Zaheer's lessons for Daredevils' young left-arm quicks
Pawan Suyal began playing cricket with balls made of sand in many socks stitched together. There was no TV in his village, up in the hills in the Pauri Garhwal district in Uttarakhand. Yet, he says he did not go to school on days there was cricket on TV.
"I didn't study in the village, I just played cricket," Suyal says. He used to listen to the cricket on radio, or go to markets in neighbouring towns to watch. He used to play matches with a bakra [goat meat] as stakes. He stayed fit because he wanted to join the police force or army, but loved cricket. In 2008, at the age of 19, he moved to Delhi, like many young people from rural India do, looking for work. He lived with his sister and brother-in-law who supported him, did no work for two months, and trialled at one of the many academies in Delhi, under Madan Lal.
Suyal is 26 now, owns a house in Dwarka in Delhi, and his parents live with him.
Khaleel Ahmed grew up in Tonk, a small town in Rajasthan known for its muskmelons. His father hated cricket and tried to dissuade him from playing. "Back then cricket, for someone in Tonk, was just a threat to the children's studies," Ahmed says. There was one academy in town, and he would spend his days there. "From the moment I can remember anything in this world. I have loved cricket," he says. "Even when I was little, I used to bowl overarm. When I bowled against older people, it seemed slow to them, but I just wanted to bowl overarm and bowl fast."
The problem was that they played with a cricket ball very rarely in Tonk. One day, when Khaleel was practising with a synthetic ball at the Under-14 nets, the Under-19 district team had a camp at the academy too. They used to play with the cricket ball. The coach there called Khaleel over. "Hafte mein sirf ek hi baar nayi ball nikalti thi [There used to be only one new ball a week],"he says. "That too would be given only to good bowlers. Now he asked me to bowl with the new ball, and I did. I got players out, bounced them. Sir was very impressed."
Imtiyaz Ali Khan, his coach, played a big part in convincing Khaleel's father to let him continue playing. Khaleel, 18 now, has played an Under-19 World Cup.
Chama Milind, from Hyderabad, took a more traditional route. He used to go to his school's storeroom during the Physical Education hour, get the stumps out, pitch them up and play for whatever time was left. The school coach took note while he was playing with his classmates and inducted him into the school team. That is when he started to play "real cricket". John Manoj, who coached VVS Laxman in his formative years, took Milind to a more cricket-oriented school.
"It's a good feeling to be able to bowl fast," Milind says. "You bowl fast, you rattle the batsmen. They are not comfortable against the bouncer that almost takes their head off."
Milind, 21, is now a team-mate of Khaleel and Suyal at Delhi Daredevils. All three of them are left-arm quicks, but have much more in common: their idol. "People in my village used to call me Zaheer Khan when I bowled," Suyal says. Milind is impressed with Zaheer's pre-match routines, and the bag of tricks he has up his sleeve.
Like Zaheer, he predominantly takes the ball away from the right-hand batsmen, but wants to bowl the one that comes back in. Zaheer himself was not a predominant inswing bowler, but used to somehow bring two or three balls back in, which used to be enough to create the doubt in the batsmen's mind.
"For those two-three balls to come back, you need the control, you need to know what you are doing," Milind explains. "It is a different thing to get the ball back in, the position of the wrist changes. You need to be really perfect. That is what I am trying to pick from him right now. It is the wrist position and finish that I'm working on. Personally for me, I want to know how he keeps his wrist position. So I can do the same. That is the ultimate goal."
Khaleel may have not spent a lot of time at school, but watched cricket studiously. He can mimic Zaheer's action too, he says. "We used to play with tennis ball. Then one day I saw him [Zaheer] bowl on TV, bowling against Sri Lanka. That's the first time I saw a ball swing. I used to wonder how that happened. Later somebody told me it is a different ball. I used to think it was a very expensive ball.
"Inswing came naturally to me, but I wanted to bowl the swing away from the right-hand batsmen, and start from middle stump. If you rely just on the angle from that line, you will be picked away for runs. So I tried watching Zaheer, and from him I learnt I could go wide on the crease when taking the ball away."
Khaleel was only 12 then. His hunger and acumen for the game at that age shone through.
Now, the trio may have reached the best finishing school for left-arm quicks: a team with Zaheer in it. It's a dream come true for them to bowl alongside their captain in the nets, in practice matches at their camps, and hopefully one day, in front of a big audience in an IPL match.
"We were playing a match [at their camp in Raipur]," Suyal says. "He [Zaheer] was not at the ground. When I conceded one or two boundaries, I didn't know what to do, what field to ask for or what ball to bowl. When he is on the field, you don't even feel it. It never seems like there is a problem." Khaleel adds: "When he [Zaheer] is in your team, there is an air of confidence. He sets terrific fields for you. It seems very easy when he is there. Even T20 seems easy."
This could well be Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma speaking. For a long time, even in their Test careers, they used to look like lost kids whenever Zaheer was injured.
Khaleel has had the great fortune of sharing the new ball with Zaheer in one of those intra-squad matches at Daredevils' pre-season camp. When he rocked up to bowl the second over, Zaheer gave him a field he was not used to. Third man and fine leg were asked to come up, and square leg and mid-on were moved to the boundary.
"I was uncomfortable," Khaleel says. "Because off my bowling style, third man is an easy area to score. I went up to him and said, 'Zaheer bhai , I will have trouble bowling to this field.' He said, 'This is T20, but I want you to bowl your normal swing. Just bowl full and swing the ball, and don't worry about the runs on the leg side. You just bowl.' And I did."
Khaleel bowled full, got the ball to swing, and had Rishabh Pant, his India Under-19 teammate, nick one to the wicketkeeper. "It just made me trust myself so much more," Khaleel says. But that wasn't all.
"He [Zaheer] must have noticed that I was not bowling well in my first over but was coming back well in my second," Khaleel says. "So he told me my body must be taking longer than usual to warm up. He asked me to bowl one over with full intensity just before going into the match so that my second over is my first of the match."
As a coach, Zaheer also picked up early that Khaleel was not finishing his action. "You will see a difference in my bowling from what you saw at the Under-19 World Cup," Khaleel says. "I am getting that kick off the surface now because I am finishing my action."
If setting fields is part of Zaheer's genius, his ability to bowl to them is what makes these young bowlers watch in awe. "If he says he will bowl there and gets a field for that ball, he bowls there," Milind says. "That's his speciality. As a bowler you tend to bowl here and there, you can get excited at times, sometimes thing don't work out for you. But he knows what to do, he knows how to pick wickets."
Suyal adds: "To be with him in match situation is an education. If you are getting hit, what should you do, what field you should take, when to bowl the slower ball, when to bowl the yorker, what should be your field for these balls, what is that ball still goes for runs."
Milind, meanwhile, admires Zaheer's practicality. "He tells us pinpoint about match situations and about what fields to set," he says. "And if you set a field you have to bowl to that field. Even in match scenarios."
One of their practice matches in Raipur was played on a slow track. Milind was bowling in the final overs, and was trying to bowl yorkers. Zaheer, though, asked him to bring mid-on up in the circle, free up a man back square on the leg side, and bowl slower ones into the pitch. "The slower bouncers were gripping," Milind says. "Batsmen were not able to get to the ball because the wicket was slow."
These three are yet to play a proper high-pressure match alongside Zaheer, but already they consider themselves lucky to be in the same squad as him. They have a whole season to go with him. If, at the end, Milind has developed an inswinger, if Suyal has developed better match awareness, and if Khaleel finds that extra kick and intensity regularly, it would have been time well spent.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo