The foundation for Zaheer Khan's rise as India's pace spearhead was laid by his father, who ditched the typical middle-class thinking by allowing his son to give up engineering to pursue his dream of playing cricket.As one traces Zaheer's roots in the hinterland of Maharashtra, it becomes clear it was still a gamble that his father Bakhtiyar Khan and coach Sudhir Naik took that ultimately paid off.
As one maps out Zaheer's meteoric rise, the risk taken by the professional photographer, who ran a studio in Nevasa, close to his native Shrirampur, and former India opener Naik, the coach with a reputation for churning out international players from his Cross Maidan academy in Mumbai, becomes evident.
But for the duo, the boy who would have ended up bowling only to older men with a tennis ball at Shrirampur's Boravke College ground. And certainly would not have had a decade's experience in international cricket going into the World Cup.
The first gamble
Just like most Indian families, Zaheer, his elder brother Zeeshan and the younger Anees, were introduced to cricket by their father, who himself was a "left-arm pacer in gully cricket".
But just like most educated Indian middle-class families, while Zeeshan was pursuing his engineering degree, Zaheer was also aspiring to follow in his brother's footsteps. But it all changed after his understanding parents decided to let Zaheer have a go at his passion.
When Zaheer started to make a mark on the tennis-ball cricket circuit in western Maharashtra in his eighth grade, Bakhtiyar promised to take him to Mumbai - "the only city I knew well since I did my graduation there" - for a summer coaching camp. "But since April and May is the peak season for a photographer, with two weddings a day, I could not make good the promise I made to him."
Though the father had forgotten, Zaheer was sulking, hoping for an opportunity to do what his Revenue Cricket Club teammates wanted him to achieve. In the first year of his junior college, Zaheer could not attend the district U-19 trials since he was misinformed about it. "He started crying. I told him, 'after your 12th exam I will take you to Mumbai'. He complained 'you said the same before 10th'. That is when I realised I had to take him to Mumbai."
The big trip
So in April 1996, Bakhtiyar and Zaheer travelled 280 km from their village in Ahmednagar district to the city of dreams. Though they were lucky to reach coach Naik, who was not the one to ignore Zaheer's raw talent, they faced the next big hurdle.
Even while Zaheer was being shaped into a bowler to watch out for, thanks to his 83% marks in the HSC exam, he got admission at the Pravara College of Engineering in Loni, close to Shrirampur. Naik gave an ultimatum to Zaheer's parents, both of whom were school teachers before Bakhtiyar decided to make a career in photography.
"I told them he had it in him to succeed at the higher level, provided he stayed with me in Mumbai," Naik says.
"Then we told him 'we'll give you one year for cricket'. I will manage the attendance, and in the worst case, even if the college cancels your admission, we will get you re-admitted the next year if you can't make it in cricket," Bakhtiyar says.
"In the second semester, while Zaheer was already selected for the Mumbai under-19 team, a professor from the college called me and sought clarification about Zaheer's absence. When I told him he is playing cricket, he said 'yeh kya paagalpan hai (what is this madness)? What is more important - cricket or engineering?' I told him my son could not play under-19 cricket after three years, so I am letting him do what he wants to do right now.
"This was a gamble I played with my son's life. Since he was sincere, hardworking and talented, it paid off," Bakhtiyar adds.
Since Zaheer was a quick learner, by the time he was selected in the Mumbai squad for the 1996-97 Ranji Trophy final after emerging as Mumbai's highest wicket-taker in the under-19 tournament, Naik was convinced he would soon wear the India flannels.
For taking that next big step, Zaheer needed to prove his mettle at the first-class level. But due to politics in Mumbai cricket, that has traditionally not welcomed players from outside, Zaheer did not get to play a single game the next season.
"When he couldn't get an opportunity for a full season, he started getting a bit edgy. Every time I used to ask him 'what did you do at the Mumbai nets', he used to say he was just made to stand in a corner," Naik says.
Naik then turned to his old friend TA Sekhar, who was the director at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai where Dennis Lillee was a consultant.
"Sekhar had told me to send any promising fast bowler to the academy. So when I sent Zaheer to Chennai in 1998, Sekhar immediately called me and praised him. He said they will need to polish him, which meant he had to stay there longer."Neither Zaheer nor I had a problem. Not only did he get valuable guidance from Sekhar and Lillee, he also got exposure in the local league in Chennai as he played for MRF. That is where Javagal Srinath spotted him."
While Zaheer was drawing applause from the who's who of Indian cricket, he had not featured in a first-class game.
"Once Sekhar called me from Chennai and said Dennis cannot understand why Zaheer wasn't playing Ranji Trophy for Mumbai," Naik recalls.
The former Ranji-winning captain was blunt. He told Sekhar that he "didn't think some elements in Mumbai cricket want him here. They have their own people to push."
Eventually, Zaheer made his first-class debut for Baroda in 1999-2000.
"Leaving Mumbai was a big risk. But it was a gamble we had to take," Naik says. "The rest, as they say, is history."