Interview: ‘My ambition is to single-handedly win the World Cup for Pakistan’ – Meet Ihsanullah, Pakistan’s newest pace-bowling sensation
Amer Malik talks to Ihsanullah, one of the breakthrough stars of the PSL, about his journey to the top, his ambitions in the game, and the work that goes into being a fast bowler.
The Pakistan Super League has entered its eighth edition and has once again captured the attention of cricket fans worldwide. Beginning in the dunes of Dubai, the league has now triumphantly returned to Pakistan, hosting a bevy of overseas and home-grown stars eager to impress cricket-starved crowds from Karachi to Rawalpindi, with Lahore and Multan thrown into the mix.
Over the years, the league has also served as a springboard for launching various international careers. Players like Haris Rauf, Shadab Khan, Shahnawaz Dahani, and Hasan Ali have all come to prominence during various PSL seasons.
This edition is no different, with one name already standing far above the rest. Meet Ihsanullah, a 20-year-old hailing from a small village in the picturesque Swat valley in Northern Pakistan. At the time of writing, he is the PSL’s second-highest wicket-taker, having cleaned up the likes of Babar Azam, Jason Roy, and Sarfaraz Ahmed with his 150kph thunderbolts.
This has been a breakthrough campaign, but if you’ve been paying attention, Ihsanullah has been a force to be reckoned with for a while. He was Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s highest wicket-taker in his debut Quaid-e-Azam Trophy campaign, as well as the second-highest wicket-taker in the 2022/23 Pakistan Cup. Pakistan has a history of producing fiery fast bowlers, including legends like Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, and Shoaib Akhtar, many of whom were plucked from obscurity. It’s still early in his career, but Ihsanullah looks destined to join their ranks.
Those who have seen him up close speak very highly of him. Alan Wilkins, who is in Pakistan working as a commentator on the PSL, credits his high arm and wrist-flick for adding “a bit of spite to his bowling”. “His bounce unsettles experienced batsmen.” says Wilkins. “He would be a real handful on a pitch with any grass on it. To be honest he’s a handful without grass!”
For Saqlain Mushtaq, until recently the Pakistan head coach, it is how at ease Ihsanullah looks at the top level that stands out: “Ihsanullah is a confident lad. One would automatically assume just by looking at the way he involved himself from the word go, that he’d been part of the team for years. He’s adapted so well, he’s not afraid to ask senior guys like Shaheen for advice. I’m very impressed with his bowling ability and commitment to hard work.”
Ihsanullah has since received a maiden international call-up, featuring in Pakistan’s squad for their upcoming T20I series against Afghanistan. Before that announcement, he spoke to Wisden.com about his journey to the top level. There is the sense of a young man with an air of innocence and purity – though when he has a cricket ball in his hand, the spirit of a mighty Pathan warrior shines through.
Note: This interview has been translated from Urdu.
Living in a country where cricket isn’t the easiest choice, why did you choose to pursue a career in the sport?
Ihsanullah: First and foremost, I grew up in a small village, so whilst at school, when not studying I would play tape-ball cricket in my spare time – as most kids do in Pakistan. My father and my maternal uncle Riaz Ahmed were both the first to spot my cricketing potential, therefore encouraging me to follow this path. A career in professional sport isn’t actively encouraged by most parents in Pakistan. Thankfully, mine did.
You grew up in the small village of Arcot located in the beautiful Swat valley of Northern Pakistan. Was there any sustainable cricketing infrastructure in place for young players such as yourself to advance your game?
Ihsanullah: I would play in my village’s open spaces, where infrastructure was and still is non-existent. I joined an academy in the city nearest to my village (Mingora), which was where I had my first exposure to real cricket. It was not until I joined the Park Lions International Cricket Academy in Lahore, run by Malik Nasir, soon afterwards that my cricket started to gain traction. Realising my potential, he was the first to provide me with some real cricket bowling spikes.
It was down to his faith and support that led to me being picked for the KPL (Kashmir Premier League). To my disappointment I didn’t get a game, but soon after I was selected to play in the Pakistan National T20. Even then I wasn’t picked for the first six games. It left me disheartened but strengthened my resolve as well, so that when I eventually got my chance, I made sure I grabbed it with both hands. That was exactly what I did against Northern, taking five wickets, leading to my inclusion in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy.
Growing up, who was your fast bowling idol?
Ihsanullah: For me, the great inspirational Viki bhai (Waqar Younis). When I was a child, my father would tell me of his amazing and exceptional bowling exploits; so naturally in my spare time I’d watch videos of him bowling on YouTube, admiring the way he would reverse swing the ball. To this day he is still my all-time favourite bowler – and will always be. Waqar has also worked on my bowling with me at the National Cricket Academy, it is not every day one gets to work with their bowling hero, a dream come true.
How much of a role have domestic coaches played in your cricketing growth and development?
Ihsanullah: I’ve been privileged to have worked with some true legends in my short time so far – but for me, Abdul Rehman is someone I owe a debt of gratitude. He is currently our assistant coach here at Multan Sultans and head coach at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [Rehman has since been named Pakistan’s head coach for the Afghanistan T20Is.] He provided me with an opportunity at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Grade 2 first-class camp and afforded me my first-class debut for KP, selecting me ahead of a regular bowler who had taken more wickets than me. I finished with five wickets in the game.
Rehman bhai aided in enhancing my bowling focus, specifically my pace and length. He is very unassuming man, not a big name outside of Pakistan cricket, yet in Pakistan, he is the best domestic coach on the circuit. Ask anyone who has collaborated with him. Most of all, he was very instrumental in putting my name out to Multan Sultans at the PSL draft. The confidence that he has given me in my ability is amazing, truly I would not be where I am today without his support and guidance.
Clocking 89 mph at another emerging players training camp, this time run by former Pakistan wicketkeeper Rashid Latif, helped me gain further recognition.
More recently, our fast-bowling coach here at Multan Sultans, Ajmal Shahzad, has worked on my bowling technique, helping me with my wrist and foot positioning when delivering the ball.
Having captured the prized scalps of players such as Babar Azam, Jason Roy and Sarfaraz Ahmed. Are there any specific game plans you and the team formulate for certain players?
Ihsanullah: The advice from our coaches is to bowl a good hard length at full pace, irrespective of the batter, so that is what I adhere to. I recently experimented with this against James Vince in a game, as he was extremely comfortable and intimidating towards the bowling; my objective was to bowl that good-length delivery hoping to rush him into playing a false stroke, which also restricted his run flow, and made it harder for him to get away.
As a fast bowler what do you consider to be your strengths and your weaknesses – how would you improve on the latter?
Ihsanullah: My strength lies in my ability to generate raw pace, and the bounce I’m able to extract from a good length. One weakness I do perceive is the faster I run up to the bowling crease my delivery at the point of release tends to lose some pace. This is something I am continually working on and will hopefully endeavour to beat.
You played one game in the PSL in 2022 before you were injured. Have you made any changes to improve your fitness?
Ihsanullah: There has been an overt change of approach. Last year, I felt I was suffering from dehydration as well as a distinct lack of energy that affected my sleep. External factors like social media also diverted me from my primary focus, which should have been cricket. This season has been a complete makeover in terms of my priorities, most importantly having improved and controlled nutrition, better self-awareness on hydration levels, and above all better sleep patterns, and putting the focus solely back on my cricket.
You were recently included in the Pakistan squad for the second Test match against New Zealand to gain some international cricket exposure. What did you take away from that experience?
Ihsanullah: It was beyond my wildest imagination, it is the dream of every Pakistani boy to share a dressing room with the likes of Rizwan bhai, Babar bhai and Shan bhai. I was blushing like a new bride! I was made to feel quite at ease, everyone was so approachable, friendly and accommodating, integrating was not as difficult as I had imagined.
It was here I realised that I was consistently bowling 150kph. Shaun Tait, the then-Pakistan fast bowling coach, was the first to notice this. I obtained an understanding of the criterion required to play and perform at the highest levels of the game, with fitness, professionalism and the ability to adapt being the most important factors to succeed at this level.
In cricketing terms where do you hope to be in a year from now?
Ihsanullah: Insha’Allah I want to regularly represent Pakistan on the world stage, and my ambition is to single-handedly win the World Cup for Pakistan!