CRICKET: OLD SCHOOL AND THE SEA

Published March 3, 2024
Mohammad Ali | AFP
Mohammad Ali | AFP

As a 10th grade school kid, Mohammad Ali would sneak into the English Literature class of the Bachelor of Arts section of his alma mater, especially to attend it when the professor would be discussing Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and The Sea.

Although an avid reader of suspense and detective stories and even Shakespeare, Ali hadn’t read Hemingway before his first exposure to the American writer in the BA class.

But the story of the novel’s central character Santiago’s perseverance in an epic battle with a giant marlin far out in the Atlantic’s Gulf stream was just too intriguing for Ali to ignore, and it would go on to inspire his cricket career.

After toiling through the challenging environment of Pakistan’s domestic First Class cricket for a good six years, pacer Ali has stood out as the best bowler of the ongoing ninth edition of the HBL Pakistan Super League so far.

The right-armer, who rose through the ranks by impressing with the red ball, has been as good with the white one in the franchise T20 tournament.

Right-arm pacer Mohammad Ali, who plays for Multan Sultans, is currently one of the highest wicket-takers in this PSL. Where has he come from?

By the time this piece was being penned, Ali had accumulated 13 wickets at an impressive bowling average of 11.0 and an even better economy rate of 6.26 in the five matches he appeared in for Multan Sultans.

The second-best bowler was his teammate David Willey with eight wickets, the gap evidently vouching for Ali’s dominance.

It has come months before this year’s T20 World Cup — set to be held in the United States and the West Indies in June — with Pakistan’s first-choice pacers in Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah not in their best shape and Haris Rauf nursing a shoulder injury.

Ali, however, believes in short-term goals.

“I keep things simple and don’t think too far,” Ali tells Eos during an exclusive interview. “I take things match by match and try to give my 110 percent. I wish to become an impact player for Multan Sultans. My plan is simple. If God wills, I’ll end up as the best bowler of the PSL.”

‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated’ is Ali’s favourite line from The Old Man and The Sea, and the 31-year-old hasn’t shied away from mentioning his special regard for it in numerous interviews.

Hailing from Sialkot, Ali’s career started with a stint with one of the city’s famous coaches Amir Wasim’s cricket club. After Amir passed away, Ali joined the Tony Cricket Club, before making his Grade II and First Class debut in 2018.

With his unique qualities being having the endurance to bowl 20-25 overs per day, running in with aggression and bowling fast, Ali rose to prominence after taking 24 wickets in six matches in the 2022-23 season of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy — Pakistan’s premier First Class tournament. The performance earned Ali his Test debut, against the visiting England side in December 2022.

The pacer, however, struggled in that series as Pakistan opted for surfaces offering hardly any assistance to fast bowlers. He was dropped from the national side’s Test squad after the series and hasn’t been called up again so far.

But that did not break the gritty Ali.

“I believe that I can control a few things, not all of them,” he says. “My fitness, my diet is in my control. Following the process that I need to follow, performing in matches are all the things that are in my control. If you keep performing well and take care of your fitness, you’ll eventually get opportunities.”

Ali’s family urged him to prioritise education over cricket. But thanks to his love for the sport, Ali somehow managed to balance both. He has an air of pride, not arrogance, about being an educated person and has used that to find a purpose outside of his own success.

Amid one of the hotter arguments in Pakistan cricket — of its top players not valuing First Class cricket in an era of the rise of T20 leagues — Ali wants to use the PSL as a stage to represent players who have stayed loyal to the red-ball format.

“My main goal in this tournament is that I want Pakistan’s first-class cricket to receive the importance it deserves,” he says. “And I wish to see first-class players giving the format importance, even if they also play T20 or One-dayers.”

Like so many other cricket purists, Ali also believes that red-ball cricket encapsulates each and every skill required for players to excel in all formats of the game.

“I want to disprove the common notion that a red-ball bowler can’t be a good bowler in the T20 or One-day format,” he notes. “In red-ball, on the first day you have to bowl on a different length. As the day passes, the length changes and you switch to the One-day strategy of bowling. A time also comes when you bowl like a T20 bowler.

“ I don’t understand why bowlers are labelled as being red-ball bowlers or white-ball bowlers. In fact, I believe only good red-ball bowlers should be bowling with the white-ball as well.”

Ali’s views are opposite to what has been seen in Pakistan cricket recently. Most of the players in the Pakistan white-ball squads have not played red-ball cricket regularly. No wonder they struggle against stronger sides, as was evidenced from last year’s Asia Cup to the recent T20I series against New Zealand.

“When you play competitive red-ball cricket and then come to white-ball cricket, things seem a lot easier,” Ali goes on. “In red-ball cricket, you have to bowl 20-25 overs in the same area consistently. There is a time when you need to bowl aggressively, and there are times when you have to bowl defensively, with patience. Red-ball cricket covers everything, but does T20 or white-ball cover that? I don’t think so.”

For Multan Sultans, Ali has to bowl four overs in a match and the principles that he follows are those that he has built a strong command over. “My role is to bowl the new ball and go for wickets by targeting the good areas,” he says. “And bowling yorkers and using different variations in the latter stages.”

Ali has done that consistently so far, creating problems for almost every batter who has faced him in the PSL. The right-armer has arrived at the big stage and attracted eyeballs at an age that is probably not best suited for a long-term future career. But that does not matter to Ali.

“I’ve never thought that I’m late. Age is just a number for me,” he says. “I set standards for myself and I try to meet them. The day I feel I’m unable to do so, I’ll leave cricket then and there.

“I don’t have any ambitions to stretch my career past my prime. I’m an educated person and I know there’s more to life than just cricket.”

The writer is a member of staff.
X: @shabbar_mir

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 3rd, 2024

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