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How Rasikh Salam reinvented himself to make a mark

Having dealt with injuries and the age-fraud ban, he is shining for Delhi Capitals at IPL 2024

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Rasikh Salam was 18 when he broke into the IPL in 2019, but it has taken him five years and three franchises to finally announce himself.
In this period, Rasikh has battled a stress fracture of his back, poor form, a two-year ban for age fraud that put him out of contention for the 2020 Under-19 World Cup and a slightly difficult reintegration into Jammu & Kashmir's cricket system that has been riddled with administrative upheavals.
To get him to this point, it has taken extensive rehab for his injuries, counselling sessions to de-clutter his mind, motivational chats from his mentor, Irfan Pathan, and complete ownership from a franchise - Mumbai Indians - with whom he wasn't even contracted to because of his ban.
Last week, in what was his fourth game of this IPL season, Rasikh picked up three wickets to help Delhi Capitals stay in the playoffs race. Coincidentally, that performance came against MI, the franchise that nurtured him all those years ago.
"This is a sort of a reinvention for me," Rasikh tells ESPNcricinfo. "The Rasikh you saw four years ago is different to the Rasikh you see today. I understand the circumstances a lot better now. I have an understanding of the world. I didn't understand a lot of things back then."
Rasikh's admission is a mark of his maturity. His current personality is in itself a remarkable change from his introverted self, who cut himself off from the outside world for the two years of his ban.
"What could I do?" he asks. "It happened, I have to accept it. It was a mistake but I've learnt to accept it. I can't change the past, I can't be bitter about it. It took me a while to realise this, but I'm a better person today. I won't say it's been easy. But I have certainly learnt a lot."
Rasikh moved to Mumbai for most of the period of his ban, training at Reliance's private facility in the suburbs under Rahul Sanghvi, the former India spinner and a talent scout at MI. Sanghvi was Rasikh's single-point contact for anything he needed. He was assigned a full-time trainer, a sports psychologist, a physio and, of course, given plenty of opportunities in intra-squad matches to ensure he wasn't lost to the game.
But this was also a period when he became "isolated". Pathan sensed something amiss and personally took him under his wings. The association felt personal because Pathan was the one instrumental in ensuring Rasikh was a cricketer in the first place.
A fast bowler who until 2018 was only seen at trials, and a handful of district games, Rasikh immediately impressed Pathan two balls into his first-ever session at a talent-hunt exercise in Srinagar. Pathan had been named the mentor of J&K by a court-appointed committee, and one of his tasks was to streamline talent from the districts.
"I remember he had come to a camp where 75 kids were called up," Pathan said on ESPNcricinfo's Time Out show. "I saw him bowl two balls - a yorker and a short delivery - and told him to go to the side. He stated walking away. I called him back and said, 'I didn't tell you to go away.' He said, 'No, but I thought so. This is what has been happening for the last few years. They ask me to come to the camp, they see two-three deliveries and then ask me to leave.'
"I got him into the senior squad, into the 30 probables, and made him play a few practice matches. In the first game, he picked up a hat-trick. I still have that video recording. On my way back, when I was at the Mumbai airport, I met Rahul Sanghvi. He mentioned about the upcoming trials. I told him to have a look at the video of this young guy. He liked what he saw and when there was a gap after the [2018-19] Vijay Hazare Trophy, he asked me if I could send him."
It's at these trials that Rasikh impressed TA Sekhar [MI's talent scout at the time], Rohit Sharma and Zaheer Khan. "He could swing the ball, he was like a young Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar]," Pathan says. "And then he got picked by MI at the auction."
Rasikh featured in just one game that season. The dream appeared to have been short-lived when he came under the BCCI's scanner for age fraud shortly after. It turned out Rasikh was two years older than what he claimed to be.
This became public after a BCCI investigation pointed to a mismatch between two "original birth certificates" obtained from two different sources. There were also discrepancies between these and his school-leaving certificate. In July 2019, he was handed a ban.
When he returned to become eligible for selection, Rasikh had been in "decent rhythm", according to Pathan, only because he had been training at MI's private facility all along. He was to be on an exchange tour to the UK but was pulled out of it to avoid getting into the media glare while he was still serving his ban.
It's during this time that Rasikh worked on his variations, which he has been executing with supreme confidence this IPL.
"That back-of-the-hand slower delivery that he bowls, it's second-best to Mohit Sharma," Pathan says. "It has taken him a while to master that. He has got some wonderful slower variations, bowls a good yorker, has learnt to bowl cutters into the pitch and extract bounce. A lot of this is down to him being relatively injury-free."
At the IPL 2022 auction, Kolkata Knight Riders signed him but he soon picked up a back injury that put him out of cricket for close to a year. On Pathan's recommendation, he went to Ashish Kaushik, the former India and NCA physio, who runs a private facility in Bengaluru for his rehabilitation. He spent the off-season in rehab, and eventually made his comeback in the 2023-24 domestic season.
At the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Rasikh was J&K's highest wicket-taker with 11 scalps in seven matches at an economy of 6.76. It was there that his execution of the wide yorker and slower deliveries in the death overs impressed scouts at DC.
"I was immediately bowling at their camp," Rasikh says. "I also had an opportunity to bowl a lot to Rishabh Pant as he was coming back from rehab. During this period, I learnt a lot talking to Rishabh bhai. He spoke to me about life, his challenges, how you should come back, how tough circumstances don't define you. That period was very enlightening for me.
"That bond I formed with him there has made it so much easier. He trusts me to execute. Even now at the IPL, in the previous game [against Royals], I started poorly [conceded 18 in his second over] but he still backed me to bowl the penultimate over. When your captain and team management show that faith in you, it makes a world of difference."
Rasikh could have easily been lost to the game. Today, he is a glowing example of how the IPL ecosystem has come together to mark the coming of age of a young bowler with promise and potential.
"I'm very grateful to the Capitals," he says. "It's like a second coming for me. I'm determined to not let anyone down and keep learning and improving every day."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo