Hassan Azad: from Quetta to Leicester
"Once I started to believe it wasn’t going to happen, it became a lot easier"
Recently, we were fortunate to be able to sit down, virtually, and have a chat to one of the most exciting talents on the county circuit, in the form of Leicestershire’s Hassan Azad. We were able to talk about his cricketing inspirations, his journey to Leicestershire and about the preparation for the upcoming season.
Where better to start than the beginning of his cricketing journey? Having been born and raised in Pakistan, Hassan looks back with great fondness on this time as it really set the platform for his future in cricket. “My father had been a cricketer when he was younger and he had decided, probably before I was born that he wanted me to be a cricketer too”. Pressure on a young player’s shoulders can often lead to them struggling with the weight of expectation; not Hassan, he seems to relish just having the opportunity to play the game he loves. He has a beaming smile on his face as he recalls the very start of his cricket journey at the hands of his father, “By the time I was three years old we had a concrete cricket pitch in our back yard, so I have been playing since I could walk”.
“Then we moved to Karachi, and as we had nowhere to train, my dad would give me throw downs on the road. People talk about playing on a road, and I have actually gone and done it. I have to say it was slightly easier to bat on than early season Grace Road, but didn’t quite have the carpet-like outfield Grace Road has”.
Growing up in Pakistan, a nation obsessed with cricket, allowed Hassan’s education in the game to begin at such a young age. Recalling his earliest recollection of watching the game, “If one thing sticks out it is turning up to the Pakistan vs India test match in Karachi, we were three balls late to the game and Pakistan were 0-3 and Irfan Pathan had got a hat-trick!”. A pretty tough introduction to the game then. “I actually remember walking in through the gate, just in time for the third wicket, it was pretty heart-wrenching. Watching a Pakistan v India test match in Karachi with the stands full to the brim, the noise was on a different level”, quite different to the serenity of playing Championship games at Grace Road.
With such a vast population in the cricket-loving nation of Pakistan it is an enormous ask to commit to the game in order to progress. “Pakistan is an environment where it is very difficult to see a future in cricket, it’s quite a gamble as you have to put all your eggs in one basket. As someone who had the option to go down the educational route in Pakistan, I know that it’s very difficult to do both at the same time”.
Hassan's talent was obvious and was spotted while he was still in Pakistan when he was selected for an Under 15s tour. “I was 14 years old, travelling out of Pakistan for the first time and going straight to the Caribbean was like a paradise on Earth. It was like a completely different world. Looking at some of the players that came out of that team, Babar Azam was the captain, Usman Qadir and Zafar Gohar, there was quite a few very talented players in the side. It was pretty special to share the field with those guys. Representing Pakistan was a pretty special feeling.”
This was what the hours of practice had all been for, realising a dream and playing for Pakistan. “I made my debut on my dad’s birthday and as I remember taking guard and looking at the Pakistan flag and thinking about my dad on the other side of the world. It was pretty surreal and something I will remember as long as I live”.
“It was my dad’s support that meant I could continue playing cricket in Pakistan; but was my parents’ joint decision to move to the UK so that I could pursue an education and also play cricket, and I’m incredibly grateful to both of them for it”. After coming to the UK aged 15, Hassan began at the academy with Nottinghamshire, but this ultimately didn’t work out and he was let go at the end of 2014. “I went through a period of about four years since leaving Notts where I didn’t get a trial at another county, and the doubts were there”.
After being released Hassan was prepared to accept that his opportunity had been and gone - “I would say that there was a point when it had all passed me by, and that was what allowed me to kick on and play with a bit more clarity. Once I started to believe it wasn’t going to happen, it became a lot easier”.
With the possibility of not being able to make it in the game Hassan began a degree at the University of Loughborough, studying chemical engineering. “There was no question that I wanted to go to university, I think my mum wouldn’t have allowed me not to have that option! Even whilst I was in the academy at Nottinghamshire, regardless of contracts, I still wanted to do something that was stimulating and challenging”.
While at Loughborough he was able to catch the eye of a few counties, “I got a trial in my penultimate year at university and was fortunate to get an opportunity at Leicestershire and have gone from there”. He emphasises that his approach to cricket after being released by Nottinghamshire was what allowed him to achieve what he has. “I wasn’t thinking about what could come from it, and I wasn’t reaching. I could stick to what I was good at and not worry about how I look or how I was scoring my runs. It became a lot simpler, and was better for me, I could play my cricket and enjoy it”.
The balancing act of studying alongside the cricket proved vital in creating the all-round person that he has become today. “I enjoyed the academic side; it is nice to be able to solve problems and have a sense of achievement from something other than cricket. I didn’t always love the degree, but it did definitely have its value and some very good moments as well”.
“The cricket and my degree went hand in hand. At Loughborough university we had the MCCU performance squad. It allowed me to stay in a professional setup and train with a lot of other young cricketers, including the likes of James Bracey, Sam Cook and others. Not only can you train better, but these guys also set the standards, and by trying to keep up with them, you get better yourself”.
With the MCCU system, university sides are able to play in first-class fixtures against county sides generally at the start of the season. “The yearly games against the county squads, just playing in those games let you know where you stand and what you need to work on. If I had played in first year and found I was out of my depth, I might have let my focus go elsewhere”.
But, while university was for the most part a massively positive experience there were tougher times for Hassan. “Trying to manage my education with cricket was all about finding balance, trying to do well in my degree and in cricket and look after myself and my mental health. I gave a lot of time to cricket and my degree, but I definitely let my health slip somewhere along the line. It was a struggle, especially my second year around exam season and during my third year I struggled mentally quite a lot. I don’t regret spending that time on my degree and cricket, in hindsight, I could’ve done a bit more to look after myself better”.
We are all wishful for support when enduring struggles and thankfully Hassan was able to find this “I had a lot of wonderful people to get me through, the culture during my time at Loughborough was brilliant, we all managed to get each other through some tough situations”.
Now having had a few seasons as a professional cricketer, Hassan has been able to look back and appreciate how far he has come. From his release from Nottinghamshire's academy in 2014 to where he is now. With a satisfied smile on his face he says: “Playing against some of the names I’ve grown up with, it’s a pretty nice feeling".
Now with the upcoming season fast approaching, he is keen to capitalise on all the work he has achieved so far in his career by continuing to work on his technique in the off-season to ensure he is in the best shape possible to begin the summer. Speaking about the impacts that the pandemic has had on county cricketers’ preparation for the season, Hassan tells us about the ‘training bubbles’ that they have been required to use under the government’s guidance to avoid large numbers of players all training indoors at once. “We are training with the same people regularly and it’s good we are able to train 2-3 times a week but obviously it’s a lot more limited than it would be in a ‘normal’ year”.
With a look to the future both in and out of the game, it is clear that county cricket is not a job for life. Luckily for Hassan, with his chemical engineering degree, he is prepared for any eventuality that may come his way. He says that he has no particular plans of how to best utilise the degree, but is keen to gain as much experience as possible. Hassan's dedication to being best placed for life after cricket is obvious to me in one simple detail. As most others would be spending their winters with some well-deserved rest after the season, Hassan went out of his way to spend time in a cement plant to gain further experience in a field that may important for his future outside the game.
As well as the engineering route, Hassan also spoke of looking into law qualifications and also his interest in possibly pursuing the administrative side of cricket. "Something that would be really interesting to me would be trying to bring through cricketers who are really talented but don't end up coming through the system for various reasons." This screams to me how much Hassan is willing to do to make sure players in the future are able to access careers in the game that he loves. He is passionate about making sure players of all backgrounds are able to pursue their dreams of playing cricket, just like he himself did.
I wish Hassan all the success for the season ahead and am sure he is well-placed for a brilliant future outside the game.
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