Khaleel aspires to emulate idol Zaheer Khan

Khaleel Ahmed, who earned his maiden India call-up for the Asia Cup, hopes to surpass former India pacer Zaheer Khan's record one day.

In nine matches with India A, Khaleel Ahmed picked up 15 wickets.   -  R.V. Moorthy

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) selection committee surprised many when it named an untested Khaleel Ahmed in the India squad for the Asia Cup on Saturday.

The young medium fast bowler from Rajasthan has played only two first-class games for Rajasthan and featured once for the Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League this year.

Justifying his selection, the chairman of selectors MSK Prasad said, “Two to three slots are yet to be sealed before we finalise a squad for the World Cup and among those slots, one is that of a seamer. We are looking at a left-arm option in Khaleel.”

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“I still can’t believe that I have made it to the Indian team. That too for the Asia Cup! It is a big moment for me. Ever since I played cricket, I have been aggressive and have always wanted to do something in life. It feels great to be rewarded,” Khaleel told Sportstar on Saturday.

Khaleel came into the spotlight when he picked up 17 wickets in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, following which he was drafted into the India A squad for the England tour and the quadrangular home series last month. With 15 wickets in nine outings for India A, he seems to have impressed the selectors. “I got noticed only after I started performing there. It is good to see that the selectors have given me the opportunity to prove my worth,” Khaleel said.

Khaleel, who hails from Tonk, grew up playing tennis ball cricket, which he believes helps him gain bounce even on passive surfaces. The 20-year-old, who was part of the India U-19 team that reached the final in 2016, learned the trade of swinging the ball 'back in' from his mentor and idol- Zaheer Khan.

“With Zaheer Khan at the Delhi Daredevils (in 2016 and 2017, where Khaleel didn't played a game), I learned how to swing the ball back in and that has actually helped me in the long run. I plan to make the most of it on the UAE wickets,” he said.

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At the Sunrisers Hyderabad, sharing the dressing room with the likes of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Kane Williamson has taught him a lot as a cricketer. But Khaleel owes it to Zaheer for showing him the way. “He has always been a mentor and it was after interacting with him that I could improve my game. I want to cement my place in the team and then scale the heights like Zaheer.”

Even before donning the India cap, Khaleel dreams of surpassing Zaheer’s wickets in international cricket. “I know I am sounding kiddish, but that’s my aim and that’s my way of showing tribute to my mentor,” he said.

A couple of months ago, his state team-mate Deepak Chahar played a T20 for India in England. As Khaleel Ahmed gears up for his debut, he admits that it is difficult for a player from Rajasthan to motivate himself. “There have been no training sessions, the cricketing scene in the state has almost come to a halt. So, it is difficult. But you must deal with it,” he said.

Khaleel, who in his early days would hide from his father—who did not want him to play—and flee to Jaipur to train, has been able to keep his dreams alive. With not many left-arm pacers in the circuit, Khaleel now hopes to break into the final eleven.