Hasan Ali resurfaces with threatening zeal from slump and life in the sidelines

His accuracy against South Africa was a throwback to the 2017 Champions Trophy glory days

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Hasan Ali picked up his second five-for in Tests, Pakistan vs South Africa, 2nd Test, Rawalpindi, 3rd day, February 6, 2021

Hasan Ali picked up a five-for in just his second Test after two years  •  PCB

The Rawalpindi Test may still be finely poised, but in many ways, the end of South Africa's innings is where the credits should have rolled. And if one day they ever make a movie about Hasan Ali, the conclusion of South Africa's first innings may be a suitable place to wrap up.
We have all seen those horror films where everyone in the audience knows if you enter a certain room, you are not going to emerge from it unaffected, if at all you do emerge. And if you're a Pakistan cricketer - a Pakistan fast bowler, more specifically - that room is the rehabilitation facility post-injury.
The pre-credits warning kill of such a film would likely be Umar Gul, unaware of the dangers that lurked in that dark corner of the building, which he entered with a stress fracture of his back around the mid-2000s and it wouldn't be a couple of years before he managed to return to his best. Those niggles, however, would never quite go away; and by 2010, Gul was regularly on and off the fitness table, and in and out of the side. His pace had dropped, the threat had gone and he would spend the rest of his days in the obscurity of the Pakistan domestic scene. Roll the opening credits.
Hasan had already seen the careers of Junaid Khan, Rumman Raees and most recently Mohammad Abbas - whose game is so outwardly docile you wouldn't imagine any kind of medical treatment could impinge upon his performances - begin to regress after a spell out on the sidelines. That gave him every cause to worry about his own back injury that the PCB made clear last year would require prolonged rehabilitation and possible surgery.
There can be no sequence of words scarier to a fast bowler, especially one from Pakistan who has already seen what happened to his counterparts in similar situations. In the days prior to that, Hasan had been dropped from the PCB's list of centrally contracted players; he still remains without a central contract for now. It made clear the PCB did not view him as part of their short-to-medium-term plans, with speculation that his career at the highest level was over.
From the plans Hasan seemed to be making in the weeks and months following that setback, he might as well not have understood what the medical diagnosis was. He set his mind not only to returning at the highest level in record time, but also decided he wanted to come back in his favourite format - Test cricket.
"One thing is very clear - I like Test cricket a lot," he told reporters in a virtual press conference after the third day's play against South Africa. "I always dreamed of playing Test cricket, and now I'm a Test cricketer. This is the format I would pick over all the others, and you want to keep your motivation and work ethic up if you want to play Test cricket. I told the management I was ready for all three formats and prepared myself such that even if I got a go in Test cricket, I'd be raring to go."
He was. After a season in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy where he was the most prolific fast bowler with 43 wickets, he earned a recall to the Test side eight months after that crushing, career-threating diagnosis. In the first Test in Karachi, he was a casualty of a pitch designed to neutralise South Africa's pace bowlers, but come Rawalpindi, Hasan showed Pakistan what they could still expect from him. He began by taking Dean Elgar's outside edge just before tea on the second afternoon, and if that was a standard, banal, new-ball dismissal, the others were all trademark Hasan from the days of Champions Trophy 2017 glory and the world number one ranking.
Rassie van der Dussen had no chance against an inswinger that made a beeline for his off stump first up, and today, Hasan turned the dial up to 11, running through the opposition's lower order that had specifically been bolstered by an extra batsman. Yasir Shah and Nauman Ali could afford to take a back seat as Hasan first cleaned up George Linde with a slower delivery that had as much swagger as the hallmark "Generator" celebration that followed, before one reversed through the gap between Keshav Maharaj's bat and pad. Anrich Nortje decided to shoulder arms to a ball that began on a fifth stump line, before it clattered into off stump, with the stricken stump combined by the lack of a shot forming a picture of perfect surrender. Hasan thus wrapped up the innings with a five-for in just his second Test in almost two years.
People might have enjoyed that at home in front of their TVs with a cup of tea, having previously shouted at him and berated him for allowing his pace to drop and swing to recede, as if stress fractures of the back could be shaken off like morning drowsiness. The warp speed at which Hasan's return to the highest level has occurred - as well as how close to his delightful old self he looked for large parts of this Test - may continue to adjust expectations upwards for a man still gingerly trying out his rehabilitated body. It is worth remembering that those wickets, that swing and even that celebration doesn't come as easily as he sometimes made it look.
"Staying away from cricket for 16-17 months after being a part of all three formats was difficult. But I've worked day and night to get back to where I was, demonstrated both my form and fitness in domestic cricket, and thankfully that has translated to international cricket," Hasan said of his comeback.
"When players return, it's true that a lot of players can't get the same pace back. But if you work hard enough, those things come back to you. I still remember that I used to do rehab several times a day and then the Covid pandemic struck and I was stuck at home. That is frustrating of course, but I never let my work ethic drop. I got lots of injuries but if you work hard, nothing is difficult anymore."
And yet, even more importantly, Hasan refused to allow himself to go down the dark mental paths during what must undoubtedly have been crushingly uncertain times. A scroll through his social media feeds included light-hearted clips enjoying himself with his family and friends, his exercise routines and answering fans' questions in jovial, uninhibited ways uncommon in the age of brand-managed sports stars.
"It was a very tough time for me, but you'll always have good and bad days," Hasan added. "I try to keep a smile on my face and relax. Life goes up and down but if you don't enjoy it, then what's the point? You only live once, so smile through it. I used social media to show my fans that I'm motivated through the tough times, and I'm sure they appreciated it."
The joie de vivre had never gone away, and now the quality is back, too. There's always the fear of an unexpected post-credits scene, but for now, the critical reception has to be positive.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000