It tells you something about the Jammu & Kashmir team that they took the big call to leave out Ram Dayal and Mohammed Mudhasir, two of their most experienced fast bowlers, who have 92 caps between them, for the Ranji Trophy quarter-final against eight-time champions Karnataka.

Mujtaba Yousuf and Aquib Nabi, the pair playing in their place, have played seven games combined. Yousuf is the baby of the team at 19, and is only in his second first-class match, coming off a six-for on debut against Haryana. Nabi, slightly older at 23, has had a little more time coming through the set-up's challenging, and at times disheartening, junior cricket structure, where one good or bad trial can often be the difference between playing or sitting out a season.

The two picked up six wickets between them on Saturday to skittle Karnataka for 206. If Jammu & Kashmir make their first-ever semi-final, Yousuf and Nabi's contribution would be worth its weight in gold. Even if they don't qualify, the promise these two have shown augurs well for the team's future.


On Saturday, Yousuf couldn't stop smiling. He took three wickets, but the wicket of Manish Pandey in particular pleased him no end. It was nicely done, too. Pandey likes to pull, so Yousuf fed him short deliveries with a fielder stationed halfway to the boundary, three of which he pulled for four and one, which was top-edged, fell short of the fielder at fine-leg. So Yousuf went around the wicket and pitched one full, and Pandey nicked behind. As planned.

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"Manish bhaiyya, such a big player. To plan and get him out is special. I didn't know how to celebrate also initially," he says. "He hit me for three fours, but I was still bindaas (unworried) because we had a plan. Irfan Pathan [the team mentor] was backing me, even Ram and Mudhi bhai were guiding me from the fine-leg boundary when I was fielding between overs. Two senior players with 100 games between them are sitting out and helping a baccha (youngster). It feels amazing."

Yousuf, a left-arm quick, remembers his first meeting with Irfan in Srinagar last year. "For three days, he didn't talk to me, he was just observing me, and I was shivering. Then, after that, he came and put his arm around me and spoke like a friend. I was like 'wow, an India bowler, with a Test hat-trick against Pakistan, is speaking to me this way'. From then on, he's been a helping hand. He asks me to message him without hesitation whenever I want.

"Irfan bhai was in New Zealand doing commentary last month, but was following my progress through the coaches. He kept telling me, 'you should be match ready, you will be a match-winner for us'. I was given a debut against Haryana, and I got six wickets. That gave me confidence coming into the quarter-final."

Yousuf comes from Bijbehara, the same town as captain Parvez Rasool. He learnt the ropes at the very ground Rasool had developed with his own money. Until then, Yousuf used to cycle 50 kilometres to Srinagar for trials. His father is a daily-wage labourer and mother a home-maker. While there was little money coming in, Yousuf was insulated from the daily struggle.

"It was my brother who shielded me," he says. "Initially he used to do odd jobs, there was no money at home, but he always said, 'if we are destined to be poor, we will be, but what if you are destined for great things?' He now has a bank job after a lot of struggle, so that is also inspiring in a way for me. In fact, my first match fees I gave to him and my parents. They were touched but asked me to keep it for my own future."

Yousuf was one of the early beneficiaries of Rasool's small facility, which has two turf pitches as part of a small club. "It was tough, until Parvez bhai set up his own ground with two turf wickets out of his pocket, we used to practice on torn matting wickets before that

"When I used to come to the Under-16 or Under-19 trials, it was always a big challenge bowling on turf wickets. On mats, a length ball leaps and flies over the keeper sometimes. On turf, the same length sometimes scoots low or the batsmen hit you through the line. We feel there isn't much happening. Young kids started getting a lot of help after turf wickets were made there. Thanks to him [Rasool], no one will do things out of his own pocket for the love of the game like this."

Yousuf credits his success this season to his friend, who informed him of the news ticker on a local TV channel - a ploy by the J&K Cricket Association to reach out to players during the shutdown - that wanted him to report to Jammu for a camp.

"It was the last night before the deadline to report," he says. "I'd just returned from NCA [National Cricket Academy, Bengaluru] after a month. When the political situation changed in August, I was in Bangalore. My family wasn't even aware when I'd return, so when I did, I was just enjoying my time at home, so relieved to see them.

"The night before deadline, my friend saw in the news that I've been asked to report to Jammu for trials. I ran, literally ran, to Rasool bhaiyya's house. He said we would leave together. But he fell sick the next day, and I found a driver, who took me. There was curfew along the way. We had to use some inside routes. We left at 11pm. If not for my friend, I may have missed reporting in Jammu."

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Ask him of his favourite memory so far, and the joy in Yousuf's eyes is difficult to miss. "I got Shubman Gill out in an Under-16 game four years ago. Yorker, middle stump. I found out he was Gill after he was selected for India Under-19s. That was my first match that year. I had no shoes. Parvez bhai got me them and since then he's been a pillar of support."

Nabi is 23, a right-arm quick with a natural outswinger, and seven matches old. He hails from Baramullah, another town with little or no cricket facilities. He grew up wanting to play football, but the love for "tez (fast) bowling" got him hooked. On Saturday, he delivered a ripping spell first up. His dismissal of Karun Nair off the second ball of the day set it up for Jammu & Kashmir.

There is a distinct Karnataka connect to Nabi too. Last year, he moved to Bengaluru and spent three months in the city playing for Chintamani Club in the second division of the KSCA League, even helping them earn a promotion to the first division for the upcoming season. Nabi was bored of sitting at home, and a text from his friend in Kuwait made him pack his bags and leave for Bengaluru. It's a stint he looks back at fondly.

"A friend from Kuwait was studying in Bangalore (Jain University), so he asked me if I am interested," Nabi says. "Chintamani Club had a vacancy, he put my name through. On debut, I scored a century from No. 9 and picked up five wickets. Until then, I had some self-doubts. I used to see big players, a few past Ranji players too, but I would be intimidated. But that gave me the belief.

"The infrastructure, access to qualified trainers and coaches, player mindsets - everything is so different. The exposure made me a better bowler. In three months, I played 11 two-day matches, one each week. During the week, I was training under Irfan Ullah, who is now the Karnataka Under-23 coach. I learnt a lot about life also, moving out, struggling. I was staying at my friend's flat, and used to share the rent with him. It was a different experience, but I learnt a lot about life, about adjusting elsewhere."

Nabi is a quick now, but had started off bowling legspin. Until he realised that you can't turn the ball much with a tennis ball. A freak injury, which left him with a bloodied nose, forced him to change to fast bowling. "Then I realised how fast I could bowl," he says. "With the tennis ball, it loses pace once you pitch, so I used to go full, fast. That helped me develop strength also."

Like Yousuf, Nabi's family - his father taught at a government school - too wasn't into cricket. "My father wanted me to set an example for my younger siblings," he says. "He used to initially ask me to study, but once he saw my interest in cricket and how I would go any length to play it, he supported me. Now, even before I tell them, they know how many wickets I have taken or runs I have scored, what is the result of our match. They also feel happy now to see me making it to the Ranji Trophy level, because from where I come, there's not a single turf wicket."

It's an exciting time to be a Jammu & Kashmir cricketer. "A lot of changes since Irfan bhai and Milap [Mewada, the coach] sir took over," he says. "Since Milap sir took over, our mindset changed. There is skills-based focus, a direction to training and nets. Everyone knows their role, everyone's mentally strong and prepared.

"In big games you have to be mentally strong, your mind can't waver. It could be the difference between wins or losses. They've changed the environment completely, we're together. Not players from Jammu and players from Kashmir. Before, we used to hardly meet ten days before and play. We didn't know anyone. We hung out with our own set of people. Now I feel with these team activities, I know my mates better than I ever knew them. We eat together, sit together, talk, do stuff together. Sabse achchha ban raha hai ab (everything is shaping up nicely)."

Nabi's fondest memory so far, of course, is his Ranji Trophy debut earlier this season, when he picked up a match-winning five-for against Jharkhand. But he doesn't want to rest on his laurels. "Now, we're dreaming of the Ranji Trophy, the Irani Trophy. Earlier, we couldn't even do that. Whether we do it or not, that belief us there."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo