Hassan Azad has had a dream start to his first-class career scoring a total of 1659 runs at an average of over 50. Yet, just a few years ago, he was well on his way to a potentially fruitful cricket career in Pakistan after being named in the national Under-15 squad that took part in the 2008 International Under-15 Cricket Championship in the Caribbean.
In an interview with Saj for TheCricketPaper, Hassan Azad spoke about his experience of playing for the Pakistan Under-15 side, reasons for his move to the United Kingdom, his journey in cricket in the UK which has led to him playing First-Class cricket for Leicestershire, his take on how ECB can encourage more Asians to play cricket at a professional level and his aspirations to represent England in Tests.
By Saj Sadiq (2nd October, 2019)
PakPassion.net: Tell us about your early life in Pakistan?
Hassan Azad: I was born in Quetta and lived in Mustang which is an hour away from Quetta and where my mother used to work as a doctor. But at the age of 6, our family moved to Karachi so most of my childhood memories are from Karachi. I started off playing cricket in Karachi and progressed through the ranks in the zonal system where I played for zone 6 which is the Orangi Town and North Nazimabad area. I was then selected for the Pakistan Under-15s side about 11 years ago.
PakPassion.net: How was the experience of playing in the Pakistan Under-15 side?
Hassan Azad: I played for Pakistan in the 2008 International Under-15 Cricket Championship in the Caribbean. Babar Azam was our captain and this tournament also featured current West Indies player Kraigg Brathwaite as well. Unfortunately, the side was only assembled for this tournament and at its conclusion, the side was disbanded. As far as the strength of our team was concerned, it was a very strong combination with Babar Azam, Mohammad Nawaz, Zafar Gohar some of the more well-known current names but in terms of performances, Babar Azam was our stand-out performer and obviously went on to become an important member of the current Pakistan side. Amongst those in our side who didn’t quite make it in Pakistan cricket were Umar Siddiq as well as some of the seamers in the squad.
PakPassion.net: How old were you when you moved to the UK and what were the reasons behind that move?
Hassan Azad: I moved to the UK at the age of 15, which was one year after I played for Pakistan Under-15s. The reason for the move was basically centred around the fact that my education would have suffered immensely if I had stayed in Pakistan. Both my parents are from very educated backgrounds with my mother being a doctor and my father being in the publishing business and it was important to them that I should complete my education and go to university. All that would have been very difficult to achieve if I had stayed in Pakistan as I would have to make a choice between cricket and higher education. So, I came to the UK and completed my university education in Chemical Engineering.
PakPassion.net: Growing up in Pakistan, you must have had a few local cricketing role models?
Hassan Azad: Yes and No! I had role models from all over the world and not just Pakistan. From a young age I admired Kumar Sangakkara and he was my favourite batsman ever since I started watching cricket. I still love watching him play as his style of batting is very silky and smooth to watch. Amongst Pakistani batsmen, I really admired Saeed Anwar but unfortunately, by the time I started to play cricket he had already left the scene. There was also Salman Butt who was a very stylish batsman in my opinion and another left-hander.
PakPassion.net: Tell us about your journey in cricket in the UK which has led to you playing for Leicestershire?
Hassan Azad: Once in the UK, I started playing for Nottinghamshire Academy for about 5 years until the age of 20. Notts at that time had a very strong first XI with five of their top six being international players and I was told that it was difficult to see me breaking into the first XI in the short term, and they were probably right. So, the year after I left Notts, I went to university to Loughborough and played for them for five years during which I finished my Masters degree as well and made my first-class debut against Hampshire in April, 2015.
PakPassion.net: How did your move to Leicestershire come about?
Hassan Azad: As part of the Loughborough side, I played against Leicestershire for three years in a row. In the first of the three encounters, I scored 30 or so, in the second I scored 80 and in the third year I got 48 against them in which I faced Mohammad Abbas. Paul Nixon the Leicestershire Coach had his eyes on me during the third game and liked what he saw. During the same time, I had a bit of a purple patch for Loughborough where I scored 100 not out and 204 not out against Oxford University. Then later on I played for Northamptonshire second XI I scored 59 and then 2 days later in a One-Day game for Leicestershire second XI game against Kent second XI, I made 179 not out whilst chasing a target of 400. All this helped me in signing up for a 2-month retainer with Leicestershire in 2018, and this year in March, I signed my first professional contract with them.
PakPassion.net: So, have you now completed all of your studies?
Hassan Azad: Yes, I graduated in June of this year so from now on I will only be playing cricket for as long as I can play the game.
PakPassion.net: Your record in this first-class season is something you must be proud of?
Hassan Azad: Alhamdolillah, it’s an excellent record but to be honest, scoring 1189 runs with an average of over 54, is something I did not expect to get in my first season but then this is how things go sometimes when everything goes in your favour and I was very fortunate in that way. I wasn’t expecting to play first team cricket so early in my career, but Leicestershire gave me this great opportunity to play for them. I feel that as a batsman, you can only control what’s in your grasp and you keep on trying to do the right things over and over again and hope things go in your favour. This season went very nicely for me and I feel very happy with my technique.
PakPassion.net: Do you agree that playing County Cricket will improve you as a cricketer?
Hassan Azad: That is absolutely true. Obviously, I cannot comment a lot on the standard of County Cricket as its only my first year playing at this level in England. But from what I have seen, I feel that the infrastructure is one of the best in the world. For me, though, it’s about enjoying the environment and trying to improve my game every time I go out to bat. I have really benefited from having the time and resources in terms of coaching staff and assistance of people who can help me improve my game. When I was a university cricketer, I had to split my priorities between playing cricket and getting my assignments done. But now, even if I don’t have a game, I can work on improving my game by having nets and getting someone to help me with some aspect of my game.
PakPassion.net: Given that you are qualified to play for England, your aspirations must be to play for England in the future?
Hassan Azad: I have always dreamt of and grew up hoping to play Test cricket but over the last few years, I have realised that you should just think about playing well in the next game and not look beyond that. This is because whatever happens is not in my hands and it’s to do with what God has planned for me. What I will say, though, is that I am twenty-five-years old and I thought that I have done all the learning before I came into County Cricket and had a good grasp of my game. But I have realised during my first year of County Cricket, that I am still learning so much and there is a new challenge every step of the way. I would love to play for England whenever I am given the chance to do so, but in the meantime, I have to keep on developing and keep on improving so that if and when the opportunity comes, I am ready to take on that challenge, but, I do want to make sure that I don’t rush into something I am not ready for. Inshallah, when that times comes, I will be ready and I will take any opportunity that comes my way.
PakPassion.net: What are your thoughts on the lack of Asians in professional cricket in England and what can the ECB do to encourage more participation from that ethnic segment?
Hassan Azad: I think the main obstacle to more Asian involvement in professional cricket based on my discussions with Asian kids about their aspirations is the fact that in these communities people want something more stable for their children. They want their children to pursue a career that will get them a steady income and a stable job. This is the reason a lot of Asian kids end up with a safer option when it comes to employment. What the ECB should be doing is to invest in scholarships so as to incentivise playing cricket for the Asian communities. In this way, they will see playing cricket as a way of getting a stable career rather than having to choose between the game and their careers which really shouldn’t be a choice.
PakPassion.net: It seems that your parents encouraged you to study but also allowed you to pursue cricket as a career as well?
Hassan Azad: My parents have supported my cricket from day one and at no point did they say that I had to choose between cricket and education. There were times when I was really struggling with my studies at university where I wasn’t doing that badly but could have done better if I had not been playing cricket, but never at any stage during those times did my parents suggest that I should stop playing the game I love. For that, I can’t thank them enough for the support that they have given to me. In my early years playing in England, I didn’t have sponsorship and cricket kits are expensive. It wasn’t possible for me to attend university, play cricket and also work on the side to fund all the gear I needed so in that way I owe my parents a lot who helped me in this.
PakPassion.net: Is limited-overs cricket something that you are hoping to get involved in future?
Hassan Azad: I would absolutely love to play white-ball cricket although this year I have been trying to focus on first-class cricket. This is just not based on my wishes but also what the coaches think is right for the team. The coaches and I have had a conversation on this subject and they have told me what I need to do to improve my white-ball cricket. In particular, I have been told to improve my fielding although I must add that I am not a bad fielder, but I just need to get quicker in the field. But all these improvements come from being part of a professional setup and the next step up for me is to become part of the white-ball setup and expand my game in that direction as well.
PakPassion.net: What’s next for you now that the County season is over?
Hassan Azad: I am not trying to think too far ahead but the idea is to keep on improving my game and working hard. If anything comes my way in terms of international responsibilities, then that will be great. I am signed up with Leicestershire for the next two years and I am really looking forward to what these two years will bring for me, and I am really looking forward to keeping on performing as much as possible and let events take their course.