When Hasan Ali wakes up these days, this is what the coffee smells like.
Early in 2003, Waqar Younis played his last Test. Wasim Akram had already played his last a year earlier. An era was over, although nobody knew at the time that the pair were playing their final Tests. Maybe it is the absence of proper closure that has meant that, in the nearly 17 years since, Pakistan cricket has barely come to terms with the end of that era, let alone moved on to a new one.
In that time, Pakistan have used 37 specialist fast bowlers. One, that is the most by any country. Two, not in a good way because not a single one of the 37 has played 50 Tests. England have six bowlers with more than 50 Tests in that time, Australia and South Africa five, New Zealand four, West Indies and India three, and Sri Lanka one; only Bangladesh, like Pakistan, have none.
Three, forget 50 Tests. Pakistan have just two fast bowlers who have played more than 30 Tests, joint fewest with Bangladesh. Australia and England have nine bowlers who have played 30 or more, South Africa and West Indies eight, and New Zealand five.
And four, the average lifespan of a Pakistan fast bowler in this time is 11 Tests. That is the lowest among Australia, England, South Africa, India, New Zealand and West Indies – countries with solid modern fast bowling traditions.
This is the job Hasan Ali wakes up to every morning: dim future prospects, zero security, and a million pretenders, who, despite knowing all this, are still desperate to replace him. That’s some strong-smelling coffee.
Not that he needs reminding of any of this as he returns to play his first Test for Pakistan after two hellish years. But just for good measure, there are two reminders right by him: Mohammad Abbas, who debuted in the same series as Ali, has gone from the third-ranked bowler in the world to discard for this South Africa series in two years; Naseem Shah, young and quick, then a little flat and plain within a year, is also out.
The big wheel keeps turning, trampling fast bowlers beneath even as it births others, or re-births yet others. Ali has been through one rotation, an absolute hero early on, before a dip in form, then being discarded without fuss, and nearly lost to injury. Like many he has made it back, but we know now it’s not the making it back that matters. What matters more is lasting beyond 11, 30 and then 50 Tests. What matters more is becoming, after 17 years, The First Fast Bowler Who Didn’t Go Away.
“16th June. 2019.”
The question – about how tough the last two years have been – has not been fully formed, let alone asked, before Ali interrupts with this date. It is, he explains, the day of the last international match he played for Pakistan. Old Trafford, India, Rohit Sharma, World Cup, 9-0-84-1 – this tells as much of the story of that day as needs telling.
It was the end of a miserable period for him, where the early sheen of his white-ball cricket had worn off. Nobody could pinpoint why, other than that some generic combination of overwork and a faltering team seemed as much a reason as any. Also, it was about to get worse.
“To be pretty much a permanent in all three formats, performing well, to have seen success, and then to be on the outside, that’s a really difficult time,” Ali says.
We’re talking two days after the end of an incredible domestic season for him, the likes of which have not been seen in Pakistan. His tiredness can be heard down the phone.
“I remember when Sri Lanka was playing at Gaddafi Stadium [in October 2019], I was doing rehab at the NCA [National Cricket Academy, located at the Gaddafi Stadium]. I cried and asked myself, what am I doing in here while my friends and team-mates are there? I should be out there playing. And we lost as well. Dark times.”
They began with a back injury just before that Sri Lanka series. After bowling 25 overs on an unrewarding Gaddafi Stadium pitch in a Quaid-e-Azam Trophy game, Hasan joined up with the Pakistan squad for a pre-series camp. The back went during a gym session.
“It was workload-related,” he diagnoses. “I was doing deadlifts when it happened. I was fatigued because the workload had been high.”
The injury was not properly identified, and though he found it difficult to walk at the time, he returned after a seven-week rehab for the final round of the Quaid-e-Azam trophy.
“I joined Central Punjab and was flying from Lahore to Karachi when I felt this pain in my ribs. Did a bone scan when I landed and discovered that there were stress fractures in my ribs.”
Six more weeks.
“I was in rehab until this point and I’d been bowling,” he explains. “You have to do core exercises, for injuries, to strengthen the core. In doing that, the load came on to this part of the body.”
More rehab, another return, this time to the 2020 Pakistan Super League, which he played through but without the vim of his early years. Which wasn’t a surprise because his back was in pain again. Rock bottom now and nowhere lower to fall.
“Covid had happened around this time. I couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t train anywhere. Had to just stay in the house. And from my lower back right down to my heels, it was like a nerve was pinched. I would be in bed for ten minutes just trying to straighten my back or my legs.”
It was then that the injury was finally properly diagnosed – as an intervertebral disc protrusion – over half a year after its original emergence. Ali began to hear talk from doctors about the need for surgery, and of bowlers who had recovered from the surgery and those who hadn’t. Some days he thought he might never play again, only for his wife and brother to keep the pessimism in check.
One reading of this period of his life is as an indictment of the PCB’s medical department. Where it seems the rest of the world has evolved in the care it takes of its players, the PCB has lagged behind. Proof of that lies in the burgeoning list of elite Pakistani cricketers who have struggled to recover from injuries, or managed their recoveries privately, seeking help abroad.
That reading also leads to a line of questioning that could apply to recent cases. Why wasn’t the original injury diagnosed earlier? Did the rehab actually worsen the injury? Was Ali cleared to play sooner than he should have been? More broadly, was the PCB managing his workloads as it should have been?
From the time of Ali’s Pakistan debut till his last match, against India, no fast bowler played in more international matches.
“The body was getting fatigued, not working in the way it should,” he says. “But when you’re doing well, the team needs you to be playing, and so I was. I was playing every format, because you don’t say no to playing.
“During a tour you can’t tinker too much. You can’t work on your fitness because there’s no time, the focus is on matches.”
Nine months after the original injury, a board medical panel finally came to the conclusion that Ali didn’t need back surgery (a conclusion a private doctor he reached out to had already given him). They sent him to a doctor in Dubai who had worked with the Pakistan team, where he spent two months strengthening his back. Despite being shunted out of a central contract, the PCB did at least cover the expenses of his recovery plan.
Thirty-eight overs and two balls into his return, at the start of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy last October, he felt a twinge in his groin while fielding on the boundary. He had just taken two wickets in two balls in his previous over.
“The first thing you think is, why is this happening? Am I doing something wrong? You rewind through all the things you have done. But then you understand it happens. What I’ve learnt is that all this is out of your control. Only how hard you work is in your control. Injuries, performances, they come and go.”
It was frustrating, but fortunately a more routine injury. Within a month he was back.
The bowling has been good. The most wickets by a fast bowler in this season’s Quaid-e-Azam trophy (43), with an unreal strike rate, on better, truer surfaces, not as heavily tilted towards fast bowling as had been the case before the domestic revamp in 2019.
Still, the experience of the last 17 years is a warning to not get too giddy about the return. For balance, though, it’s worth remembering that he was improving in red-ball cricket around the time he fell off.
More relevant is that he got through 261 overs in nine matches; the last seven of those – six four-day games and the five-day final – were played in just five weeks. He was tired but still standing at the end of it.
Nothing, he says, has changed with his bowling. “Everything is the same, except the one thing I’ve tried to improve, which is my fitness. I’ve worked a lot on that myself. I promised myself I wouldn’t compromise on that.
“Before, I’d lapse a little here, a little there, either in what I ate, or I slept late, missed a training session or rehab session. But since then, I’ve been more disciplined. When I have to rest, I rest. Before, when resting, I used to still be doing something. Now, when I need to rest, I rest, when I need to sleep, I sleep, when I need to eat, I eat, and eat healthier, when I need to train, I train.”
The batting was a bonus, capped by a hundred in the chase in the final. Four ducks, two fifties, a century, and a strike rate of 98.55 across 15 innings means it was a very fun bonus. Pakistan’s lower order could do with those runs and that fun.
The most unexpected revelation, though, has been captaincy. Little about Ali’s career to this point suggested an interest in, let alone aptitude for, leadership. That has much to do with how cricket has not traditionally looked upon fast bowlers as captains. And Ali had only led in club cricket and a season of district cricket before.
Whatever else he knew he’d picked up from his experiences in international and T20 league cricket. For the greater part, though, he was learning. When he took over, Central Punjab were winless and bottom of the table. He spent much of his first talk clarifying each player’s roles, as well as reinforcing that they were playing at this level because they were good enough.
“I learnt mostly how to get performances out of players,” he explains. “I think I handled players pretty well, talking to them one on one, spending time with the younger guys. I gave them an opportunity and the space to talk to me openly, to let them say what they thought was going wrong. I wanted to be as open with them as possible.
“It should be that way at international level, that inside the ropes you are a leader, a captain. Outside of them you are a friend. I learnt this from Saifi bhai [Sarfaraz Ahmed] – he was good like that.”
His declaration in the final will be remembered, of course, nine down and 43 runs behind in the first innings. It was driven as much by sharp pragmatism as of a desire to speed up the game in search of a result. If Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had picked up Central Punjab’s final wicket within 17 overs, they would have received an extra bonus point, which might have been crucial had the game been drawn.
Ali remembers a few other calls, enforcing a follow-on against Balochistan (he made a fifty and took ten in the game) but not against Sindh. There were other, more granular, decisions – of bowling changes, little tweaks in the field, or just listening to the bowler or another player, some of which worked, some of which didn’t, but all of which added to his knowledge.
The role consumed him. His wife told him he was shouting instructions to fielders in his sleep at night. The overall effect on the side, as well as on himself, was transformative.
“I had to look out for my own performances too. But when the captain performs, the team fights behind him. It feeds into it. If you perform, you get more confidence as an individual. That helps the team. They do better, and then if they win, the team gets more confidence and so do you.”
He has also learnt, he says, a little bit about waiting over the last two years, “to know when to wait, what to wait for, to wait for that right time to come when you rise again”. A nation waiting nearly two decades now for its next great fast bowler should know a thing or two about that.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo