism. I don’t follow social media at all. I’m very far away from it,” he insisted.

He believed that Pakistan needed him for the showpiece event. “My role was such that I sometimes came into the team and sometimes was dropped. Pakistan needed me and called for me. I have played leagues around the world and was playing domestic cricket too, so I was in touch with my game. I’m only in the team because I was performing, after all.”

There’s a certain brusqueness in Ali that at times landed him in trouble. Not very long ago he faced disciplinary action after swatting his bat within inches of Kemo Paul’s face during a Caribbean Premier League game.

This tournament has been witnessing his transformation from a brat to a match-winner, all the while playing with the emptiness in his heart.

By William Regal

Used to think I was a tad indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure.

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