Khaleel Ahmed's rapid rise, from tennis ball in Tonk to India's ODI squad
These are the questions on everyone's mind, now that Khaleel Ahmed has made India's squad for the Asia Cup: How quick is he? Can he swing it back into the right-handers? Can he bowl the heavy ball? What does his action look like?
First, some background. Khaleel has only played one full season of domestic cricket - and only two first-class matches. But he has shown enough promise to win a place in Sunrisers Hyderabad's squad in IPL 2018 and get fast-tracked into the India A squads for a tour of England in June-July and the recently concluded A team quadrangular series. In his last nine outings for India A, he hasn't gone wicketless even once, and has picked up 15 wickets.
Khaleel's strength lies in extracting bounce even on docile surfaces - which could come in handy in the Asia Cup in Dubai and Abu Dhabi - and he's got pace too. He grew up playing tennis-ball cricket in Tonk, a Rajasthan town known for its muskmelons. On muddy surfaces where batsmen kept swinging, he learned early that the only way to beat them was by being quick through the air. Now he's trying to blend that pace and bounce with with swing to become the complete fast bowler.
When he first came through at the 2016 Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, he relied mostly on his angle across the right-hander. Over the last two seasons, he's worked closely on swinging the ball back in. This process began during a stint with Delhi Daredevils (2016 and 2017), when he didn't get to play in the IPL, but got to rub shoulders with Zaheer Khan, who was captaining the franchise at the time. Zaheer would try and get Khaleel to think for himself, ask him to set his own fields and bowl to them. Khaleel says this experience improved him significantly as a bowler.
"Being under Zaheer coincided with my improvement as a cricketer," Khaleel told ESPNcricinfo during the quadrangular series last week. "I used to just look to bowl fast, didn't think much about the technicalities, but Zaheer worked on my non-bowling arm and wrist position. The seam position used to be wobbly, because there was some problem with my grip and alignment with my thumb. Now I can swing the ball back into the right-handers."
Khaleel only picked up two wickets in his two Ranji Trophy games in 2017-18, at an average of 90.00, but did rather better in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament, picking up 17 wickets at 15.52, while conceding just 6.76 per over. Rajasthan finished the T20 tournament as runners-up. In the final against Delhi, Khaleel dismissed Rishabh Pant and half-centurion Unmukt Chand to finish with figures of 4-0-23-2.
In the 2018 IPL auction, Sunrisers entered a serious bidding war with Kings XI Punjab and Daredevils before eventually picking Khaleel up for INR 3 crores. It's another matter that Sunrisers looked at him as a back-up option, since they had a strong Indian pace battery in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Sandeep Sharma, Siddarth Kaul and Basil Thampi. He only got one game for the franchise, in which he ran into the rampaging Chris Lynn and Sunil Narine and ended up with figures of 0 for 38 in three overs.
At the time of his signing, Khaleel hadn't even played List A cricket, but he went into the IPL on the back of a productive Vijay Hazare Trophy, in which he picked up 10 wickets at at 23.40 in six 50-over matches, while returning an economy rate of 4.77. These performances earned him a place in the season-ending Deodhar Trophy.
In the final, he bowled a hostile spell in tandem with Umesh Yadav to rip through Karnataka's top order. He took three of the top five to help his side beat the domestic 50-over champions. "Performing in those matches gave me a lot of confidence," Khaleel said. "Before that, at the Under-19 level itself, Rahul Dravid sir kept talking to us about how we have to be ready for the step up and the kind of adjustments we must make. So that transition was a little smooth, because we were prepared mentally."
While playing opportunities for Sunrisers were scarce, he spent as much time as possible with Bhuvneshwar, often accompanying him for breakfast or to watch moves in rest days. All along, he tried to pick his brains. "With Bhuvneshwar Kumar at Sunrisers, I learnt about death bowling," Khaleel said. "How he trains in the nets, how he practices bowling yorkers and does target practice. He is a very simple person, and is always ready to offer advice.
"With him, chats have been around consistency. My strength is bounce because of height, but if I can swing the ball, then it adds variety. So even when I didn't get chances, I wasn't frustrated because I tried to learn in whatever little time we had between matches."
Khaleel's rise has been swift, helped by the fact that there aren't too many left-arm quicks in Indian cricket at the moment. While this could put pressure on some, Khaleel is relaxed. "I consider it as a good thing, because it could get me noticed, so isn't it a good thing?"
He may or may not get game time for India, but he is at least guaranteed another learning stint with Bhuvneshwar, this time in blue and not in orange.