M Affan Khader was literally on borrowed time at home. This was supposed to be a breakthrough year for him, yet in June, the 26-year-old was not even part of the Tamil Nadu Premier League, a tournament that sees the cream of the state players taking part. One by one, the doors were being shut on the middle-order batter.
And after being overlooked for the national white-ball fixtures, there was understandable pressure from the family too. Mujahid Khader, the father of the mechanical engineering graduate who also holds an MBA degree, advised his son to abandon the kit bag and start looking for a career other than cricket.
But on Friday, as the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) senior selection committee named the squad for the upcoming Ranji Trophy that begins on December 13, Affan received his maiden call-up to the state side. Although he was part of the probables, thanks to his good performances for MRC ‘A’ which won the First Division title last season, Affan never expected to make the final cut.
“It feels great finally to be part of some Tamil Nadu side,” Affan told The Indian Express. “Right from the age-group circuit, I’ve never been part of any TN side. And I must admit, I was never good enough to make it. But this time, having put in the hard work, this really feels special.”
Born in a family where studies preceded everything else, cricket was not supposed to be his profession. An off-spinner in his early years, he only got an opportunity to bat at the top of the order because “none of the boys who studied engineering wanted to play cricket. Since I was handy with the bat, they made me open. And as I kept scoring I got the confidence,” Affan said.
The four-year period where he studied engineering at Loyola College saw cricket take a back seat. The most he could do was to ply his trade in the Third Division before Indian Overseas Bank came calling. A move to CromBest would follow, and this is where Affan caught the eye of R Ashwin.
“I had a decent outing against MRC ‘A’ (the club Ashwin represents) and I got a call later from Ashwin anna asking if I would be interested to join their team. That came out of the blue for me, but it just made me realise if he is asking me to play, then there must be something special in me,” Affan recollected.
MRC ‘A’ is a new team in the TNCA circuit. In many ways their success story is similar to that of Leicester, where a season after surviving relegation, they walked away with Rajah of Palayampatti Shield for the First Division earlier this year. And it also happened to be a breakthrough season for Affan.
Work on your fitness, Ashwin said
Last October, Affan remembers Ashwin telling him to improve his fitness if he was serious about graduating to the next level. Affan had a score of 16.4 in the Yo-Yo test, with Ashwin setting a target of 19.
“That was an eye-opener for me. And this is actually the period where I started to do the hard work. Not that I was not doing it before, but if you have to play at the top, you have to work more on a lot of aspects. And since he told me during the off-season, it helped me a great deal to put a programme in place and follow it diligently.
“For the next three months, my total focus was on improving my fitness levels across all parameters. And once I started feeling the difference, I started enjoying it more. I even put skill-based training to the backseat in those months,” Affan said.
In the First Division that followed, batting in the middle order, Affan played a key role in MRC ‘A’s title triumph, with his gritty attitude lauded by one and all.
“This was a make or break season for him,” TN opener NS Chaturved, who captained him at the club, said. “If he didn’t get an opportunity, even we would have struggled to keep him in the club because his family wanted him to quit cricket and start working. So we are all happy for him because he deserves the call totally,” Chaturved said.