Ali Khan gave an exclusive interview to Dhaka Tribune where he discussed in details his journey towards prominence, cricket career, the CPL adventure and his thoughts on his first stint at the BPL for the Titans
Ali Khan, born in Pakistan and currently playing for the USA national team, was one of the cricketers signed by Khulna Titans prior to the players' draft of the BPL T20 this season. A somewhat unknown quantity in the international arena, Ali has quite an interesting story to tell. The right-arm fast bowler finished as the fourth highest wicket taker in the CPL T20 last year for Trinbago Knight Riders with 16 wickets, and was later included in the CPL all-star XI, featuring the best local and foreign players of the tournament. Ali rose to the limelight recently as the ICC named him as one of the five best young talents in 2018. The 28-year old gave an exclusive interview to Dhaka Tribune where he discussed in details his journey towards prominence, cricket career, the CPL adventure and his thoughts on his first stint at the BPL for the Titans. Here are the excerpts:
How did you start playing the game?
I was born in Pakistan, used to play with my older brother and my cousins. We usually used to play either on the rooftop or out in the streets with the taped tennis ball.
Tell us about your birthplace…
I was born close to Rawalpindi in a place called Attock. It’s in Punjab, Pakistan.
When did you move to the USA?
Our whole family moved to the States in 2010. I was 19 years of age.
What kept you motivated to pursue a career in the game, given the fact that there are better prospects for playing in Pakistan, rather than the USA?
You know when I moved to the US, I didn’t know there would be any cricket, but after a few years, I found out that there are a lot of domestic cricket, like local club cricket going on. I started playing for my local club.
Can you mention some of the clubs you played for?
I started out with GDCC, Greater Detroit Cricket Club, it’s in Ohio. Then I played for Cincinnati Cricket Club. That’s like an hour (flight) away from Detroit. I also played for Kentucky Cricket Club. Then I played in Washington for Washington Tigers Cricket Club. Then I played in Chicago for the Chicago team. Most of the time I used to travel to Chicago and Washington to play cricket, 40-over games. My biggest turnaround was when I played at the US Open Cricket, the biggest tournament in America. I went to play that tournament for the first time in 2013. From there I got the most exposure. Credit goes to (Mahammad) MAQ Qureshi, he’s the CEO of that tournament. He organised that tournament. It’s a big tournament where all the overseas stars come to play. Then after that in 2015 we had an open trial for ICC Americas. Over there, there were 90 people. They had to finally pick 14 from 90. I went there for the trial for four days and got picked for the final 14. And then from that we had to go to the West Indies for the ICC Americas team that they picked for 50-over matches. It was my first international tournament. From there I got picked for Guyana (Amazon) Warriors for CPL 2016. I was with them for two years, 2016 and 2017. Then I switched teams and came to Trinbago Knight Riders. And then we won the final. And now I am playing for Khulna Titans in BPL.
You were spotted in the trial by none other than Courtney Walsh…
Yes, he’s a great guy, it was my first time working with him. I was bowling a lot of yorkers and he liked me there. He was one of the selectors there.
It must have been thrilling to bowl in front of a legendary bowler like Walsh?
It was great motivation to do well because he is a big legend, I wanted to do well when he was there. It was also good to learn from him as well.
Did you take any tips from Walsh back then?
In the trial they don’t give you much tips, they were looking at what we know. But after the trial I went and spoke to him. After that I also met him in New York for an All-Star game so yeah, he’s a great guy to learn from. I got some great knowledge from him.
He’s now the pace bowling coach of Bangladesh…
Yeah (laughs), I want to meet him here.
You came here on the back of a successful season for Trinbago for whom you took 16 wickets, and became the champion. You were recently named by the ICC as one of the five breakout stars of 2018. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, it is a lot of hard work. Keep believing in yourself, any opportunity you get, you just want to do well any team you play for. Keep pushing and sky is the limit.
Back to your Pakistan days. Pakistan has produced a lot of fast bowlers in the recent and distant past. What is it about them, is it because they play a lot of taped tennis cricket?
Yeah, a lot of taped tennis cricket, and street cricket. You have to be really quick, or really on spot in that game. Because if you miss, your length is gone, so one of the reasons is that. But one of the main reasons is that there are many legendary fast bowlers in Pakistan – Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Imran Khan – so all the young guys look upto them still. Maybe that’s one of the motivation that there are many fast bowlers there.
Who did you look upto growing up?
Growing up, I liked Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee, Waqar Younis. And I had an opportunity to work with Waqar Younis in Canada. He’s a great guy and it was a great learning experience as well.
Are the pitches these days not helping the fast bowlers?
I think a lot depend on the conditions of the grounds. Because now there are T20 cricket, T10 cricket, people want to see batsmen score runs so the wickets made these days are flat. There is hardly anything there for the bowlers so that’s one of the reasons. But also it depends on the domestic structure of a country, and how the pitches are made. Because that’s where all the fast bowlers are going to come from. By the time they get to any T20 league they are already grown up bowlers. But I think it has a lot to do with the domestic structure rather than international.
@khulnatitans welcomes the international Titans to the family- @TridentSportsX Carlos Brathwaite @MalingaOFFicial ,@dmalan29 @Shah64Y @BrendanTaylor86 Sherfane Rutherford Zahir Khan and Ali Khan. #KhulnaTitans #TitanPower #BPL2019 pic.twitter.com/OvppTXFPSA— Khulna Titans (@khulnatitans) October 29, 2018
You have played in quite a few domestic leagues in the last few years. As a fast bowler, what is your main target, checking the runs or taking wickets?
Early on when you’re opening the bowling, you go for wickets. You need early breakthroughs in the first six overs. But at the same time if you’re not getting any wickets you must switch to Plan B, and that is to contain runs. Because in T20, even one over can change the game so you just need to take it ball by ball and try to take wickets. But if you’re not getting wickets you need to contain and not give away runs.
You have the tendency to bowl fast, swinging yorkers. Waqar was also famous for that kind of delivery. Did you follow him in your early days?
Yeah I did, and also when I worked with him in Canada (Global T20 League) I got to learn from him how he used to reverse swing the ball, and what areas he used to target and what angles he used to come from. So it was a great learning process there. Also when I was playing with taped ball, when you bowl with taped ball, all you bowl is yorkers, that’s your main ball, so I played a lot of taped ball, maybe it’s because of that that I’m good with yorkers.
Back to your CPL stint with Guyana, you dismissed the legendary Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara off the very first ball of your professional career. How did you feel?
It was a great feeling because it was my first ball, first game in an international T20 league. He’s a legend so it was a great wicket. That is one of the moments I will cherish forever.
What are your ambitions now, as far as the national team is concerned. You are currently playing for the USA national team…
Yeah I am playing for the USA national team, cricket is improving there, I’m playing for them. We are one step away from ODI status. We have the 2019 ICC World Cricket League Division Two in Namibia in April so we are looking forward to that. We have qualified from Division Three, so now we are in Division Two, which is in April in Namibia, so if we finish in the top four out of six teams then we’ll get ODI status in (accordance with) the new structure of the ICC.
Coming back to the BPL, how excited are you after getting the opportunity to play in the BPL?
First of all, I’m really thankful to Khulna Titans for giving me an opportunity, and making me a part of this family. I’m looking forward to the tournament and very excited to be here. It’s a great franchise, great welcome so far.
This is your first time working with Mahela, who had a distinguished playing career. What is your take on that?
Yes, I always watched him as a batsman, he was a great batsman. Now, this is my first opportunity to work with him and pick his brains and I’m sure it’s going to be a good process of five weeks. There is going to be a lot to learn from him so I’m looking forward to that.
After being born in Pakistan, you played cricket in the USA and then moved on to different and bigger leagues. How are you enjoying the stardom?
I mean, you have to enjoy because if you’re not enjoying, you’re not having fun and won’t do well. So it is important you enjoy and have fun, and when you get an opportunity you should do your best. Because you never know whether you would have this opportunity tomorrow. I didn’t have this opportunity yesterday, I have it today so I want to be thankful for this opportunity, and do well.
Can you give us a brief idea of what it is like to play cricket in the USA?
There is a lot of cricket happening now because the team are doing well. And if the team are doing well, a lot of youngsters look upto you, and they want to be a part of the team as well. The domestic structure is also pretty good now because we have a lot of turfs coming in. That was the main problem.
Are there enough practice facilities there?
There are lots of practice facilities there now. We have around six to seven cities where proper turf is there. Our home ground is now in Raleigh, North Carolina, it’s a great facility. And we had ICC World Cup Qualifiers (2018–19 ICC World Twenty20 Americas Qualifier) there. There was a great turnout of crowd as well, we had like 3,000 people come out and watch the game. Now, cricket is really improving and people are also pushing to be a part of USA Cricket.
You said the USA are on the threshold of getting ODI status. Is it your dream to play in your first ODI?
That would be a great opportunity to play ODI for USA. Because it has never been done before so first of all, it would be a great achievement if we make it. And then looking forward to competing at the highest level, and try to make it to the World Cup.
As we’ve talked about it already, you had a great CPL season, finishing as the champion. What is your target with the Titans this season in the BPL?
You know, my main goal is to be the lead bowler, if I get that opportunity. Then it would be to get as many wickets as possible, and contain runs as well. Try to be the best bowler for the team, and help the team win the BPL.
Are you excited with the chance to open the bowling alongside Lasith Malinga for the Titans?
Yeah, I’m looking forward to that. He’s not here yet so I’m waiting for him to come. It will be a great learning process for me. He’s a great legend, he’s good with yorkers so I’ll try to pick his brains and see how he goes about his business.
You’re 28 years old now. Where do you want to see yourself as a cricketer in four-five years’ time, and what are your expectations?
You know, I don’t think that far ahead. I just want to take whatever I get right now, and try to do well for any team I play for. I try to stay fit and play this beautiful game for as long as possible.
How difficult is it to be a bowler these days, bearing in mind the flatter pitches, and the shorter boundaries?
Yeah, it is hard for bowlers but you have to be pro-active and stay one step ahead of the batsmen. Especially in these leagues you have a lot of good coaches, like Mahela is here, and a lot of good analysts, so they give you the plan. It’s just about sticking to the basics, and your strengths, if you try to do too much, you are going to get hit or go for runs. Try to keep it as simple as possible, and stick to your plan, whatever plan you get from the team management.