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Haider Ali: Pakistan’s Rohit Sharma, and a courageous adventure-seeker

Young Haider Ali comes from a place known for daredevil tent-peggers, and is expected to bring the same jazbaa & dileri to the T20 World Cup

Haider Ali (right) with Mohammad Ijaz Khan (middle), his teammate at AlFaisal club in Attock and Rabeel Khan, an Under-19 teammate (Express photo)

Growing up in Pakistan Punjab’s Attock, Haider Ali, their new T20 batting hope, dreamt of being a Nezabaz. In his neck of the woods, tent-pegging, the sport that celebrates the daredevilry of men dangling dangerously on one side of speeding horses to scoop wooden pegs planted on loose soil with their long sparkling lances, goes by the delightfully sing-song Urdu name – Nezabazi.

A city associated with ancient battles, Attock is the spiritual home of equestrian’s adventurous off-shoot. Pakistan’s most famous nezabaz was the local Nawab, late Malik Ata Mohammad Khan. He was the founding member of the international tent-pegging federation. The region’s landlords, the Maliks – on Instagram, Haidar Ali’s name is Malik Haidar Ali Khan and he’s seen on a horse – have kept the tradition alive. At the biannual post-harvest melas, the area’s elite bring out their fluttering white turbans, contrast their bright-coloured waistcoats over off-white pathani suits, wax their moustaches and get on their decked-up horses.

Haider Ali is from Attock, the spiritual home of tent-pegging (Express photo)

YouTube takes one to Pakistan’s countryside where tent-pegging events have a dangal-like frenzy. Poets moonlight as announcers, sitting under shamiyanas. They sing paeans of the many nezabaz trotting around regally. A roar erupts when the rider raises the spear to show the peg. The man on the microphone speaks about jazbaa (passion) and dileri (courage). Eager peasants standing on parked trucks and tractors applaud. The young and impressionable among the crowd, hypnotised by the valour of the horsemen, wonder what it is to be on the edge and feel the rush.

Cricket in the sub-continent provides a safer substitute for such thrill-seekers. T20 leagues are the new age melas, but only a few like Haider get a chance to show their jazbaa and dileri without hanging precariously on horsebacks.

Attock’s one-time dreamy nezabaz, Haider, is now Pakistan’s designated top-order run-plunderer for this T20 World Cup. An aggressive top-order batsman, who isn’t all about derring-do, is a die-hard fan of a batsman from across the border. During online interviews that have fan reactions streaming live, when Haider gets referred to as ‘Pakistan ka Rohit Sharma’, he blushes. He can’t believe he has reached this far. He’s asked about his favourite film or drama, Haider says he only watches cricket videos, mostly it’s Rohit’s on loop.

***

Cut to this year’s Pakistan Super League (PSL). Haider is on strike. It is that tense period of play in a chase when fans cross their fingers. Haider, like the nezabaz he admires, needs to gather speed and swoop onto the target. He’s fresh from the U-19 World Cup, where he had a 50-plus score against India. Those in the stands know him. A half-century against the neighbours in an ICC event, even at a junior tournament, guarantees head-turning recognition in the sub-continent.

But it’s not easy. Young Pakistan batsmen have historically faced a torrid spell in their early years. There’s always some quick, armed with a 145-plus kph ball, to bully a rookie batter. In this game, that pacer is Harris Rauf, like Haider a T20 World Cup squad member. He too has a story, one that gets periodically repeated on several Punjabi YouTube channels. A brief synopsis will help to understand the match-up, and even Haider, better.

Rauf, a boy from Rawalpindi, barely an hour’s drive from Attock, is an erstwhile local tape-ball legend. Even back then, he had an agent and a sponsor. Once on a lark, he took a four-hour drive to Gujranwala for trials for PSL side Lahore Qalandars. Pakistan’s sharpest talent scout, Aaqib Javed, picked him from a 20,000-strong crowd of speed-seekers. Rauf, the boy with drive, hunger and a 150-kph ball, would soon become the most sought-after T20 bowler. The Big Bash League too would come calling.

Clash to remember

Living less than 100 kms apart, Rauf and Haider had faced off in many Ramzan-time tape-ball games. The PSL is Level 2, the ball’s hard and the contest harder. Rauf squares up Haider first and follows up with a ball on the fourth stump which the batter leaves. Haider has another Malik for company, senior pro Shoaib.

Haider, in a television interview, spoke about what has been hyped as this PSL’s viral moment. “When I was beaten by his ball, woh chadhne laga, ankhe dikhane laga (he started intimidating me),” he says. “When I left the next ball, he again came to me and asked me to use the bat. Mujhe taap chad gayi (I lost my cool). Shoaib bhai also told me ‘maar isko ab (hit him now).’”

It’s a make-or-break moment, red mist has descended on the two boys from Punjab. It’s easy to guess the next ball. Rauf bends his back, it’s an evil short ball climbing towards Haider’s eyes. The teenager doesn’t flinch and pulls it into the stands. The next ball, he takes a single to become PSL’s youngest half-centurion. He points his bat to the sky, like a nezbaz would raise his spear to show the peg he had uprooted.

The commentator tries his best to capture the excitement in the stands. “This is sensational. If you are in Pakistan, you should get excited by this, he is just 19 and he is turning up in the first season of PSL,” he says.

It’s been months, the world has moved on from leagues to the T20 World Cup, but Pakistan is still excited about the stare that Haider gave to the speed demon, the six he hit and how he asked Rauf to “go fetch the ball from the stands”. Not many batsmen confront pacers who bowl 150 kph, surely not in Pakistan.

***

Mohammad Ijaz Khan, 30, runs a computer shop in Attock and also the Facebook page of Haider Ali’s club AlFaisal. He is the captain of the club’s second team AlFaisal Plus. He has known Haider from the time he was 15 and had accompanied his father, a local landlord, to the club. Malik Senior knew the club owner and captain Malik Farooq, a benefactor for many local cricketers. “Haider comes from the Malik family. Unke vaalid ki Farooq bhai se gupshup thi (His father was friends with Farooq bhai), so he asked him to take his son under his wings,” he said.

Haider, in his interviews, never forgets to mention the role played by Farooq during those early days. “He is always there to support players. Generally, young cricketers don’t get too many games but after seeing Haider’s talent, Farooq bhai would play him in games that would feature players much older than him. He has been a cricketer from the region for a long time, he spends money from his pocket to support them,” says Ijaz. AlFaisal’s Facebook page has Farooq receiving trophies or rewarding the day’s performers with currency notes.

Without a nudge or a cue, Ijaz, within minutes of the conversation, is talking about the Harris-Haider PSL episode and inevitably Pakistan’s most-used cricketing jargon, made popular by Shoaib Akhtar, too gets dropped. “After Harris, Haider did the same with Mohammad Irfan in the National T20 Cup. Usko bhi phenti lagai,” he says. The Urdu-to-English translation says phenti means skein, a length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted. On cricket grounds across Pakistan, it’s used to describe the sound thrashing of bowlers.

While India was busy with the IPL, Pakistan was conducting the National T20 Cup with an eye on the T20 World Cup. Haider’s three fifties saw him make the squad. It was a tournament, where Hasan Ali and Wahab Riaz too got phentis.

Ask Ijaz if it is the jazbaa and dileri that make Haider stand out. “Bahut good baat boli (well said), that’s exactly the reason,” says Ijaz.

***

A more famous Ijaz, too, saw the potential in Haider very early. Former Test star Ijaz Ahmed, now Pakistan’s head coach of all age-group teams, had stuck his neck out and vouched for Haider’s talent. Once when the Emerging Players Team was picked, Haider’s name was missing. On Ijaz’s insistence, he was included. The youngster justified the faith in him and scored an impressive century.

“First, I see if a player has potential, temperament and technique. Only if he has the three, he can be groomed. Haider had those things so I fast-tracked him from under-19 level,” says the former middle-order batsman who played under Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in the 1980s and early 90s.

Ijaz is old-school, he doesn’t rate T20 cricket too highly. He doesn’t come across as a coach who would want to praise his ward to the skies or even harp about his own role in his success. The 53-year-old says Haider is high on confidence and can do well, but he isn’t too pleased by the timing of his inclusion in the T20 World Cup squad.

Haider Ali in action for Pakistan, (Reuters)

“They should have played him in 50 overs and the longer version. If you put kids in T20 cricket at this age, kharabi paida hoti hai (things can go wrong). T20 doesn’t make a player,” he says. Ijaz’s tone has the pain of a craftsman who is worried about his quality clay getting spoiled.

Hum log bacche ki basics pe kaam karte hain (we work on a kid’s basics), T20 totally destroys it. Bowlers can be drafted young, woh toh aggression mein khel jaate hain (they play on aggression). See (Wasim) Akram, Aaquib Javed, Waqar (Younis). There are bowlers who have played international cricket without any first-class experience. But you can’t do that with batsmen.”

It’s not that he is writing off Haider. “The T20 World Cup is in sub-continent (conditions), he is confident after PSL and National T20 Cup success. He has the temperament but he needs to look at his shot selection.”

That’s a criticism the young Pakistan batsman shares with his Indian idol. Haider’s frustrating dismissals and too many half-centuries are a throwback to Rohit Sharma of the past. But his unflinching shape at the crease, his compact defensive play, the stylish off-side strokes and that help-along pull have shades of the present-day Rohit Sharma. As Ijaz says, there is no doubt about Haider’s talent but will he make it big?

The answer lies with those poetic announcers at nezabazi melas, who keep extolling the crowd to appreciate the speed of the rider and the grace of the gallop. One such plea ends with a profound couplet: “Savaar ke daudne pe koi shaq nahi hai, pur kille toh muqadar se his lagte hain. (There is never any doubt about the speed of the rider; but it is fate that decides if the peg gets pierced.)”

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