M Shahrukh Khan was a teen prodigy in Tamil Nadu cricket circles, playing league cricket in Chennai by the time he turned 13. There was buzz around him when he was the Player of the Tournament in the inaugural Junior Super Kings in 2012. A decade later that buzz has swelled to a crescendo ahead of the IPL auction, where Shahrukh could be among the most sought-after players.
The clarity and calmness he displayed then under pressure highlighted his status as one of the best finishers in Indian domestic cricket. No. 8 Sai Kishore had just arrived at the crease near the end of the 19th over, but instead of farming the strike, as his team expected him to, Shahrukh smoked a six off the last ball of the over, leaving Sai Kishore on strike with Tamil Nadu needing 16 off the 20th.
Probably one of the best days of my life. Nothing comes close to finishing games for your side and to do it with a last ball six makes it extra special.
Shahrukh reasoned that matching up left-hander Sai Kishore against the left-arm seam of Prateek Jain was a risk worth taking, and Sai Kishore vindicated that with a four first ball.
Recalling his innings, an unbeaten 33 off 15 balls, Shahrukh says he was "in the zone" from the get-go.
"The first ball that I played, from [KC] Cariappa, I hit to midwicket for a single and I subconsciously ran as if it was a two, but it went along the ground straight to deep midwicket," Shahrukh says. "I don't know what pushed me. I felt I was in the zone from the first ball. The clarity I had for the last ball was because of the first ball I played. Even if I play five balls, there's a process to it.
"During the last ball you tend to think a lot, obviously, but I was calm and I think that's the reason I hit it for a six. I was waiting to hit it over long-on, but then [after I saw the angle] I thought: just connect it off the middle and see what happens.
"I got it off the middle! Sai can strike the ball as well, so I kept that belief in him. If he gets a boundary here or there, it would be helpful, and he did the job."
R Prasanna, Tamil Nadu's assistant coach and a former captain of the state, says he's impressed by the way Shahrukh has grown in his game. They go back a long way: Prasanna was Shahrukh's first captain in the first-division Chennai league, in 2011.
"Shahrukh isn't someone who gets ready very quickly and sits down in the dugout," Prasanna says of that Syed Mushtaq Ali final. "The [walk from the] Feroz Shah Kotla dugout to dressing room is quite a distance. He didn't come down [to the dugout] until the 12th or 13th over. I went up and spoke to him, M Venkataramana [head coach] sir also passed on his inputs. Shahrukh was very calm and we knew we could score 13-14 runs an over."
Prasanna says Shahrukh has evolved and is able to understand situations better and calculate where a bowler might bowl at a given point. This skill also came to the fore in December's 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy final, which Tamil Nadu ended up losing narrowly to Himachal Pradesh.
When seamer Sidharth Sharma dropped one marginally short in the 45th over, Shahrukh jumped back and walloped him over midwicket for six. That messed with Sidharth's length and his head. He tried to go fuller but missed his yorker repeatedly and was muscled down the ground for two fours. Shahrukh's 21-ball 42 helped take Tamil Nadu past 300.
"It's about being in that zone," Shahrukh says of that innings. "An opening batsman can prepare knowing he will face the brand-new ball and he'll know it's 0 for 0. No. 3 might also gauge he might come in the fifth or tenth over. For a finisher, you can't prepare much. You need to be blank, go in and assess the situation. When I sit and watch the match from the outside, till it pans out to the 30th over, I know at what pace to go on. That's much more important for a finisher. You need to think in that very moment and there's not much time to prepare much."
He acknowledges that the finisher's role invites pressure, but says he has learnt to block out the noise and do his own thing.
"The role that I play when you get the job done, obviously everyone will tend to talk about it a lot," Shahrukh says. "I think when I walk in, I just try to be the best [version] of myself and stop worrying about things people are talking about. Only I know what's happening in my head and I shut out the noise - whatever it is."
No one-tricky pony, he is also capable of arresting a collapse and rebuilding an innings, as he showed in his second IPL game, against Chennai Super Kings. After Deepak Chahar had swung out Kings' top order, Shahrukh entered at 19 for 4 in the powerplay and didn't leave until the last over, his 36-ball 47 hauling the team to a more respectable 106 for 8.
Shahrukh says this was the knock that gave him the belief that he could succeed on the big stage. "After the innings, I knew that I belong there and there is no looking back. Even if I have two or three failures, I knew that I could do the job at this level."
Kings lost the match but Shahrukh, the emerging finisher, got the opportunity to chat to CSK captain MS Dhoni, the master finisher.
"He [Dhoni] just told me to trust whatever I do and told me to believe what you think will only work for you," Shahrukh says. "Hundred people can tell you a hundred different methods from outside, but at that very moment, what you do is right. Keep trusting that and you will find your way. I think he knows that it's not just hitting. He spoke about the mind and the mindset."
One of Shahrukh's strengths is his clean and smooth hitting against pace, and this domestic season he has got even better at it after facing his IPL team-mates in the nets.
"Kandippa [definitely] 140[kph] and above is quick," Shahrukh says. "And in a net, you feel it's much, much quicker than in a game. I've played Riley [Meredith], Jhye [Richardson], Chris Jordan and [Mohammed] Shami at the nets and they were scary sometimes, and it has really helped my game. I have that extra time now. I still have to keep playing that speed regularly to be in touch with it, because you don't get that speed in domestic cricket."
Batting against spin has been Shahrukh's weaker suit, but he says he has improved on that front too, having faced a lot of the Tamil Nadu spinners and part-timers in the nets recently.
"Sai [Kishore], M Ashwin, [M] Siddharth, Washy [Washington Sundar] - we have one of the best spin attacks in domestic cricket," Shahrukh says. "Prasanna really helped me in focusing on playing against spinners. When they bowl in the nets, they make life miserable for the batters sometimes. If you can tackle them in the nets, it's much easier in the game. It was just about feeling comfortable at the crease, defending and playing dots. You need to be comfortable defending and tackling the bowler's best ball."
Prasanna finds that Shahrukh is now clearer and more calculated in his approach to spin, and has developed the ability to hit a spinner for six when he misses his length. "Even if he defensively taps the ball, he has a chance of getting a single. That's what we emphasised on against spin. Even if he plays two-three dots, he has the option to get singles and rotate the strike."
The IPL auction will take place next weekend in Bengaluru, but Shahrukh says he isn't thinking about it too much. "I just want to be good for today and I know there's a lot of talk about ivalokku po poren [me going for this much money], but I'm comfortable in my small bubble in my head. The more you think, the more pressure you get. When your head is not clear, your movements are different when you bat. I don't compromise my batting skill for some talk from the outside."
Prasanna believes that Shahrukh isn't too far from making his India debut and that his ever-present clarity will hold him in good stead.
"He doesn't expect too much," Prasanna says. " His mindset is clear, and for his age, he's handling everything superbly. From the outside, he may give you the image of a flamboyant cricketer, but deep inside he's a normal, down-to-earth guy. He will stay the same even if he plays for India."
Shahrukh says he doesn't want to be a white-ball specialist and that he has a lot to offer in the longer forms as well. In 2018, he showed promise on his first-class debut, in a Ranji Trophy game against Kerala on an atypical Chepauk track that aided seamers, setting up Tamil Nadu's victory with a first-innings 92 not out.
"Touch wood, things are going well for me in white-ball cricket for Tamil Nadu. I feel that people brand quickly that he is a white-ball player only, but I want to do well and hit the next level in all formats," Shahrukh says.
"I want to get big runs in Ranji Trophy. I might also bat down the order in red-ball cricket and I want to handle those situations better, with Prasanna as the example. He has bailed out Tamil Nadu from so many situations in swinging conditions. The margin for error in red-ball cricket is a lot lesser and I enjoy that challenge."