Hassan Ali: ‘Wasim Akram told me to play county cricket. Finally I’m here ’

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA</span>
Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

It is the first morning of Lancashire’s County Championship game against Essex. Outside the Old Trafford pavilion, England’s highest wicket-taker is handing over a county cap. “I know you expected a bit more grass,” he says. “But sorry, maybe next time.”

Hassan Ali’s Manchester spring has been a triumph. Living in Old Trafford’s Hilton hotel with his wife, Samiya Arzoo, and one-year-old daughter, Halena, he has been a model professional, on and off the pitch. One of nine Pakistan players lighting up the early rounds of the Championship, available because they are frozen out by the IPL, Hassan has slotted into the Lancashire bowling attack, adding fire to their finesse, running in alongside Saqib Mahmood (before the stress fracture that ruled him out for the season), Matt Parkinson and, of course, Jimmy Anderson.

Related: Lancashire v Essex, Yorkshire v Warwickshire: county cricket – live!

With 74 wickets in his 19 Tests, at 23.60, and superb white-ball skills, Hassan had previously turned down offers from Leicestershire, Surrey, Kent and Gloucestershire, as they had wanted a full season of toil. But Lancashire were prepared to sign a contract just for the opening set of six games. He jumped at the chance. And Anderson was one of Old Trafford’s main pull factors.

Hassan outbowled him, when Anderson returned after the longest break of his career, against Gloucestershire, grabbing nine wickets, including a potential ball of the season to shatter James Bracey’s stump in two with a yorker. His joy at bowling, and in particularly bowling alongside Anderson, sings from every pore, even in his pump down, pump up celebration.

“At my stage, there is a lot of things still to learn,” Hassan says. “When I heard I was going to play for Lancashire, the first thing that came into my mind was Jimmy Anderson. I decided I was going to learn from Jimmy-bhai, how he has been so brilliant for such a long time. He is 39 years old, and still he is coming in really hard. I asked him which things are going to make me be still hungry and still passionate … about the swing and about the wrist position.”

The admiration is mutual. “Hassan Ali is an absolute legend, great guy, great bowler,” Anderson told the BBC’s Tailenders podcast. “He is quite quick and he gives it everything, every ball. He’s been amazing for Lancashire, he’s got skills. It’s been great bowling with him.

“You can learn a lot from people you have not played with before, when you see how they operate and see the different things they do.

“When you sign an overseas player, you’re never quite sure – are they coming to get experience of the conditions or coming for the money – but he loves playing cricket. He will bowl all day long, he will never say no to the captain, he’ll never say I am feeling tired or I need a rest.”

Haris Rauf (Yorkshire) Came to Leeds as part of the club’s link with PSL side Lahore Qalandars. A quick white-ball bowler for Pakistan, he is keen to improve his red-ball experience and was thrilled with the reception after taking his first five-wicket haul against Kent at Headingley. Has struggled for support in a Yorkshire team beset by injuries to their bowlers.

Mohammad Abbas (Hampshire) His relentless medium-fast accuracy has brought huge dividends, both in international cricket and in the Championship. Now in his second stint with Hampshire, after taking 41 wickets at just 15.87 in ten10 matches in 2021, so far this season going into this round he had 24 at 18.50. In conjunction with Kyle Abbott and Keith Barker, a terrifying prospect.

Naseem Shah (Gloucestershire) Nineteen-year-old sensation Shah was ruled out with a shoulder injury in his first match, to his intense disappointment. However, he has remained in Bristol for his rehabilitation and hopes to be available for the T20 Blast.

Mohammad Amir (Gloucestershire) Short-term replacement for Naseem Shah, he went wicketless in his first outing against Surrey, but picked up six against Hampshire, including two in two balls. A surprise return to red-ball cricket for Amir who hadn’t played a first-class match since turning out for Essex in August 2019, and whose red-ball form never matched the glory of his pre spot-fixing years.

Zafar Gohar (Gloucestershire) A slow left-armer, he has chugged through over after over this spring for Gloucestershire on largely unresponsive pitches., though he did pick up four wickets against Lancashire. Arrived at Gloucestershire for the tailend of the 2021 season, where he grabbed 20 scalps at 14.35 in four matches, including 11 against Durham.

Shaheen Shah Afridi (Middlesex) The most exciting young bowler in the world, 6ft 6in tall and with the ability to hit 90mph, Afridi put dynamite in the Middlesex attack. Took 14 wickets in three matches, including his bunny, Glamorgan’s Marnus Labushchagne, twice in the same game, before returning to Pakistan. Will be back later in the season.

Mohammad Rizwan (Sussex) The Pakistan wicketkeeper arrived in Hove on the back of a T20 series against Australia, and won his Sussex cap together alongside India’s Cheteshwar Pujara. Has passed fifty once, when he and Pujara put on 154 against Durham – a photograph of the two batting together went viral.

Azhar Ali (Worcestershire) The former Pakistan captain and Test veteran has been a slow starter, but going into this round he had passed fifty in his last three innings and twice fell in touching distance of a hundred. Has had three previous stints with Somerset and was recommended to Worcestershire as “the nicest human being you could ever come across.”

Shan Masood (Derbyshire) In the running for Derbyshire’s most successful overseas signing, going into this round Masood was within touching distance of a thousand runs. He has passed fifty in six out of eight innings, including back-to-back double centuries against Sussex and Leicestershire. Has given Derbyshire a turbo charge, along with their coach, Mickey Arthur.

Hassan burst into the international consciousness during the 2017 Champions Trophy, when he was the player of the tournament. He was instrumental in Pakistan’s pasting of England in the semi-final, where he dismissed Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes. The ICC named him the men’s emerging cricketer of the year in 2017 but it wasn’t an upwards curve. He had a miserable World Cup in 2019 and picked up a back injury afterwards, followed by rib fractures, and was out of action for 20 long months. With Pakistan’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of young fast bowlers, that could have been it.

Behind the huge smile is a steely determination, and after recovering he threw himself into fitness training and first-class cricket in Pakistan, taking 40-plus wickets and making more than 400 runs before he re-caught the selectorial eye. But, though red ball cricket in Pakistan nurtured him, he can see where it needs to improve: “We still need to develop a lot of things in Pakistan, the pitches, how we bring the talent through. We have a lot of talent, millions of youngsters want to play cricket – how can we make them the professionals?

“In Pakistan, since childhood we heard about county cricket. I got an opportunity thanks to Lancashire and I grabbed it with both hands. It is like a dream come true. Wasim Akram told me you should go to play county cricket and finally I’m here and it is amazing. It has been a pleasure.”

He is not new to English conditions, but he did struggle with the mercury hovering in single figures at the start of the season.

“April? Honestly, it is too cold for me. If we look back in Pakistan, it is tough conditions for the fast bowler – hot weather, flat tracks, and I have played lots of cricket in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah where it is really hot. The English weather is really useful for the fast bowler, but if you are going to ask me that as a body, it is chilly.”

There has been a camaraderie with the other Pakistan players braving the contradictions of the English spring, the players sending congratulations or commiserations after each game. And a fast bowlers club has experienced the unusually close shave of 2022’s English pitches, with Hassan, Mohammad Abbas at Hampshire, Haris Rauf at Yorkshire, Shaheen Shah Afridi at Middlesex and Naseem Shah and Mohammad Amir at Gloucestershire.

But, as the leading wicket-taker in Division One going into this round of matches, Hassan, walking in the footsteps of Wasim at Old Trafford, has been the most successful of all. As he prepares to fly back to Pakistan early next week, Anderson’s words ring in his ears. “I hope this isn’t the last we see of you. We’d love to have you back in the future.”

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