“WHENEVER YOU bowl, tu alag lagta hai. You always stand out.” Khaleel Ahmed had gotten used to hearing these words from pretty much whoever he came across during the under-19 World Cup in early 2016. It wasn’t like he set the tournament alight with the ball though. If anything, while his new-ball partner Avesh Khan had significantly better numbers with 12 wickets at 15.08; Khaleel finished with 3 wickets at 56.66 apiece though with a reasonable economy rate.
But still, it was the left-arm pacer who was turning heads with his above-average pace-at junior level-and ability to get the ball to rise off a length. And on a day the 20-year-old received his maiden call-up to the Indian senior team, Khaleel also recalls how those compliments back then would necessarily be backed up with a, “you’ll play for India very soon.”
It’s unlikely either they or he would have expected those words to come true this soon.
It’s one of cricket’s major ironies though. While it’s got a reputation of being a sport that’s obsessed with numbers and stats, more often than not selections are based on the visual impact a cricketer has on those watching and selecting-whether it’s in terms of aesthetics or impact. And leading up to Saturday’s selection for the Asia Cup, it was Mohammad Siraj who seemed the likeliest of all the second-rung pacers in the country to get the nod.
The Hyderabad seamer had after all been among the wickets across all formats, and had already earned an India cap earlier this year. But it turns out Khaleel had once again made a bigger impact, most importantly on MSK Prasad & Co this occasion.
It’s not like he doesn’t have the numbers to back him up. In a List A career that’s all of six months old, he’s taken 28 wickets at 22.50 in 17 matches. And his performances in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Deodhar Trophy were good enough to bring him into the India A team for England too. The Rajasthan seamer has since not gone wicket-less in a single game, but like he agrees it’s his ability to “take wickets when it matters” that’s not just earned the selectors’ confidence but built his own up.
“In England, I was striking at crucial times and whenever the team needed them most importantly. It’s been the same in the quadrangular tournament too. To know that the captain throws me the ball in such scenarios is a sign that I’m dealing well with pressure, which is a big area of learning,” Khaleel tells The Indian Express.
A look at his exploits for India A over the last two months backs up his self-analysis. In the final of the tri-series in England, he got rid of prolific opener Nick Gubbins with the new-ball before returning to dismiss veterans Steven Mullaney and Liam Dawson in consecutive overs to crush England A’s hopes of putting up a big total.
Back in India, he took out Usman Khawaja in the first game against Australia A, and returned figures of 2/33 in 10 overs in a massive loss to India B, where he accounted for both Ishan Kishan and centurion Mayank Agrawal. In another low-scoring encounter against South Africa A, he once more struck twice in two overs in his second spell to give his team a chance.
In addition to learning to deal with the big moments, Khaleel also talks about how he’s added a few strings to his bowling over the last life-altering six months. He’s now not only focusing on his ability to get that disconcerting bounce but now also boasts of an incoming delivery, so devastating if delivered at pace by a left-armer (Khaleel has crossed the 140 kph mark regularly of late).
“While I can’t describe how happy I am about being selected for India, it’s good that the team has been announced some time before the tournament. This gives me more time to work on variations, which will be crucial on the pitches in Dubai,” he adds.
Khaleel did make the headlines earlier this year during the IPL auction, becoming one of the unexpected big money buys with a number of teams bidding for him. Sunrisers Hyderabad got him eventually. He reflects on the bidding war of him as another sign of how his skill was being noticed across the board.
Khaleel’s backstory is rather fascinating, and not just because he hails from a town called Tonk. It’s based around how his father wasn’t the biggest fan of him playing cricket, and the challenges attached to that parental reluctance. Khaleel though isn’t keen on talking about it and says, “That’s from the past and an old story. I believe in living in the present because that’s what matters.”
And the present for him on Saturday, was “chilling with friends” and celebrating arguably the biggest day of his cricketing life so far. But he does slip in how his father’s reaction to the selection was as unbridled as his own, not to forget the big hug that he received from him.