Did the ball really come back in? It seemed so but it was difficult to believe what the naked eye saw from beyond the boundary. That self-doubt-tinged excitement was the first feeling that came up when Khaleel Ahmed clattered Rovman Powell’s stumps at the Cricket Club of India on Monday. And so, one turned to television replays and they confirmed that the ball had indeed come back — not a big nip-backer but enough to make you look at Khaleel closely.
In fact, even before Powell, he had taken out Shimron Hetmyer with one that straightened, but he is a left-handed batsman and it was easier for Khaleel to shape it around his off stump. There wasn’t much of an angle to cut traverse there. But the ball had moved right across Powell before it shaped in a bit. That doesn’t come easily to left-armers but when it comes, even balls that angle across right-handers can cause damage. Like it happened soon with Marlon Samuels.
Saddled with the knowledge that the ball can tilt back in, and sucked into a false shot by a full delivery, Samuels stumbled into a half-hearted waft. This one didn’t come back in, the seam was facing the slips and it went away, taking a big fat edge along with it. Khaleel’s first spell on a track that didn’t have much for the bowlers has raised hope. Within the Indian team, it would have raised more than just hope.
Sometime during the England tour, Bharat Arun had talked about his wish list as a bowling coach. He wanted a left-arm pacer in the build-up to the World Cup to complete his bowling attack. They have the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah as their top two one-day pacers, with Mohammed Shami flitting in and out of the team with injuries and other off-field issues. They had replaced their Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja with two wrist spinners in Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. The intent was simple: bowlers who could do dual roles: be economical as well as attacking. The bowling coach and the team management felt they needed one last piece of the jigsaw in place: a left-arm pacer who can present the one variety that this attack lacked. They have been searching for a while now. Neither Jaydev Unadkat and Barinder Sran made the cut in the long run. It’s here that Khaleel’s arrival has juiced up the team.
A flashback is probably in order before we cut back to the present again. Khaleel’s background story is well documented: a reluctant father, who as a compounder dreamt his son would become a doctor, but who was unable to stub out a young boy’s love for bowling; a willing coach, who saw the passion in the kid and convinced the father – from there the story leaps successfully ahead with the boy clattering helmets and stumps with his pace and rushing through the ranks. Two things then happen. He runs into Rahul Dravid as an age-group coach who mentors and gives him wings to fly, and Zaheer Khan, his idol who starts mentoring him in the Indian Premier League. Ambition grew and Khaleel started to feel the India cap wasn’t that far away. He makes it, but everyone around realises this is just the beginning.
Cut to Sunday evening in Mumbai when Khaleel met up with Zaheer ahead of the fourth ODI against Windies. In his show on the Cricbuzz website, Zaheer is a touch hesitant to talk about it. Apparently, Zaheer had shot an honest question at the youngster. It was something to do with showing more courage. Courage to do what? That Zaheer spells out in the show. “As a bowler, you can’t be afraid of getting the ball right up there. It’s just a mindset that you need to change. You have to be fearless … What happens in your mind is what determines the approach and attitude you are bringing to the ground. That’s something you have to be aware in game time.”
The one big factor in what we saw from Khaleel in Mumbai was his length. As Zaheer puts it, “His length was a drastic difference from what we have seen in his short career. It stood out. It was probably a metre or metre-and-a-half fuller and that was the main difference. That’s why you could see the ball come back in (to right-handers) apart from the fact that he was holding his shape at the crease much better with his front arm.”
That front arm of Khaleel is a work in progress. At times, it comes up nice and strong, other times it can fall away a bit. In his second spell, Zaheer felt that it wasn’t as good as it was with the new ball.
It’s something Zaheer has worked with Khaleel in the past. A firm upright leading arm determines the direction in which the ball would go. “The leading arm is most important. That determines the momentum – the rest is a reaction to it, just a follow-up. The momentum going towards the batsmen is the key and that is determined by the front arm,” Zaheer says.
It’s an fascinating experience to watch a young bowler evolve. Most good ones do; they aren’t finished products when they hit the scene. Some even polish and tweak their action. Kapil Dev, for example, had a more convoluted whirl of the right arm when he made his debut. Subsequently, he cut much of the frill out to settle into that lovely final action that we saw for decades. Javagal Srinath too changed his action after he made his debut. So did Imran Khan. The list is endless.
It would be interesting to track Khaleel’s tweaks and progress. Already, in the last 18 months, he has been constantly adding stuff to his armoury. The experience of playing a lot of tennis ball cricket in his young days had meant he already realised that the arm-speed had to be faster for him to get the ball rush across. Then the cement tracks in his Tonk academy made him try hitting the deck to get more bounce. The stint with Dravid taught him the need to keep hitting one area consistently and build pressure on batsmen. The sessions with Zaheer equipped him with the necessary wrist positions and the importance of the front arm. And the need to be comfortable bowling from round the stumps as well.
“He is a work in progress, and things are bound to keep improving,” says Zaheer.
It’s an assessment that Rohit Sharma agrees with. “Khaleel is a promising prospect. With a left-arm seamer, you always have that edge. And the way Khaleel swung the ball today, he would have troubled any batsmen. He is maturing pretty fast. The World Cup is still a long way off with lots of games remaining and I wouldn’t say spots have been guaranteed to anyone. I hope he continues to do well. We are playing in New Zealand and then the World Cup in England, where the ball swings a lot. He could be quite handy there.”