Asif the Finisher flattens Afghanistan
Asif the Finisher flattens Afghanistan

SHADAB Khan wanted a single. Asif Ali didn’t. Asif wanted the strike. He wanted to do what Asif Ali does, and loft the ball effortlessly over the boundary. So, Asif sent Shadab back when Shadab had almost run to his end. It was a big call, but Asif the Finisher is playing the cricket of his life. People thought Asif wanted the short legside boundary. But the boundary didn’t matter to Asif, he just wanted the strike. The next over went six, dot, six, dot, six, six, and the match was over. The first six flew over long off and covered 92m.

Pakistan had defeated Afghanistan to place one foot firmly in the World T20 semi-finals. It was a brave effort from Afghanistan in a match heavy on passion, both from the crowd and the players. Hearts often ruled heads, and the game was the more enjoyable for it.

If the passion of the two teams was equally matched, Afghanistan’s desperation seemed greater as they over-attacked their way to 76 for 6 in the 13th over. After that Afghanistan clawed their way back to set Pakistan a respectable total. Then, with three overs to go in Pakistan’s faltering run chase, Afghanistan even seemed the more likely winners — until Asif came to the party.

Asif has batted for only 19 balls in this tournament. In that time he has scored 52 runs and hit 7 sixes and a four. He is yet to get out. He has scored those runs under immense pressure, but looked in firm control of himself and the match situation. He is a short batsman who gets under the ball so expertly and with such power, whether short or full, that once a ball is hit the only destination is out of the ground.

Pakistan’s T20 formula relies on runs at the top order from the dynamic duo of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. What follows is generally suspect. A finisher is something other teams have. A consistent hitter is something other teams have. In two high-profile run chases, Asif has perfected the art of the hitter finisher. If nobody outside Pakistan had heard of Asif Ali before this World T20, they all know him now, Asif the Finisher with ice in his veins.

With Rizwan’s early dismissal, the question was who would pick up the baton and support Babar. Fakhar Zaman offered most promise, but he couldn’t see the job through, and neither could Mohammad Hafeez. Meanwhile, Babar rattled off one his least fluent fifties before atypically losing his patience, bowled off Rashid Khan’s last ball. It seemed a rash decision by Pakistan’s captain, as it left his team 26 to score off three overs. In the angst over Babar’s ill-timed exit, Asif slipped in almost silently, ready to do his night’s work.

The beginning of the match was wild. Pakistan’s fast bowlers sacrificed some control as they pushed for every inch of speed, responding to the roars of the crowd and their inner emotions. Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf were electric. Afghanistan were equal in their bravado, either nailing their big shots or miscuing into the hands of Pakistan’s fielders.

It was this mayhem that left Afghanistan struggling. Pakistan’s domination was largely through their spinners. Imad Wasim and Shadab continued their excellent form on a pitch that favoured spin, although Mohammad Hafeez was unused.

The innings got away from Pakistan in a late burst from Mohammad Nabi and Gulbadin Naib. Pakistan didn’t bowl badly but they were not quite the impeccable bowling force that we saw against India and Pakistan, but the mad noise of Dubai’s cricket stadium was enough to wobble anybody’s nerves. And those wobbles were enough to see Pakistan’s bowlers betray their iron discipline in line of attack just enough to allow Afghanistan a competitive total.

Pakistan are top of the table with one foot and half in the semi-finals. The challenge for Babar Azam’s team is to retain their intensity and avoid complacency. The last time Pakistan looked so strong so early in a world tournament was the 1999 World Cup in England. Their interim coach, Saqlain Mushtaq, was a central part of the highs, lows, and emotions of that journey. For Pakistan, the highs and the passion often go hand in hand, and Saqlain’s job is to keep the lows at bay.

With the revival of Pakistan’s spin bowling and the discovery of Asif Ali, the Finisher, the prospect of lifting a second World T20 trophy grows more realistic with each game.

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