Hassan Ali might have been drafted into Pakistan’s Asia Cup squad at the eleventh hour. But like always, he will have a million eyeballs trained on him, writes Shashwat Kumar.

Let’s go back in time, and specifically to 2017. Before the ICC Champions Trophy had rolled into town, Hassan Ali had done what Pakistan had asked of him without truly establishing himself. In 19 ODIs, he had picked up 29 wickets at an average of 26.24.

Junaid Khan, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz were at the top of their games. But Hassan was building buzz too. That Pakistan’s opening fixture was against India, arguably their greatest cricketing rival, only added another layer of intrigue.

It did not go to plan, both for Hassan and Pakistan. They were trounced, with Hassan conceding 70 runs in 10 overs. Their chances, which had already been downplayed prior to the tournament, were disregarded further. But then, like all things Pakistan cricket, they bounced back up the very next minute, with Hassan leading the charge.

In his next three games, he picked up nine wickets. Those scalps came at an average of 11.33, with Hassan saving his best for the semi-final, scooping the Player of the Match award to trump hosts and pre-tournament favourites England.

With India waiting in the summit clash, however, there was not a lot of time for Pakistan to celebrate. And like a couple of weeks ago, eyes were on Hassan. All of a sudden, Pakistan were expecting plenty of him, rather than simply hoping.

This time, he kept his end of the bargain. The game is remembered for Amir’s fiery opening spell, Fakhar Zaman’s century, India’s no-ball transgressions and the capitulation of their top order. But it was also an encounter where Hasan picked up 3-19 and propelled Pakistan to a historic victory. He ended that Champions Trophy edition as the highest wicket-taker, suggesting that Pakistan had unearthed a gem.

Hasan has endured his fair share of ups and downs since then. What has almost always remained constant, though, is the scrutiny his performances have been subjected to. At one point, he was considered to be on a similar plane to Jasprit Bumrah, possibly the best white-ball bowler on the planet currently. On other occasions, he has been derided for his inability to be penetrative and for his tendency to leak runs. Most of it is due to the astronomical weight of expectations he has had to carry, and hence, the possibility of greater disappointment.

He also dropped what turned out to be a defining catch in Pakistan’s 2021 T20 World Cup semi-final against Australia, in addition to a largely uninspiring campaign which was supposed to be his and Shaheen Shah Afridi’s crowning glory. Had it been any other cricketer, it might have been brushed under the carpet. But because it was Hassan, a player Pakistan feel can do anything and everything, it was magnified.

That is, as funny as it might sound, part of the problem and part of the solution. 25 wickets in 18 T20I innings since the start of 2021 is not a shabby return at all. In Hassan’s case, though, every misstep will be treated as a cardinal sin, irrespective of how trivial it is. Yet, every moment that hints at a brighter dawn will also be assumed to be the harbinger of a sprightly sunrise. There is nothing in between.

Everyone knows that Hassan can’t swing the ball as dexterously as Shaheen, nor does he bowl as briskly as Haris Rauf. His X-Factor quotient is not at Naseem Shah’s level either. However, there must be something that forces Pakistan to keep him in the mix, right? It could be his blend of talent, temperament and tireless effort. Or, it could be simply because he puts himself in tough situations, without worrying about what has happened in the past or what the future entails.

There are times when some selection calls in international cricket leave people scratching their heads. To the world, it seems a reluctance to move away from a spent force. From within, it is just another gamble on a skill-set they know has what it takes to succeed, even when it might seem otherwise.

Hence, it is only fitting that he arrives at this Asia Cup, hoping to be the guardian angel for a Pakistan side that has been ravaged by injuries and is rummaging furiously for inspiration. He does not have the numbers to justify a recall, nor does he have the oomph that he once had. But remember, this is Hasan Ali we are talking about. And that, from Pakistan’s perspective, is usually enough.

So, here we are. At a high-stakes multi-nation tournament, with Pakistan longing for someone to answer their prayers. Feels eerily similar, eh? Only a handful would have thought Hassan would be the solution this time out too. Now that he could be, you can bet he will be the centre of attention, all over again.