In all likelihood, Pakistan batsman Asif Ali recently had the worst experience of his life. Ali's nineteen-month-old daughter died a few days ago while undergoing treatment in the United States of America for cancer. This is an unspeakable loss for the 27-year-old and his family, one from which they will never truly recover. Losing a close one is never easy. But to lose one so young, so innocent, is a sadness almost too much to bear.
In Alan Paton's novel, Cry the Beloved Country, Zulu priest Stephen Kumalo, noticeably shaken upon unexpectedly meeting James Jarvis, whose son Kumalo's son had shot dead in the process of committing a robbery and was sentenced to be hanged as a result, told him "this thing that is the heaviest thing of all my years, is the heaviest thing of all your years also." To which Jarvis replied, "that can only mean one thing," recognizing immediately what the priest was talking about.
Asif's daughter's death is the heaviest thing of all him and his family's years. And yet, the batsman played on for his country, never missing a game, even as his daughter struggled for her life on a hospital bed thousands of miles away. He didn't do badly either. His mind could hardly have wandered away from his daughter's bedside, still he was able to make 51 off 36 deliveries against England on 11th May and 52 off 43 deliveries against the same opposition on 14th May. How he was able to even think about cricket is beyond comprehension, let alone batting, scoring runs, fielding and bowling.
May be cricket might have helped him to cope with the heartache. It wouldn't have taken his mind off his troubles, but it would have helped him to be resilient.
It sometimes seems amazing, impossible even, but sportspersons often show what appear to be super-human levels of resilience. During the 2003 National Football League (NFL) season, for example, Green Bay Packers' quarterback Brett Favre decided to take the field less than a day after his father died unexpectedly.
In the beginning, there was uncertainty about whether Favre play or not. The uncertainty lasted for 45 about minutes. His father would have wanted him to play, Favre decided. He then went and had one of the best games of his storied career, stunning onlookers and forcing the analysts to use every known superlative. "How he does it, I have no idea," remarked well known NFL commentator John Madden, "There is no road map for this."
National Basketball Association (NBA) point guard Chris Paul was just a highschooler in North Carolina when his grandfather was murdered. Still grieving, Paul went into his first game after "PaPa Chili" passed away and scored 61 points, one for every year that his grandfather lived. To ensure he ended on that number he deliberately missed a free throw at the end of the game.
We have seen examples of this phenomenon in cricket too. In February, West Indies fast bowler Alzarri Joseph lost his mother during the Antigua Test against England. There were tears from Joseph the next morning after his mother passed. But, the young man soldiered on. His seven-over spell in the second innings of the Test was fast, focused and skillful. He bowled four maidens, conceding 12 runs and taking two wickets which his teammates and the pacer hardly celebrated. His grief was apparent, his bowling was inspired, and the pundits were not sparing in their praise.
Speaking after the game, West Indies captain Jason Holder singled out his fast bowler: "It was up to him if he played. I didn't want to deprive him of the opportunity to take the field. If he felt he could manage and take the field for the West Indies and perform then I wasn't going to deprive him of that.
"For sure I knew he wanted to do something special for his mum and credit to him, he held his hand up high and did an exceptional job for us."
Also, who can forget the pall that descended over cricket when Phillip Hughes died. The Australian left-hander was popular amongst his mates and there were tears and sorrow all round when he passed away. Less than a week after his funeral, however, Australia took on India in Adelaide. It was a testament to their resilience that they were able to play and win and that players as close to Hughes as David Warner and Michael Clarke were, scored hundreds in the game. His passing would've weighed heavily on their minds and so it was admirable they were able to thrive under such circumstances.
The athlete who chooses to play while still grieving usually finds a way, somehow, not to be crippled by emotions. They usually find a way to compartmentalise the different demands for their attention in order to concentrate on the matter at hand.
Far from rendering the participant ineffective or distracted, difficulties such as grief or ailment, often lead to greater focus, even enhancing performance on occasion. Recall Michael Jordan's memorable "Flu Game" against the Utah Jazz in 1997, where the basketball maestro scored 38 points despite his obvious illness. Or recall that opponents of West Indies used to be wary more upon witnessing a limping Gordon Greenidge. A physically ailing Greenidge normally meant one thing — runs.
These examples are trivial, of course, compared to what Asif must be going through. The point is, however, that sportspersons are capable of performing under even the most trying of circumstances.
Getting back to normal activity frequently helps in overcoming pain. In This Is Your Brain On Sports, authors L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers mention that studies indicate we are more resilient than we think, that "keeping busy" and "getting back to routine" can help the healing process. "If we're oscillating between negative emotional responses and engagement with the world around us, then more time devoted to the latter leaves less time to wrestle with the former."
Chances are that in Asif's quieter moments, perhaps when he is away from the field of play and finds the time and opportunity to dwell on the turmoil that has just enveloped his life, the tears and the pain will return. Playing the game he loves might well help him to cope.
It is admirable that he continued playing despite being under so much strain, and rightly, the cricket community has hailed his efforts. Social media is replete with messages of support for the batsman, with the likes of Viv Richards, Wasim Akram, Shoib Akhtar and a whole list of others extending their condolences. Support has come from Imran Khan as well, the Prime Minister of his country who tweeted: "My condolences and prayers go to Asif Ali & his family on the passing of his daughter from cancer. May Allah give them strength to bear such a precious loss."
My condolences and prayers go to Asif Ali & his family on the passing of his daughter from cancer. May Allah give them strength to bear such a precious loss.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) May 20, 2019
A day after his daughter passed away, Asif was included in Pakistan's World Cup squad. Like Joseph in Antigua, he will not have the urge for any overt celebration. The cloud of grief will still not have moved away by the time World Cup arrives but like many who were faced with overwhelming grief, Asif will be strong and resilient, and, afforded the opportunity to play, will put up his best for his country, unencumbered by the lingering pain swirling around him.
Our thoughts are with him and his family.