Once regarded as one of Pakistan's top prospects, Hassan Ali last played in Pakistan colours in June 2019. A combination of bad form and injuries seemed to put on hold the career of the fast-bowler who has so far taken 148 international wickets and in 2017 was the top ranked bowler in the ICC ODI Player Rankings and was also the player of the tournament in the Champions Trophy of the same year.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Hassan spoke about coping with the injuries which kept him out of cricket for 16 months, the high workload that contributed to his injuries, what needs to be done to avoid burnout for young bowlers in Pakistan, his excellent performances in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, why he was shocked to hear about Mohammad Amir's retirement from international cricket and his own aspirations to make a comeback to the Pakistan team.
By Saj Sadiq (14th January, 2021)
PakPassion.net: Just how difficult was it for you during your injury problems?
Hassan Ali: It was a very difficult time for me. When you are a permanent member of a team and suddenly you are out of the game for 16 months it’s hard to take. On top of the injury, there was the Covid-19 restrictions to deal with which made the rehabilitation even more complicated and difficult. I’ve been through a very tough period of my life but hopefully it’s in the past now.
PakPassion.net: How frustrating was it when people were saying your injury was due to your celebration and a lack of focus on cricket?
Hassan Ali: There are two types of people. Some support you during the tough times in your life and some just criticise you for the sake of it. If people want to criticise me then they are welcome to criticise me for my cricket performances, I have no problem with that, but I don’t understand why people want to aim their criticism at my personal life. People were saying that I got injured due to my marriage and that he’s not focusing on cricket, but those people have no clue about just what difficulties you go through as a cricketer and have no understanding of the ups and downs a cricketer faces during his career.
It hurts when you have given blood, sweat and tears for your country and then some people mock you and throw ridiculous and unsubstantiated allegations at you about a lack of professionalism. I have seen people say that I got injured due to my celebration which is ridiculous, yet the PCB medical panel has no problem with my celebration. Neither the medics or I have any issues with my wicket-taking celebration, so I will continue with my celebration whether people like it or not.
PakPassion.net: What caused your spate of injuries? Was it down to not managing your workload properly?
Hassan Ali: It was because of far too much workload placed on my body. I was playing in all three formats for Pakistan and I had played in a few leagues around the world too. I had been playing continuously since my international debut and didn’t get much rest from cricket, so there was no recovery time in between matches or camps. I was bowling well and that was good as the team needed me to perform, but the workload was getting heavier and heavier and there was no rest. So, something had to give and that’s eventually what happened. I think sometimes people forget that fast bowlers are human too. They aren’t machines and you cannot just expect us to keep on bowling and stay fit every day of our career.
PakPassion.net: After impressing at the start of your career, your form dipped, what was the cause of that loss of form?
Hassan Ali: People tend to forget that I have 148 international wickets and only 13 of those were in the Champions Trophy. At times it feels like I only took wickets in the Champions Trophy and nowhere else and people forget that I have 135 wickets for Pakistan in other matches and series than the Champions Trophy in 2017. My critics make it sound like all of my wickets were in the Champions Trophy, well I would like to remind them that I have performed well not just in the Champions Trophy. As a cricketer you have ups and downs, good and bad days and even the likes of Sachin Tendulkar in the past have had low periods of form. This happens as you cannot take wickets every day or in every match, but people tend to forget that and expect you to perform amazingly in every single match.
PakPassion.net: Why is that so many Pakistani pace-bowlers start well, then lose their way and disappear from international cricket?
Hassan Ali: I started playing in the Under 16s in 2009 and I didn’t practice in any academy. I practiced with my brother and then moved into Under 19 cricket and never practiced with any qualified cricket coaches. Its only when I first toured Australia that I started doing gym work and actually focussing on my fitness, strength and conditioning. Prior to that tour of Australia, I had no idea what a gym was or how it could help me as a professional cricketer. There is a problem in our cricket culture and system wherein we overlook the non-playing side of cricket such as diet, training, looking after your body and ensuring you get enough rest. What then happens is that our young pace-bowlers are playing catch-up compared with their counterparts around the world when it comes to fitness levels. So, as a consequence of not working in a professional environment regarding our fitness and diet and conditioning, we suffer burn-out after a year or two.
PakPassion.net: What needs to be done to stop young Pakistani pace-bowlers from suffering from burn-out?
Hassan Ali: There needs to be more Under 16 and Under 19 academies where the youngsters are actually taught about what they can expect from international cricket, about yo-yo tests, about the importance of fitness, the importance of strength and conditioning and about the importance of diet. This has to be done by good coaches who are willing to turn players into very good players. At the moment too many young pace bowlers are coming into cricket without a basic understanding of the off-field requirements and as a result they perform for a year or two and then are nowhere to be seen.
PakPassion.net: Are young cricketers being rushed into international too soon by the Pakistani selectors?
Hassan Ali: If you look at Naseem Shah, he played Under 19, played one first-class match and was then playing international cricket. However, I played 3 or 4 seasons of first-class cricket before I made my international debut. I do worry about some of these young boys who are very talented. What we need to develop is this culture where these youngsters are prepared for international cricket. Because it’s very difficult to radically change a bowler’s action or a batsman’s technique by the time they are playing international cricket.
PakPassion.net: What are your memories of the problems you encountered when you started your international career?
Hassan Ali: I recall that when I started playing international cricket, the bowling coach Azhar Mahmood said to me that my front leg was collapsing when I was bowling but because I had been doing that for several years and it had become a habit, we could work on it, but we couldn’t totally fix the issue. This is what I mean about young cricketers in Pakistan not having that guidance and coaching available to them, because if that issue with my front leg collapsing had been spotted at the Under 16 or Under 19 level by a coach then it could have been rectified but by the time it was spotted, it was too late in the day for me.
PakPassion.net: Is there a danger at the moment that players in Pakistan are being picked for the longer formats based on their performances in Twenty20 competitions?
Hassan Ali: Yes, it’s an issue. We have seen too many times over the years that if a player does well in Twenty20 cricket he is picked for Test cricket or that if a player has done well in 4-day cricket then he is picked for the Twenty20 side. We need to change this culture. Occasionally you get players who are ready for international cricket at a young age, but most cricketers have to be nurtured and developed. Tournaments such as the Pakistan Super League do help players prepare for international cricket but sometimes, we rush players and throw them into international cricket too soon and when they are not ready. Players need to be selected for international cricket through the right channels and for the format they have performed in and proved themselves in.
PakPassion.net: You must be delighted with your recent form in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy?
Hassan Ali: I’m delighted and I really needed that. I needed to prove my form and my fitness, and I did that. I wanted to ensure that there were no doubts about my fitness or about my form and I believe I did that. I was pleased that Central Punjab were joint-winners and that I had captained the side too. I’d like to thank my Head Coach Shahid Anwar who never lost faith in the team or I, and who gave me the opportunity to lead the side and also thank my team who played brilliant cricket and made an amazing comeback after being bottom of the table after 6 rounds of the tournament.
PakPassion.net: Your confidence must be sky-high after the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy performances. Do you feel you are back to your best as a bowler?
Hassan Ali: I’m feeling really good. My pace is up, the ball is kicking off the wicket and my rhythm is good too. I’d been wanting to play in domestic cricket but only when I felt ready. I turned down the chance to play in the National T20 Cup as I didn’t feel that I was totally ready, and I wanted to prove myself and prepare fully for 4-day cricket. It took me a couple of matches in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy to find my feet again but after that initial rustiness wore off, I felt fine. The pitches weren’t too bowler-friendly so to take 43 wickets in this tournament is something that I am very satisfied with.
PakPassion.net: Will we see a different version of Hassan Ali post-injury?
Hassan Ali: I have learnt a lot especially while I was injured as you get a lot of time to focus on things you could have done differently. I think the most important thing that I have learnt is that managing my workload is the key and that is crucial to staying fit and maintaining my fitness levels. I have learnt that there is no compromise when it comes to fitness. If you are fit you can play for a long time and perform consistently, if you aren’t fit then you can forget about everything. I have promised myself that I have to take care of myself regarding my diet, rest and workload and that it’s important to know when I should give my body a break from cricket rather than trying to push myself when not fully fit.
PakPassion.net: What are your thoughts on Pakistan’s bowlers in New Zealand in the recently concluded Test series?
Hassan Ali: I didn’t see a lot of the action due to the time difference and of course being busy with playing in domestic cricket myself. I watched the highlights and from what I saw we didn’t perform well but I still have faith in the bowlers that were out there. Naseem Shah is very young, he has a lot to learn and he needs to gain more experience. Shaheen Shah Afridi has been doing very well for his country and Mohammad Abbas is an experienced bowler, but when your fielders keep dropping catches never mind winning Test matches you won’t even win a Twenty20. When you drop players of the class of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor then those players will make you pay and suffer.
PakPassion.net: Do you feel ready for a return to international cricket?
Hassan Ali: I’m ready and this is why I played nine back-to back first-class matches and performed with both bat and ball. During the whole Quaid-e-Azam Trophy I never left the field once when our team was fielding. I’m fit and ready and now it’s up to the selectors and team management if they feel they are ready to pick me. Whatever I could do on the field with both bat and ball, I feel I have done.
PakPassion.net: How difficult was it to leave Peshawar Zalmi and why the change of team?
Hassan Ali: I informed Peshawar Zalmi that I wanted to leave and seek a new challenge in the Pakistan Super League. I had a great time at Zalmi especially playing under Mohammad Akram. He and I have a great relationship and he has played an important role in my career and has been a father-figure to me and he has always said that he sees a bit of himself in my bowling, which is a really nice thing for him to say. He has been a great support for me, and I hope that continues in years to come. He has really helped me with on and off the field issues and I owe him a lot, but there comes a time when you have to seek a new challenge.
PakPassion.net: And that new challenge in the Pakistan Super League is Islamabad United which you must be pleased about?
Hassan Ali: I am yes. They have won the tournament previously and it’s a strong team that I am going to. I wanted a new challenge after spending some great times at Peshawar Zalmi and Islamabad United provides me with that new challenge. I’m looking forward to playing for them and hopefully helping them to more Pakistan Super League titles.
PakPassion.net: You have always been an entertaining cricketer who is different to many other players. Are we still going to see the entertainer in you?
Hassan Ali: I always like to bring energy to every team that I play for and I will never change that. I am a passionate cricketer who likes to entertain and likes to play cricket with a smile on my face and hopefully I can bring smiles to the faces of cricket-lovers too. I don’t want to change anything about myself. Yes, I have seen a lot of hard times but my passion for cricket and my jovial nature is the key to my success. Pressure comes with cricket and is always there in life, but I feel that one should tackle those difficult times with a smile and with confidence.
PakPassion.net: How difficult is it for modern-day pace-bowlers to be available for their country in all three formats?
Hassan Ali: I want to play for Pakistan in all three formats but my preferred format is Test cricket because it’s the real deal and there is a special feeling and enjoyment when you are playing Test cricket and wearing your Test cap with pride. If we look at the example of Mohammad Amir that is his personal choice and nobody can do anything about it apart from himself. I was disappointed when I heard that he had retired from international cricket. In fact, I immediately called him and said to him “What have you done Amir bhai?” I got goosebumps and my hands were shaking. In Pakistan he is still my favourite bowler. If he was struggling with the workload, he should have spoken with the Pakistan Cricket Board and they could have resolved the issue. We know what a bowler Mohammad Amir was and still is.
PakPassion.net: What goals have you set yourself?
Hassan Ali: My focus is on the series against South Africa, so let’s see if I am picked for that first and foremost and if so which squad(s) I am picked in. I’m really hopeful that after a good domestic season so far that I have done enough to be picked. Then after that there is the Pakistan Super League. So, there is plenty of cricket to look forward to and I just hope to stay fit and keep on enjoying my cricket.