June 20, 2017

'I want to play like a brave man, like a lion'

Fast bowler Hasan Ali on leading the Pakistan attack in the Champions Trophy, and the influence his older brother has had on the way he bowls
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"During my young days, if I told people I was a fast bowler, they would not believe me. But when I bowled, they would nod their heads and say there is something in this boy" © Getty Images

It's almost time to break his fast. We have been chatting for half an hour. Hasan Ali is hungry. A box of cookies lies near him. Hasan refuses to look at it because he is resisting anything that has sugar in it. He will not compromise on fitness, the biggest thing he has learnt a player needs to maintain to be successful in international cricket.

Almost a year since his international debut last August, Hasan has already broken many records. On Sunday, he took the final Indian wicket to signal Pakistan's triumph in the Champions Trophy. He led the tournament's wickets chart with 13 dismissals. Only 23 years old, Hasan, his coaches say, is well settled. Sure enough, he speaks like a leader.

How did you become a fast bowler?
I started playing cricket, like many in Pakistan - in the galli and mohalla. The biggest influence from those days has been my elder brother Ata-ur-Rahman [not the former Pakistan fast bowler]. He had not played a lot at the domestic level, but he was a very good player. I started playing cricket after watching my brother.

In my early days I bowled from a short distance, but soon I would bowl fast from the regular distance, even against the big boys.

I enjoyed watching Vicky bhai [Waqar Younis] and Wasim bhai [Wasim Akram] growing up and loved fast bowling from my young days. I followed Vicky bhai a lot, his aggression, his bowling. In fact, when I watch a spell of his bowling, I get the feeling he had when he was bowling, experience the similar kind of happiness, and I get the confidence. Watching him swing the ball, both conventional and reverse, teaches you a lot.

"I bowl according to the conditions. Pace does not matter if you bowl at 140kph or 150kph. If you have pace, you can ally it with your skills"

Did you play cricket at school?
In Pakistan there is not much in school cricket. I would escape from school a lot. There was one instance, around 2010, when my parents burnt my white kit because I was not focusing on my studies at all. My mom wanted me to become a lawyer, but I wanted to become a cricketer. I was always passionate about cricket. Ek junoon tha [I had a passion].

So your brother has been the force behind your rise?
The one big moment in my young days arrived when I was 13. Bhai told me he would hit me for three sixes in an over. But I let him hit just one. As a prize, he gave me my first white shirt. I kept it for a long time before I lost it. He sacrificed a lot for me. He never bought spikes for himself. He would buy for me. He has always kept me positive.

In the year before my debut, I was not staying home. My brother made me a room adjacent to the nets. I would only go home to freshen up and meet my parents. My brother wanted me to be always serious about my cricket. Once he hit my head with a stump after I failed to focus on my bowling. This was around 2012. I always wanted to bowl with the new ball and urged him to allow me to bowl with it. I bowled many wides. He got annoyed, picked up a stump. He didn't mean to throw it at me. The stump slipped out of his hand and hit me on head and I had to get stitches.

Exactly a year before that, during Ramazan, he hit a lovely shot back at me and it hit my right thumb. The selections were happening for the regional U-19s. Luckily, I still got picked, and that was the first instance of big cricket for me.

After Allah, if I have belief and respect [for anyone] it is for my brother. If I am sitting here today successful, it is because of my paijaan [older brother]. For me, he sacrificed his food, his sleep, everything.

Your home town of Gujranwala is famous for producing wrestlers, not cricketers. You don't look like a wrestler, but you also don't look like a fast bowler with your lean physique.
I am short. Physically also, I am not imposing. During my young days, if I told people I was a fast bowler, they would not believe me. But when I bowled, they would nod their heads and say there is something in this boy. My strength has always been to work hard. Paijaan taught me that. I do not have big swing. Usually I have to bowl with the old ball, so my focus is to pitch on the same spot, hit the top of off stump.

Hasan Ali bowls Faf du Plessis © Getty Images

Is it true that your brother actually made a pitch for you?
Once my brother realised that I was serious about my cricket, he made me a pitch, in 2009. It is a cement pitch on which I practise even today. We made that pitch with our own hands. We dug the ground two-feet deep, put the concrete in and asked a bricklayer to polish it.

At Trent Bridge, England made 444. You bowled that last over and went for only six runs. Can you talk about that over?
Overall, I gave 74 runs from my ten overs. Even as England batsmen were hitting our bowling to all parts of the ground, I was just thinking if I get another opportunity I will make sure I do well. In my first three balls I just gave one run and one bye. The next two balls to [Jos] Buttler were dots. The last ball he got away with a four. I did not mind. I knew Buttler is a power-hitter so I slowed my stock ball. The final delivery was a slower one too, but he managed to pick it.

You have already played series in England, Australia, and now the Champions Trophy - and you have done well in all of them. What have you learned about your bowling?
I made my debut on August 18 against Ireland. Then we came to England, which was a tough tour for me. But I have always bowled without fear. I have bowled against some of the best batsmen, but if one thing I have learned over the years - and this once again has been taught to me by my paijaan - is never to be afraid of anyone. Tell yourself you are the best, have belief and stay calm. And never forget to work hard.

You have even overshadowed your senior bowling partners like Mohammad Amir.
Amir bhai has come back after five years. He is still under pressure. He is one of the world's best bowlers. But he is struggling to get his performances. If I am performing, I should take the team forward. Tomorrow if I am down and Amir bhai is performing, then he will lead the team.

According to Azhar Mahmood, Pakistan's bowling coach, you are a thinker. He almost makes you sound like a bowling leader. You are only 23 and a year into international cricket, but you are not shy about expressing your thoughts.
I play cricket as if I worship it. I always feel that I should not fall short in my plans. I want to play like a brave man, like a lion. Azhar bhai has played a very big hand in my success. He has taught me a lot about my role, about the bowling plans. He teaches me how to bowl. At times, you are not getting the outswing, inswing - who tells you about your grip? Who tells you where to pitch for this batsman and where to for another? Bowling, every bowler knows, but the way you plan with your coach helps you understand it much better.

"For the past few months I have not been eating rice and roti. Now I eat mostly grilled food. I am eating all these disgusting things that have no taste."

I always discuss the opposition batsmen with Azhar bhai. We talk about the pitch, the ground dimensions, which balls will be effective or not. If the plan is successful, it helps you take your game forward.

The art of reverse swing comes naturally to you. What skills do you possess that make you efficient?
You need to take a lot of care of the ball. In modern cricket, if the ball does not swing, as we saw in this tournament, then chances are that you will be dominated. You need to utilise the ground conditions and look after the ball. The ball will be hit frequently to the boundary. You need to look at the shape, the lacquer, since the leather gets roughed up. You then need to understand how to retain the shine on one side of the ball.

But how have you managed to learn these skills so quickly in international cricket?
Azhar bhai has played a very influential role in the reverse swing. He has taught us little skills that come handy. With a new ball, if the shine is on the outside, it will swing away. If the shine is on the inside, it will swing in. With an old ball, the leather starts wearing off on both sides, but on one side it is quicker. On the other side, there is still some shine that is what you need to work on. When you hold the ball, you understand whether it will reverse or not.

Out of your 13 wickets in the Champions Trophy, which ones did you enjoy getting the most?
Eoin Morgan's. When I returned for the second spell, the ball was reversing slightly. My plan for Morgan was that if I could pitch on the same spot for three or four balls and put pressure on him by creating dots, he would 100% charge me. I was bowling outswing when he suddenly stepped out. I pitched it wide and he edged it, luckily for me.

Your rise has run parallel to the a losing run for Pakistan. How have you managed to keep your head on your shoulders and not get distracted?
In a five-match series, if your team loses four matches, you do feel bad and troubled. But if you feel down, you cannot perform in the next match. Always chin up, shoulders up. You are practising well and that means you can do well in a match. That is what you have to tell yourself at all times. Our team is still young and in the building phase.

Since your debut you have taken 42 ODI wickets (Amir is the next best with 25 in this period). Twenty-three of these wickets have come in the middle overs and 14 in the final ten, where your economy rate is 7.1. Do you feel comfortable bowling in the later stage of a match or is it because that is part of the team plan?
It is definitely part of the team strategy. I am happy and ready to bowl at any point in a match. In the middle segment, the ball can sometimes take reverse swing, so I can utilise my strengths. I know there is pressure, with not many fielders in the deep, so the focus is on bowling stump-to-stump lines, reverse swing, when I can, and make sure I do not hit anything but the top of the off stump.

"If you are fit, you can give your 100%, otherwise you cannot. You need to focus" © Getty Images

Can you talk about the wickets of JP Duminy and Wayne Parnell off successive deliveries?
The ball was new and seaming nicely. Against Duminy, my plan was to pitch short of a length to deny him runs. But since he was waiting for that, I thought let me try pitching it fuller. I tried and he edged to slip. As for Parnell, it just pitched on the right spot and swung away. Also, I have been good at getting the left-handers with outswing.

Tell us about your animated celebrations.
Out karne ke bad yeh ek bomb hai jo phat jata hain [It's like a bomb that explodes as soon as I take a wicket]. I did not learn it from anyone. I just wanted to be different. I wanted people to remember me with that celebration. My hand goes down, then both hands come up and then I tilt my face upwards to thank the almighty. I started this celebration in the PSL.

How has the PSL helped you skills-wise?
When I joined Peshawar Zalmi, we also had Shaun Tait in the squad. I asked him when he bowled at his fastest. He said when he was about 22. He would just head to the nets and try bowling the fastest he could.

How important is bowling fast to you?
I bowl according to the conditions. Pace does not matter if you bowl at 140kph or 150kph. If you have pace, you can ally it with your skills. Recently, during the West Indies ODI series I clocked 146kph. Even in the Champions Trophy, I crossed the 140-mark a few times. It feels good when you bowl 145kph and people tell you "well done, good pace". It boosts you.

What has this first year in international cricket taught you?
The biggest and most important thing is fitness. If you are fit, you can give your 100%, otherwise you cannot. You need to focus. You need to have a plan. You need to know what you are going to bowl. You need to understand where to bowl to whom.

So have your eating habits also changed?
I have almost stopped eating anything sweet. For the past few months I have not been eating rice and roti. I am eating all these disgusting things that have no taste. Now I eat mostly grilled food. Having come from a desi place, I have eaten different stuff from birth. Now, when I go home I tell ammi [mother] and bhabhi [sister-in-law] the few things I can eat.

What is the biggest gift you have given your brother?
The golden ball award is for him. Also, when I won the Man-of-the-Match award against England in the semi-final, it was for him as it was his birthday the next day.

Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shafqat on June 26, 2017, 10:24 GMT

    He resembles so much to steyn. Meanness in attitude, aggression in manners and overall boldness. way to go young man. stay humble, stay focused, world is yours. Way to go.

  • Hamza Salman on June 24, 2017, 11:04 GMT

    He can bat too. It will be interesting to see how his batting develops - together with Shadab, he can provide the foil of genuine bowling all-rounders Pakistan so much craves in the lower order.

  • Bertus on June 23, 2017, 6:39 GMT

    Pakistan should bury the Wahab Riaz selection. He's a scary bowler when he gets it right, but he's way too inconsistent to be taken seriously. Pakistan will be served well investing in The likes of Hasan Ali, Mohammed Amir, Junaid Khan and some young talent coming through the system.

  • Asif on June 22, 2017, 18:48 GMT

    Undoubtedly he's going to be superstar and will start performing with bat as well. Best wishes for him.

  • asad on June 22, 2017, 16:02 GMT

    The hard part for Hasan starts now. He's performed on the big stage and been noticed by everyone as the key bowler for Pakistan so they will try to break down how he bowls and find ways of countering it. So now is the time for him to learn a few new tricks in his bowling. So far I think he does a good job because he bowls conventional top of off stump, good length bowling. Then he's deceptively fast for someone with his build & height (he's not 150 bowler but still mid-140s is good for anyone his height and build). And most importantly he's a smart bowler as he adjusts to the conditions. I think so far when I've watched him bowl he has hardly ever failed in all his spells of the day. If his last spell is bad then the ones before are tight (like India group game), if his first spell is bad then his next ones will be better. The biggest thing he's done in this tournament is arguably never bowled a bad spell since Yuvraj & Kohli took him apart at the death in India group game.

  • asad on June 22, 2017, 15:41 GMT

    I like that Hasan is very down to earth and he's giving credit to those who helped get to where he is rather than doing some chest thumping and saying that he alone is responsible for what he is. I really hope that with that spell in the final Amir has turned a corner & is on his way back to becoming the devastating bowler that he looked like becoming back in 2010. And on top of that if Junaid also gets back to the bowler he was in 2013 before injury then he'll become an excellent bowler as well. Then we'll have a pace attack where there will be serious competition to take wickets. All we'll need to do then is to get Shadab to become a good leg spinner & Imad Wasim to just keep bowling tight overs & we'll be restricting teams to 250-270 while other teams will only manage to restrict others to 320 or so.

  • Rimtu on June 22, 2017, 15:36 GMT

    Hassan Ali needs to understand that a lion is not a brave man, lion is a different species than man. Bravado is a human concept (as far as we know). Does a lion think it's being brave when it's being itself?

  • Shreyas on June 22, 2017, 14:09 GMT

    THE best celebration in International cricket. Was truly amazing to watch in the Champions trophy. Was hoping he would not take too many wickets against India in the final :)

  • Christin on June 22, 2017, 2:36 GMT

    Quite a inspirational Interview. Respecting his Elder brother. Quick Learner. Resepect From INDIA

  •   Cricinfouser on June 21, 2017, 16:59 GMT

    Hasan seems to be not just an amazing bowler but an obedient younger brother. I hope PCB can take care of him on and off the field, so that he does not fall prey to corruption rings as did Amir, Asif and recently Sharjeel.

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