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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Long Read: Avesh Khan and the maza of bowling fast

The latest entrant to India's fast bowling brigade is a 25-year-old who likes to bowl fast and gets a kick out of it. His journey to the top, though, was anything but fast. Financial crisis, injuries and lack of opportunities had bedevilled him in the past, but like true fast bowlers, he was no quitter and leapt over them to find recognition.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: January 30, 2022 4:51:11 pm
avesh khan, Long read, Avesh Khan Long Read, india vs west indies, west indies vs india, avesh khan cricket, avesh khan cricketer, cricket newsAvesh Khan said that he had performed well in the last domestic season and also in the Indian Premier League, which helped him to earn the national call-up. (File)

Around 9.30 pm on January 26, a message from a friend popped out on Avesh Khan’s phone. He read it carefully and felt a sudden shiver of joy. He calmed himself and walked up to his parents, who were watching the television and broke the news that he had been picked in the Indian team for the series against the West Indies next month.

There was no burst of emotions. “I was almost sure about T20s, but I was genuinely surprised about the ODIs,” he tells The Indian Express.

“I couldn’t have been what I am without the support of my family,” said Avesh Khan.

But when he saw the joy on the face of his parents, he tore up. Through the tears of joy they shed, he fleetingly glimpsed his journey from a raw teenager from a cricketing outpost whose only ambition was to bowl as fast as he could to bowling alongside two of the elite fast bowlers in the world in the IPL and now on the brink of playing for his country. He reminisced the sacrifices his father made— some time ago, the local authorities ran down his father’s roadside paan shop and rendered him jobless — and the pillar of strength his mother had been through his coming-of-age years. The blessing of his uncles and aunts; the prayers of his grandmother; the support of his friends and the mentoring of his coaches, especially Amay Khurasiya, who spotted him, and fine-tuned him in his academy.

“I put in a lot of hard work. Yes, I was fortunate to have good coaches. But I couldn’t have been what I am without the support of my family. This (playing professional cricket) is the least I could have done to repay them. That was the only thing that has ever mattered to me, to put a smile on their face,” he says, his voice momentarily choking before regaining its measuredness.

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The incessant ring of phones snapped the emotional reverie. Then he lost his sense of time. “Everyone’s phone kept ringing non-stop for several hours. The neighbours joined, it was too late for a party, but we did manage some sweets and distributed it to them,” he says. By the time the celebrations drizzled out, it was already 2 in the morning. “I don’t recollect anything. I was so drained that I fell asleep the moment I hit the bed,” he says. He had previously thought that he wouldn’t get sleep the night he got picked for his country. But here he slept soundly like a log of wood.

By the time he woke up the next morning, at 7.30 am, he felt as if the celebrations had never stopped. The family was making a big feast and there was revelry all around, as if it were a festival. “Chicken, mutton, sab tha. I am a big mutton fan and my mother had cooked my favourite mutton curry,” he says. At night, he took them for dinner. It’s after the heavy dinner, as he stumbled onto the bed that the moment really sunk in. Then, he took out that message and read it again, just to confirm that it was indeed real.

In the next few years, life around Avesh Khan would change even more rapidly, but for him, nothing surpasses the feeling of being with his parents and extended family in the chaotic splendour of his old house.

Nothing daunts Avesh. “I like to take everything as a challenge and face life as it is,” he says, throwing a peek into his character. He has walked through fire in his life and endured enough hardships to realise that he needs to be brave every time he steps on the field. Yet, he was nervous at the start of the last IPL season. “I had hardly played in the last few years, maybe one or two games a season. I had my share of injuries in the past, and so I was a bit nervous before the first game,” he admits.

All he needed was a spur-on. Coach Ricky Ponting provided that. “Both (Kagiso) Rabada and (Anrich) Nortje were injured and I knew I would get a game. I knew I would play, but was a bit tense. Then Ponting pumped me up by telling me, ‘your time has come young man and just show the world how good you are. You have the talent, we know. Now show it to the world too.’ Those words really kicked me on. I suddenly felt I am strong and confident,” he remembers the season-defining conversation with Ponting.

Fast bowling, to him, is fundamentally about feeling strong and confident. The higher his pace, the stronger he feels. He feels all-powerful. “Pace daalne se bohot maza aata hain. Woh explain karna mushkil hai (Bowling fast is a lot of fun. It’s difficult to explain),” he says. It’s not an acquired joy. “It came naturally to me, not by watching cricket on the television. It came the moment I picked up a ball,” he says.

The pace-fixation was there to be seen, and often felt, in this IPL. He consistently clocked 145kph, the fastest was measured at 149, matching his colleagues Rabada and Nortje for pace. “There is a healthy competition among us. We are good friends and congratulate each other’s success, but in the middle, we are trying to be the best. They treat me as an equal,” he says.

Their discussions are usually match-specific; not many tips or advice has flown around. “We have a lot of discussions before the match, like about the pitch, the conditions and the batsmen. We also talk a lot in the middle, like how the pitch is behaving and what lengths need to be bowled. We help each other a lot that way,” he says.

But Avesh keeps close to his heart a piece of advice from Rabada. “Kaafi simple advice hai, lekin meri bowling me bohot farak pada tha (It was pretty simple advice, but it improved my bowling a lot). So he used to tell me to bowl the ball I feel like bowling in a particular situation and not to think too much about whether I should bowl that or whether I should do this. Bowl the ball that I am most confident of. The ball you are most confident of bowling is often your best ball. It was a very handy piece of advice,” he says.

Besides, he learns a lot just by observing them, like how they plot a dismissal, their field settings and their lengths. He makes mental notes.

Midway through the season, he had already evolved into an undroppable figure in the team. What’s more, he had usurped Rabada as the chief death bowler too. It brings him maza too. “Ek alag feeling hai, death mein bowling karna (It’s a different feeling, bowling in the death overs). I relish that pressure. Sometimes I get hit, but that only drives me more,” he says.

But he’s flexible to bowl any time in a match. He can seam the ball into the right-hander with the new ball; he could pound the hard length to keep the batsman tied in the middle-overs, and at the death, he could let his yorkers rip. He has developed off-cutters, leg-cutters and slower balls to deceive the batsmen. He could strike different lengths without any discernible change in action too. He could adjust to the needs of all three formats — in first-class cricket, he averages a shade over 23, bowling mostly on one of the flattest tracks in the country at the Holkar Stadium in Indore. Pace is his guiding force, but not everything, he understands.

He is not unhealthily obsessed about his game, but is in constant pursuit of perfection. “My priority is now to get as fit as possible. I am doing a lot of running and gymming so that I can reach my optimal level of fitness and keep injuries away,” he says.

As an afterthought, he adds: “I have improved my batting too.” In the Duleep Trophy semifinal in 2019, he scored 64 off 56 balls in a last-wicket 73-run stand with Sandeep Warrier to give a slim one-lead over India Green. On the back of that single-run lead, India Red entered the final after the match ended in a draw.

The year 2021 has been transformational. In the past four editions combined, he had managed just five wickets in nine games. Last season, he snared 24 in 16 games, mostly on sluggish surfaces. The seasons before were frustrating; last season was fruitful. He was one among a raft of young seamers in the country; now he’s among the select few. Among his wickets were MS Dhoni (twice) and Virat Kohli. He tormented Rohit Sharma, as fine a player of pull as you would find, with short balls. Kohli had words of praise for him after the match, Rohit gifted him a jersey and Ponting called him a “real find.”

IPL conquered, now Team India beckons. Avesh is far from sweaty. “A challenge as well as a chance,” he reminds, his voice bursting with robust confidence. Nothing daunts him.

The world around him has changed. But Avesh has resisted changing. He still lives in the same old house as he had since he was born. The house has got a fresh fetching, odd repairs and a coat of paint. But he has not slipped into a life of indulgence; his mother insists on spending “money properly”. And wherever he goes, or in whichever hotel he stays, nothing beats the feeling of being with his parents. “It’s my world and whenever I am at home, I spend all the time with them, talking, chatting and being naughty at times. I don’t get this warmth anywhere,” he says. Occasionally, he meets some of his friends, but he is far from an outdoor person, carrying an informal simplicity of his city, Indore with him. The city is modern in every sense but lacks the pretentiousness of one.

He is so nostalgic that he drops in impromptu for a tennis-ball cricket game. Even as recent as two weeks ago, he turned up for a match under floodlights in a housing colony park in Indore. A decent crowd had turned up for the game in thin sweaters just to watch him, dressed in just a cream t-shirt and track pants and bowling as fast as he could. “Whenever I get time or feel like it, I go and play tennis-ball cricket. It’s what made me and I don’t find any difficulty in switching back and forth,” he says.

He slips into an alley of memory: “Those days used to be fun. I used to play half a dozen games on some days, from eight in the morning till late in the evening, until it got really dark. I started it for fun, then it became my passion and has taken me this far. So I can quite shake off my ties with it,” he says.

Neither could he cut the bond with a creaky old second-hand bicycle. “We couldn’t afford to buy a new one, so my parents brought me an old one. It was my best friend. I used to take that to the school, from there to cricket practice, then back home. Then to that street or this street to buy something. I barely ride it these days, but didn’t dispose of it. I had given it to my nephew and he’s riding it all the time like I had been once upon a time.”

In the next few years, life around him would change even more rapidly, but for him, nothing surpasses the feeling of being with his parents and extended family in the chaotic splendour of his old house.

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