Mohammad Hafeez during a training session
Adrian Dennis / © AFP/Getty Images


Mohammad Hafeez: 'I became a better player when I realised that my failures were my own fault'

A year into a comeback during which he has been in the top rung of T20 players in the world, the Pakistan batsman looks at how it all came together again for him

Interview by Osman Samiuddin  |  

At 40, 17 years after making his debut for Pakistan, Mohammad Hafeez has found a new lease of life. It has come in the format that, for years, he seemed least suited to: T20 cricket. But being dropped from the Pakistan side in 2019, mingling with West Indian cricketers in the Caribbean and some golf has helped him find a new gear in the shortest form of the game.

He scored more runs in T20Is than anyone in 2020, at a better strike rate (152.57) than the likes of Jos Buttler and Johnny Bairstow, and only Qatar's Kamran Khan and Quinton de Kock hit more sixes.

Hafeez spoke to the Cricket Monthly before Pakistan's T20Is with South Africa - which he missed because of a schedule clash - about his batting last year and Pakistan cricket in general.

At the start of last year you returned to the Pakistan side, having been dropped after the 2019 World Cup. Before that, did you think your career might be over?
No, not at all. The last big event I played for Pakistan, the World Cup, I was satisfied with my performances. The role I was given was to maintain momentum, to seize momentum. I was playing No. 4. Our openers had different plans for them. My role was different.

So, at a lot of points, people thought I hit the wrong shot, but that was my role. I had to go and accelerate immediately. I was maybe making 25 off 25 balls and getting out and people thought I was throwing my wicket away. But that was a plan.

"The world brings a finished product out to play, not a talent. Talent gets stuck in some small corner somewhere. We [in Pakistan] only want talent"

Was it difficult to switch, being asked to play a different way from how you had always played?
From 2017, my roles have kept changing. Our openers were given enough time by the planning, to not lose wickets to the new ball. If you look at their strike rates and mine, there was a world of difference.

I never complained about it. To me it was always an opportunity, that whatever I am told, I'm going to fulfil that 110%. I started my career as an opener, I went to three, then four, then back to opener. I never complained because somebody had to play that role.

But mentally was it difficult to change?
Yes, of course it was. If you look over the years, I have evolved, I have readied myself for different challenges, physically and mentally. That is why, even today, I am competing with younger cricketers who are playing modern cricket.

In 2003, when I was an opener, the mindset was different. I was told to see off the new ball in the first 15 overs of an ODI. Even if your strike rate was 50, that was good. We've gone from that era to now, where you play at a strike rate of 150. I changed myself over the years.

And I kept being a match-winner, not just "so-called" but actually winning matches. At the 2019 World Cup, I finished third-highest scorer for Pakistan, and I was dropped right after that - obviously that was tough. I was 100% willing to leave whenever a younger player comes who is better, but if he isn't, then why stop me from serving my country? I met with the board chairman and said openly to him that if there is someone better than me, sure, bring him. But if there isn't, then my performances and experience can be useful for Pakistan.

Go big or go home: through 2020, Hafeez averaged a shade under 50 and struck at over 140 in T20

Go big or go home: through 2020, Hafeez averaged a shade under 50 and struck at over 140 in T20 Arif Ali / © AFP/Getty Images

After being dropped, I was taking all parallel opportunities, where I could go to leagues and polish my skills. When I came back, it was before the Australia tour that I met the board chairman. I said, if you think there are better players than me at the moment, just let me know and I can leave. I wanted to go to Australia but I wasn't picked.

Last year was a record-breaking year for you in T20. You've brought an entirely new dimension to your batting with your power-hitting, having never hit more sixes in a calendar year.
I saw the importance of power-hitting over the last three-four years, and that I had to adapt, that I had to keep enhancing my skills.

I only started working on it after the 2019 World Cup, though. I'd been evolving my game for some time but I would still concentrate in practice mostly on my technique and stuff that I'd been doing all my life. But I went to play in the CPL after the World Cup and after playing there, alongside and against many West Indian players, I saw why they were better power-hitters than anyone else. It is because they practise it more. Every day in practice, they don't look at technical things, they just look to hit 50-100 balls in the nets for six. I saw Chris Gayle doing it, Evin Lewis doing it - all they were doing was six-hitting, and because they do it in practice, when they go to a match it's not hard for them to hit six sixes in an innings.

I made up my mind then to start practising like that. To hit a cover drive, or a pull shot with the roll of the wrists to keep it down, just like I'd practise that before, it was similar with power-hitting, to lift the ball, to do it with power.

And then I started playing golf in 2019 and saw that there's major resemblances with how we set up in batting. One important thing I picked up was that when you keep your standing base small, you hit smaller shots. I couldn't hit big shots. For big shots, for power-hitting, I had to widen my base.

By that you mean your feet positioned wider?
Yes. Shoulder-width at least. So I picked up four-five things from golf which I felt helped. One, you have to have a strong base to hit it hard. Two, your bat swing has to be in line with the ball. Three, you have to watch the ball right till the end. Four, your body's momentum going into the ball as you strike, it is very important. And five, your follow-through.

So when I went into nets, started putting these things into practice. And it was benefiting me. Before, three to four out of ten shots I hit would go 70m, the rest around 50m. Then that range started increasing gradually, to the degree when I was playing ten balls in nets, six to eight were 70-75m, or 80m.

My regime changed. I still continued basic work on technique but the focus shifted. Now I face 40-60 balls every time just for power-hitting work. The other stuff I maintain - I don't think I was ever a very solid or technical player in my career but the power-hitting I do work on. That is what has helped me with my strike rate; my boundary-hitting has grown.

You've done this yourself basically?
Yeah, obviously. I realised three-four years ago how batsmen were batting and why those teams were better than us. Teams for whom scoring 325-350 was par and here we were stuck at 270-odd. We just didn't have power-hitters. I tried to discuss it a few times [with management] but this wasn't my domain, so I just started doing it myself, on the basis that if I want to move ahead, play today's cricket, prove myself better than others, then I have to do it like this.

"Working hard is one part. Being honest, being resilient, those are others. These are all bits of talent that we don't acknowledge"

I do speak to younger players around me now and try to convince them of the importance of this. I tell them I've understood this very late in my career but I want you guys to adopt it at the start, because if you do, it will be of greater benefit to you than anyone else. You have 10-12 years and in today's game, if you miss this stuff, you can't be a good white-ball player. There are a couple of guys who have taken it on board. [Mohammad] Rizwan has taken stuff on and I'm very happy to see him doing well. He comes to me himself to talk about it. Whatever one-on-one sessions I did with him, he came out of it pretty positively.

Iftikhar Ahmed also - he was with me in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa squad. Other younger players, like Abdullah Shafique - I feel he is a tremendous talent. Whatever understanding I have of batting, in Pakistan after Babar Azam, Abdullah has impressed me the most, technically. I feel he should be a star for Pakistan. I spoke to Haider Ali a few times too.

Do you think not being allowed to play in the IPL has disadvantaged Pakistan?
I mean, it is one of the opportunities you have at international level but it's not everything. If you play any league cricket around the world, you get to play at a good competitive level - whether that is the CPL, BPL or the Big Bash. Yes, it's one of the platforms where everyone comes but not the only one. Without playing IPL, Pakistan was still the No. 1 T20 side in the world, which says something.

More than that we need to realise as a nation that this "talent" we keep going on about, this talent of a player has to be turned into an actual product. Until we have a product, we will not compete in international cricket. The world brings a finished product out to play, not a talent. Talent gets stuck in some small corner somewhere. We only want talent. The world is making products.

In your career, you've captained Pakistan, you've played international cricket for 17 years, you've played many different roles. You've been in and out of the team. How much does it hurt the development of a player when his role is changed so much, when he's in and out of the team?
Different people will give different responses. My own personal experience is that being a good batsman or bowler, that is one part. That does not make you the end product. Working hard is one part. Being honest, that is another part. Being resilient, that also. These are all bits of talent that we overlook, that we don't acknowledge. We say, oh this guy hits good sixes, he's so talented. This guy can swing the ball, he's talented, play him.

"I saw why [the West Indians] were better power-hitters than anyone else. It is because they practise it more. Every day in practice, they just look to hit 50-100 balls in the nets for six. I saw Chris Gayle doing it, Evin Lewis [left] doing it" Randy Brooks / © CPL T20/ Getty Images

In my career, early on, I thought I was also a victim and I blamed others for my failures. I had learnt that from others, that this is how it works here. I'm not scoring, so I blame it on someone else. I'm not performing, so I say the coach is not good. I'm not performing, so I say the captain hasn't used me right. I realised in 2007 - and I'm so thankful - that my failures were because of myself and nobody else.

When I was out of the team and written off by so many. People thought, done and dusted. Been given enough chances. That is when I said to myself: you played 2003 to 2007, and on your performances, you don't justify a place.

For three years, I got myself physically, mentally, technically ready and decided that if I come back now, I will come back as a product. Get out of this "talent" and be a match-winner. I started winning matches for Pakistan. And I say this to youngsters.

When I came back into the dressing room in 2020, the guys were like, "How much did you get on your yo-yo test?" to each other. "How much do you bench press?" "How much do you run 2kms in?" I said to them: when I came into the Pakistan team, in front of me was Inzamam-ul-Haq. He had 10,000 runs for Pakistan. There was Mohammad Yousuf, who scored a hundred every other game and won games. I saw Shahid Afridi, who, every second, third or fourth match was putting in an MoM performance. I saw Shoaib Akhtar get five and win games. I saw Umar Gul take five and win games. You win matches for Pakistan, not yo-yo tests. Yes they are important, but they are one part of it.

If you've played five years of cricket and haven't won a single MoM award and you say you are a match-winner, it's just a joke to me. My career changed when I accepted my own failures, when I stopped blaming others.

"You win matches for Pakistan, not yo-yo tests. Yes they are important, but they are one part of it"

You're 40 now. What keeps you going?
In truth, the one thing I have missed - though I've achieved so many things for Pakistan, I haven't been able to be part of a World Cup-winning squad. Personally, that drives me, to be a part of a World cup-winning squad. I'm putting in everything I can [into] it.

You've seen plenty of changes in domestic cricket in your time. Departments in, departments out. The latest set of changes has taken departments out, and cut down the number of players and teams. What have you made of it?
My opinion is clear and simple. As a player, to develop this beautiful game, we have to inspire, not deprive. We have to inspire our new generation but if we deprive them, then they'll move away from it.

So you think this structure is depriving them?
See for yourself. At the moment you are watching 192 players, in six teams. But Pakistan's population is [about] 24 crore [240 million], you cannot [adequately represent them] in six teams.

Maybe it is a successful system in some aspects, but the ground reality is that Pakistan is a poor nation, and keeping that in mind, we need to give our cricketers more opportunities, more financial help. Starting from grassroots level, from club cricket, up from there, you have to set a road map. But I haven't seen any road map [for those levels beneath first-class cricket] in the last two years.

If you change one system, you bring something better to replace it. You bring an alternative. I have friends who have lost their daily living, their earnings. It's about the opportunities they've lost. And who [takes care of] their financial needs? Pakistan is not a welfare society. How will a kid at club level go and get his cricket equipment, which costs over Rs 1 lakh [approximately US$630] at the moment?

"I try to convince [younger players] of the importance of [power-hitting]. [Mohammad] Rizwan has taken stuff on and I'm very happy to see him doing well" Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / © AFP/Getty Images

We have to think of something for them too. We changed the last system, okay, fine. The responsibility of what happened will become clear in a few years from now. But replace that with a proper alternative. There is none right now and it has been two years.

The PCB would argue that the players not playing now were not the cream. And the players playing now are the very best - 192 players.
I respect that thought and the change. You have to be patient with it. But if it doesn't get better, if it doesn't fix issues, who will be held responsible? Will anyone take responsibility?

The other side to this is that you have to inspire the nation to play cricket, not deprive them.

You don't think the PSL does that? More people watching, more kids attending.
That's fine. That is a fun element, a festival. Everyone watching that wants to be a part of it. But what is the road map now to get there? The kid who wants to play there, how will he get there?

Franchises, with open trials?
When I go to these trials, I watch thousands of boys trying out. And the boy who can play straight, with some technique, he's shunted aside. The boy who is hitting hard, he's being selected. Is that what we have to do? Do you think that will progress Pakistan cricket forward? In Tests?

I don't want to say anybody is wrong or right. I only want to point out that Pakistan's grassroots level, club level, district level, Grade II level, has to have a road map. It's already been two years and we haven't done anything.

"[In Pakistan] we're always looking at the end result. Like we want everything to be No. 1 in the world but the factors to get there, why are we not looking at that?"

The club-level player does not know how to go beyond that level. The district-level player does not know how to go beyond that. Who does he prove to - and how - that he can progress? Those five, six stages to become a first-class cricketer - where are they? If you've seen them, let me know.

You agree, though, that the PSL has had a profound impact on the game in Pakistan?
Definitely, it's had a very positive impact. The fan following is great, the image of the game and Pakistan, how it is played in Pakistan, that has been brilliant. To play the whole thing in Pakistan [last season] was very, very special and you give credit to the government and PCB for that.

I would think there's no better product out of Pakistan for the world in the recent past, a product that has pushed a soft image of Pakistan out there.

And the opportunity for local players to play and learn from international stars.
Yeah, definitely. You see a lot of the biggest names get selected from the PSL for Pakistan. Unfortunately, I'll tell you, a lot of very good players don't make it either. Many players who, even if Pakistan had eight teams, would miss out. I think over the years more teams need to come into the PSL.

There is only one sport in Pakistan now. Every child in Pakistan, whatever he grows up to be, he's played cricket at some point. Whether he's a doctor, engineer, bureaucrat, he's played cricket. We have to provide as many opportunities to all those who are inspired by this sport, who live for this sport. We should make it so that people look upon the sport as a proper profession.

"[In Pakistan] we should be inspiring more people to play, we should be creating more opportunities to be able to play the game" James Allan / © Getty Images

Not long ago you had a knee injury, which ultimately you had to seek outside help to overcome. You're not alone in recent years in having had to go outside of the board to get medical help. Is Pakistan behind the rest of the world in terms of the care it provides to its players?
Yeah, I do agree. Over the years we've been left behind. Our medical staff, our injury prevention and injury rehabilitation, in these fields we've been left behind. So we've got to think very, very seriously about this, starting from domestic cricket, right from the time you come under the PCB's control as a player, we have to draw a road map in which our players are looked after medically, and if there are issues, we work on their rehabilitation.

I see around the world, a player gets a knee injury and before you know it, he's back bowling at 150kph like it's nothing, no operation or anything. Here, nothing has happened, no operation but the guy is back, bowling 125kph. And limping. We need to look into these things.

We're always looking at the end result. Like we want everything to be No. 1 in the world but the factors to get there, why are we not looking at that? We have to seriously think about these areas where we've been left so far behind, we have to evolve them, understand them and have a product-making process for it.

This is how we compete at international level. In school, you know, I was an okay student. I wanted to be the best but I didn't understand how. I just wanted to be it. I didn't see how hard the student who was the best worked to be that. His discipline was better, he studied better than me, that is why he was No. 1. I want to be the top team, but all the ingredients that go into it, I'm not putting those in.

If you could change anything about Pakistan cricket, what would it be?
I don't think I'm at a stage where I can say such big things. But I guess I'd say that we should be inspiring more people to play, we should be creating more opportunities to be able to play the game. At domestic level, I would definitely create more opportunities so that youngsters could get in and have platforms to play on. I would maximise opportunities for a player at every stage.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo