A statistical coincidence underlined Khaleel Ahmed’s debut for India at last year’s Asia Cup. His first returns in international cricket, 3/48 against Hong Kong, was the same as that of another debutant left-arm seamer from 15 years ago –Zaheer Khan against Kenya.
Like with Zaheer, Khaleel’s emergence was met with cheers, especially after opportunities to other left-arm pacers in Jaydev Unadkat and Barinder Sran did not yield satisfactory results. Unlike with Zaheer, however, Khaleel hasn’t yet found himself in a spot of obvious reckoning across all formats yet.
The reason behind this is the changing landscape of Indian cricket.
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When Zaheer first appeared on the scene, India desperately needed an express fast bowler, one who could clock above 140kph, in a team that had the likes of Venkatesh Prasad and Ajit Agarkar. The talented Zaheer not only fitted the bill but exceeded expectations with a particularly long run. Now, India’s top three fast bowlers Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar not only clock the 145kph mark regularly but are, more importantly, consistent with their striking ability.
Khaleel is not the only young fast bowler in this T20I squad who is waiting to seal a permanent berth in the playing eleven. Navdeep Saini and Deepak Chahar are the other two. While Saini is one of few Indian bowlers to regularly clock 150kph (his fastest being a 152.85 kph delivery at the 2019 IPL), medium pacer Deepak Chahar is a handy death over specialist with the ability to really swing the ball.
All three youngsters will be in action in the three T20Is against South Africa, in a series that is already earmarked as an early audition for next year’s World T20 in Australia. Coach Ravi Shastri addressed this in an interview with bcci.tv, soon after he was reappointed last month. “The goal for the next two years is to see a smooth transition happening. You will get a lot of youngsters coming in, especially in the white-ball set up,” Shastri had said.
All three—Khaleel, Saini and Chahar—were part of last month’s T20 series against West Indies, but that team had Bhuvneshwar Kumar as the fourth specialist fast bowler. This time the kids are pretty much on their own, with a largely inexperienced spin line-up too in Krunal Pandya, Rahul Chahar and Washington Sundar. Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja are the only bowlers from the senior bunch.
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Between them, Khaleel, Saini and Chahar have a combined experience of just 15 T20Is, with Khaleel alone playing 11 T20Is. This of course pales in comparison to South Africa’s pace resources in Kagiso Rabada and Andile Phehlukwayo for the upcoming series.
They may be inexperienced on the international stage but their potential is obvious for anyone who has seen them perform in franchise cricket. To see what these have to offer, one must revisit the bygone IPL season. While Chahar finished with 22 wickets in the 2019 Indian Premier League to be the most successful Indian bowler, Khaleel’s tally of 19 wickets was equal to that of Jasprit Bumrah’s. And Saini (11 wickets) was the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable campaign for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
But taking wickets is not the only criteria; the variety they provide as a group is what really makes them a promising lot. This very reason was also perhaps why these three pacers—along with Avesh Khan— travelled to the World Cup in England as India’s official net bowlers.
Khaleel has a smooth run-up and hits the deck hard, which allows him to extract bounce even from dead pitches. And with his left-arm pace, Khaleel can create an awkward angle for the batsman too. During his U-19 days, he had a jerk while releasing the ball but that has smoothened out over time, making him even more lethal.
Imtiaz Ali, Khaleel’s first coach at the Tonk Cricket Academy, believes that his ward must tweak a few aspects of his game if he is to indeed become India’s frontline bowler. “His head sometimes falls over while releasing the ball. A bowler should always keep his sights on the batsman. He has to improve on that aspect of the game, especially because the competition for a spot is very intense these days,” Ali said while speaking with Hindustan Times.
Saini, on the other hand, is the one who can generate great pace with his slingy right arm – above 150kph quite consistently. Like Khaleel, Saini started with tennis ball. From the streets of Karnal, he graduated to the leather-ball cricket during a local T20 league, where he came to the notice of the Delhi Ranji team. Thereon, it has been a journey of rapid growth all the way to the Indian side. And he realises that a good showing in the T20 series couldn’t hurt with his chances of playing for India in the other formats as well.
“Our bowling unit in the Test format is very strong. When I was with the team (in West Indies) I realised that I’ll have to work harder to get into the side,” Saini told the press a day before the team left for Dharamsala. “When I speak to bowlers like Shami, Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar in the nets, I get a lot of help from them. At the international level, the margin for error is very small so I learn how to work around it in practice.”
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Unlike Saini and Khaleel, Chahar doesn’t have the pace. But his forte is his line, length and consistency. Those three aspects of his game gave him his India debut at the Asia Cup (along with Khaleel) and it also made him MS Dhoni’s go-to death-overs bowler during IPL 2019. Time and again Chahar proved that he could hit his yorkers in pressure situations, as well as mix the blockhole-ball up with a slower bouncer. It was a different Chahar on show from the previous IPL, where he was still seen as a new ball specialist.
“I may be a better bowler from last year, but I am still trying to perfect the slower balls, the slower bouncers,” Chahar had said earlier. “At this level you need a lot of confidence. And playing for India really helped me.” That confidence, then, will only grow if he is given a go during the upcoming series, where Chahar and his young pace colleagues will look to move from the fringes of first-team selection to its forefront.
Sep 14, 2019 09:11 IST