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For ages, the Jumma Masjid in Vadodara was known to the world for preserving one of the oldest hand-written copies of the Holy Quran. However, the generations growing up in the 21st century will also identify the mosque with a different kind of religion - cricket. Amol Karhadkar reports.

cricket Updated: Feb 01, 2011 01:38 IST
Amol Karhadkar

For ages, the Jumma Masjid in Vadodara was known to the world for preserving one of the oldest hand-written copies of the Holy Quran. However, the generations growing up in the 21st century will also identify the mosque with a different kind of religion - cricket.

It is the place which has gifted India two famous cricketing siblings - Yusuf and Irfan Pathan.

Since their father Mehboob Khan served as a bangi (muezzin) in the city's oldest mosque, it was but natural its narrow corridors were the first to witness the cricketing skills of the half-brothers.

Their obsession for the game reached such a fever pitch that worshippers started complaining to their father that they were being disturbed by the sound of ball meeting the bat. However, being an avid cricket fan himself, the next step for Mehboob Khan, despite his meagre earnings, was to enrol the kids at the Baroda Sports Club's cricket programme for a monthly fee of Rs 20 each.

"When their father brought the brothers to me, both were young and small in build. They were very thin. But slowly they worked hard, got fitter and kept on climbing the success ladder," recalls Mehndi Sheikh, former first-class cricketer who along with the late Bashir Sheikh mentored Yusuf at the Baroda Sports Club.

Thanks to a 300-run stand they amassed for MES School in the inter-school tournament, Yusuf broke into the Baroda under-14 team. But in the next three to four years, it was Irfan - the younger of the two - who made the cut for the under-19 World Cup and Ranji Trophy while Yusuf was stuck in the Baroda U-19 ranks.

"I was the secretary of the Baroda Cricket Association. Yusuf was playing under-19 and Irfan was playing Ranji Trophy," says Kiran More, former India glovesman and chief selector.

"I called Irfan one day and asked him who is elder? He said Yusuf. So I told him to tell Yusuf not to play under-19 that year. I assured him that his elder brother will get more opportunities in the Ranji Trophy. This was primarily because I believed Yusuf had a lot of talent. All he needed was a break. faith

"But I had to face a lot of resistance in the BCA. There was a lot of hulla-gulla (noise) that I was promoting Yusuf. But Balwinder Singh Sandhu (then Baroda coach) and I always thought he could play for India. We had to create a few opportunities for him."

Despite living in the shadow of his younger brother, Yusuf stuck to his reputation of a big-hitter. Probably, it also had something to do with his aggressive attitude and Bashir's words of wisdom early on in his cricketing sojourn.

"Bashir, being a big-hitter himself, used to like kids who would tonk the ball out of the park. While he promoted natural instincts, I looked after the technical aspects," Mehndi says. "Bashir had read somewhere about Bradman saying 'a batsman should all the time be looking for scoring opportunities'. And Bashir followed it religiously. Yusuf followed Bashir's advice to the hilt."

After Bashir's demise in 2002, Mehndi found it difficult to rectify the flaws in Yusuf's batting and bowling technique. Then came the big break in the form of former World Cup winner, Sandhu, who joined as Baroda coach in 2004-05.

"When I went to Baroda, the opinion about him was yeh khali lagata hai (He is only a slogger) and darts the ball while bowling off-spin. Nobody was paying proper attention to him."

Sandhu first straightened Yusuf's bowling run-up, asked him to jump before delivering the ball as slow as possible. It worked. He then turned to correcting the flaws in his batting.

In the hitting zone
"While batting, I watched him hit one over mid-wicket with a straight bat and told him he reminded me of Sandeep Patil. He had the power, he was fit; all he required to succeed was proper shot selection," Sandhu says.

"I told him the ball that's in his range has to be hit. Even if there was a fielder at long-on, he could easily clear him. 'Don't try and create a stroke, make use of the ball that's in your range' was what I kept on drilling into him.

To make him understand that, I said: "Agar tumhare mohalle me goonda aata hai toh goonde ki pitai kar. Lekin agar sharif banda aata hai toh usko respect kar (If a thug enters your locality, hit him. But if a nice guy comes, respect him). Once I explained it to him in the language he understood, it sunk in soon."

Yusuf had to face hurdles after Sandhu pronounced him as the next big thing from Baroda at a public function. "The players, his competitors, and some of the drink buddies of one of the key BCA officials used to run him down, treat him shabbily," Sandhu says. "But (Kiran) More and I stood by him."

Need we say they have been proved right.

Tired after practice, Yusuf and I used to steal a ride on bullock carts.

Early duels
When you have your brother to train with and share everything, it makes a difference in the development of a cricketer. While practising, we both used to enjoy batting more but at the same time, used to like bowling to each other. Even though we used to play in our Masjid, we had a lot of fun.

Getting serious
Till the age of 12 or 13, we played cricket for fun. But once we started excelling in inter-school tournaments and then started playing for the Baroda under-14, we felt 'yes, we are going to be big cricketers, Inshallah'. We realised if we can play for our state, we can play for our country if we play in the right way. We kept playing the game for the love of it. We used to love getting up early on the morning of the match, get ready, go to the ground; my mom and father used to come at lunch with home-cooked food. We used to love all that.

Cricket, cricket...
We always discuss the game, but know where to draw a line. We always talk about each other's game, but during the IPL, we discuss it less since we play for different teams. Otherwise, we keep on talking about our game. But we've definitely realised there is life beyond cricket. There are a lot of things other than cricket that we should do the right way so that it helps our cricket in the long run. That's what we have been doing.

Yusuf's evolution
He has improved by leaps and bounds in the last three years. I never had any doubt he could play long innings. The IPL has made him confident. Since I came into the limelight early despite being the younger brother, I desperately wanted him to establish his identity rather than see people calling him Irfan's brother. It used to hurt me when people would say that.

Now it's the other way and it really makes me proud because ultimately, he is the elder brother and people should be calling Irfan as Yusuf's brother rather than the other way round.

Healthy competition
He always took it positively (the fact that Irfan was playing for India while he was still grinding in domestic cricket). He always knew he was going to make a mark in international cricket. Not many people have his ability in world cricket. He is one of the luckiest people to have that talent. He has worked hard on nurturing that. In the beginning, handling the media was a bit difficult for him. It was relatively easier for me because I had been travelling since my under-19 days.

When you don't travel much, you do tend to be shy. But now he has become confident and is not shy anymore. But he is still quieter than me.

The real man
As a person, he is outstanding. He is a family man. He would be the nicest person in the cricketing globe at the moment and I am not saying this just because he is my brother. He judges you based on what you are rather than what you do. Even in our house, everyone consults him on what to do and what not to. Now that I'm getting to the age where I can take decisions, I'm getting better in terms of handling family matters. But he is still the elder brother and will always be more responsible.

A story no one knows
I am going to keep it for my book, man. There are a lot of stories like all brothers. But I'm going to tell you one simple story. When we were 10 or 12 years old, even before we got a bicycle, we used to walk from our home to the ground. It used to take at least 25 to 30 minutes one way. It used to be fine while going to train but after a rigorous training session, the walk used to be very difficult. We used to be very tired after training for four hours. We used to get 50 paise or a rupee as pocket money per day, so we used to save it for an occasional treat. So sometimes we would cling on to a bullock cart without the knowledge or the bailgadiwalla (bullock cart owner). It used to serve our purpose. But if the guy noticed it, he would shout at us and make us walk again. But till he noticed it, we used to get the much-needed rest.