Khaleel Ahmed has this common north Indian habit when he talks. In almost every other sentence, he tends to repeat a word with a minor tweak: replacing the first letter with ‘v’ when saying it the second time. “Match”, therefore, is followed by “vatch”. Out there in the middle, he might send down a yorker after a short-ball, but when he recounts it, it’s “vouncer” that comes after the “bouncer”.
It’s in this manner that the lanky left-arm seamer, a free-spirited character from Tonk, Rajasthan, who loves his movies, narrates his life’s story. And all along you feel you’ve heard it before. A deja vu (which if you see isn’t too far from repetition). A kid possessed by cricket, a disapproving father, a sympathetic coach and eventual success in the form of selection to the Indian team. In fact, everything about Khaleel’s tale is so uncannily similar to the 2005 Bollywood hit ‘Iqbal’ that you might be tempted to call it — to use a Khaleelism — ‘Viqbal’.
In this fable, our hero’s father Khursheed, a nurse in a village near Tonk who barely made both ends meet, used to dream that his son would one day become a doctor. The kid, however, paid little attention to his studies. He would be watching cricket on TV when he wasn’t playing it.
“Jab unhe pata chalta, abbu peet-veet diya karte the (he would beat me up when he would find out that was playing),” Khaleel says. “On Fridays in summers, we used to have matches after the afternoon namaz. It used to be baking hot. And my parents would prohibit me from going out, but I would sneak out.” Naturally, a sound thrashing would be waiting for him at home on those evenings.
The reminiscence is bereft of any bitterness. Khaleel actually talks about it fondly. His father, Khursheed, too, isn’t apologetic about the beatings. He, in fact, betrays faint pride as he cites them as an example of his son’s “junoon”.
“When my friends or acquaintances used to come home, they would ask ‘where is Khaleel’. And I would get suspicious. Why are they asking, has he done something, I would think. But they would say he bowled well in this or that match the other day,” Khursheed says. “I would think he ought to have been in school when he was playing those games!
“Humne use samjhaya ke cricket chhod do, pitayi bhi ki kai baar. Par uska junoon din-b-din badhta gaya (I told him many times to quit playing cricket. But even thrashings didn’t deter him from that).”
Kahin ladka haath se na nikal jaaye,’ is a common fear that grips India’s middle/lower-middle class parents. Then, on one fine day six years ago, Khaleel, 12, ‘got out of hand’. Without informing his parents, he joined a cricket academy.
“Batting-vatting mein interest nahi tha mera. Batsman ko out-vout karne mein zyada maza aata tha. (Batting didn’t interest me much. It was more fun to bowl and dismiss batsmen.) Sometime I used to copy Irfan’s action, sometime Zaheer’s… Then one-day I saw this academy. Ladke kit-vit pehan ke khel rahe the (there were boys dressed in white kit). I was wearing pants, na kuchh supporter-vapporter (no jockstrap). I walked up to the coach and told him, ‘sir hame khelna hai’. But it’s was a school’s academy. Bahar ke log allowed nahi the (Outsiders weren’t allowed).”
Tonk, however, is a small town. Everyone knows everyone. The coach, Imtiyaz Khan, knew the Ahmeds. “Trial-vrial le ke aur baat-vaat kar ke unhone mujhe join kara diya (There was a trial and he spoke to some higher-ups in the school, and I was in).”
It wasn’t ‘gully’ cricket anymore. It was serious stuff, and required undivided attention. Even the semblance of pretension of studying had to be dropped. The news had to be broken to Khursheed. Khaleel explained his predicament to the coach, who had a word with his father.
“Ghar mein akela ladka tha, baki teen behne hain uski (He was the lone boy among four siblings). So, they would expect he would study and also do errands. Bas isi liye ghar me maara-peeti hoti thi (hence the trouble with his father). When he discussed it with me, I went to his father. I told Khursheed that Khaleel is a special talent. That he is hardworking and passionate. I told him that if not twice a day, then let him come at least once daily,” says Imtiyaz.
Khursheed relented. “I asked Khaleel one final time ke padhna hai ya khelna hai (do you want to study sincerely or play?). He said ke khelna hai. I said alright,” says Ahmed senior. A doctor Khaleel wouldn’t be. One dream surely wouldn’t realise. “Mainey socha chalo aage chalke isey Arts dilwa denge, so that he can at least pass his exams.”
At an age, then, when he ought to have been aspiring to go two hours south to the coaching academies of Kota, Khaleel was ready to pack his bags and head two hours north to the Rajasthan Cricket Academy in Jaipur. “I sent him to Tarak Sinha sir, who was the director of the RCA,” says Imtiyaz.”He was reluctant initially, but on my recommendation and after a trial, he took him into the under-14 camp.”
When Khaleel joined the Rajasthan under-14 camp, the under-19 team was preparing for a tournament. The kid was picked to bowl in the nets to players much senior to him. “Unko mainey chipkayi do-teen bouncer-vouncer. Us age mein bhi mainey stump-vistump tode the (I sent down two-three bouncers. Even at that age, I smashed stumps),” the bowler says.
Making an impression
In the under-14 Rajsingh Dungarpur Trophy, he took 26 wickets in four matches. Later, he was selected for a camp at the BCCI Specialist Academy in Mohali. “Wahan mainey Mandeep Singh ko bowled mara, aur Manan Vohra ke helmet-velmet pe maari (There I clean bowled Mandeep Singh and hit Manan Vohra on the helmet),” he says.
Khaleel’s penchant to target heads and break stumps is a happy consequence of hardships of Tonk, which have pushed him to crank up the pace. “We hardly had any facilities in Tonk. Had to bowl on cemented wickets. You have to hit the ball hard. Aap ball ko khaali chhod-vod nahi sakte (You can’t just rely on the release). It won’t do anything. So you have to be fast to beat the batsman.”
His lean frame deceives the batsman, who doesn’t expect the six-foot-one but frail bowler to generate pace northwards of 135 kph. “He has a very effective inswinger, but I have told him to constantly work on his pace,” says the coach. “I believe swing is useless if you don’t have pace.”
On a characteristically unresponsive Mirpur pitch, where India play their group stage matches, that extra yard of pace through the air should keep Khaleel and his new-ball partner Avesh Khan, who has clocked 140 in the past, interested.
It helps that the pacer is in good form. In the last five matches he has taken 13 wickets, bowling India to victory with a three-for in the final of the Under-19 tri-series in Sri Lanka in December. It came on the back of a four-wicket haul in his previous outing against the same opponents. The twin performances pretty much sealed his spot in the World Cup squad, which was announced a day after the final.
When the news broke, Tonk erupted. “For this town, he is now a source of inspiration. Parents here have woken to the fact that sport is also something where their children can look to make a career. Now whoever comes to me with their son, they ask ‘India khila doge kya’,” says Imtiyaz. And is the father happy now? “Of course, he is. He is being interviewed extensively now by print and electronic media.”
Indeed, Khursheed is elated, but it hasn’t yet brought a complete closure between the father and son duo. For Ahmed senior, there is one thing left to be done: To watch Khaleel play in person.
“I have never seen Khaleel play. Last year, I went to Jaipur, where he was playing. When he was about to come on the field, he spotted me. He came running towards me, and told me to leave. He said he won’t play, if I stuck around. When I asked why, he said, ‘Abhi time nahi aaya hai. Time tab aayega jab main India ke liye khelunga (You come and watch me when I play for India),’” Khursheed says.
So has that time come? “If India reach the final on the 14th of February, I will certainly be there.”
Now, that would be a Bollywood ending.
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