Shahrukh Khan, a star namesake who wants to finish it like MS Dhoni

  • With retentions done and IPL teams gearing up for the mega auctions, this Tamil Nadu power-hitter is likely to be one of the hot buys in January.
Shahrukh Khan in action during the 2021 Indian Premier League.(Twitter/PBKS) PREMIUM
Shahrukh Khan in action during the 2021 Indian Premier League.(Twitter/PBKS)
Published on Dec 01, 2021 08:28 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

A hazy Monday afternoon and the Feroz Shah Kotla was deserted. Perhaps not an ideal backdrop, but M Shahrukh Khan didn’t seem to mind. It was the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament final against Karnataka and the equation for Tamil Nadu had boiled down to five runs off the final ball. Standing deep in his crease, Shahrukh gathered himself and dispatched a length ball on the leg-stump from left-arm seamer Prateek Jain soaring over the square-leg boundary to the unbridled delight of the TN players.

That grandstand finish on November 22 would seamlessly fit into a movie script, apt for one named after a Bollywood superstar on the exhortation of his mother’s cousins. The timing of the knock was even more fitting, given that a mega Indian Premier League (IPL) auction is around the corner. Acquired for 5.25 crore by Punjab Kings last season after a couple of noteworthy white-ball seasons for TN, the 26-year-old’s latest display—a sparkling 33* off 15 balls—looks certain to ignite another fierce bidding war at the auctions that are likely to be held in January.

Shortly after Shahrukh’s pyrotechnics, four-time IPL champions Chennai Super Kings shared a snap on their Twitter account of MS Dhoni catching the final stages of the game. What he saw must have pleased the ace finisher no end, for the method behind Shahrukh’s ‘madness’ was right out of Dhoni’s manual.

“Whenever I am in a run chase, I just take it as deep as possible. I have the confidence that I can get 15-20 runs in one over. Until then, there is no panic. Only when say 18 are needed in 3 balls, then obviously it is quite difficult. When the bowler is in the firing zone at the death, he will make an error and I can cash in,” says Shahrukh, his tall and imposing build contrasting with his mellow nature.

Shahrukh’s mindset at the end of an innings might seemingly border on arrogance, but such an unflinching belief in his ability is essential for anybody performing that finishing role day in, day out. During the brief conversation Dhoni had with Shahrukh at the IPL this year, the former India captain stressed on that aspect.

Shahrukh hung on to Dhoni’s every word given his reverence for the latter’s achievements and ice-cool demeanor. The palpable thrill in his voice when he recounts Dhoni’s advice conveys that respect.

“I saw that photo of Dhoni watching the match. I have always looked up to him, especially because of the way he carries himself on and off the field. He always tries to take the game deep. I have tried to take a leaf out of his book. I am nobody compared to him, but I try to keep learning from him. When we spoke, he just asked me to keep doing what I do. He told me that I am the only person who knows what is running in my head. He wanted me to just back my instincts,” says Shahrukh.

Shahrukh made his List A and T20 debuts for Tamil Nadu in 2014 as an 18-year-old, but until a couple of years ago, those finishing instincts weren’t all that obvious. While he has always been a clean striker of the ball—aided by his long reach and gym-buffed forearms—his inconsistency and lack of role clarity had largely consigned him to the fringes of the TN set-up.

The turning point, according to Shahrukh, came in the opening game of the Vijay Hazare Trophy one-day tournament in the 2019-20 season. Having been handed the No. 6 slot, Shahrukh walked in with 100 runs needed against Rajasthan and finished the job with an effortless 48* in 39 balls in Dinesh Karthik’s company.

“That was the first time the finisher’s role was assigned to me. From then on, I started thinking how I can do it best and started cultivating that mindset of a finisher. It took time to evolve,” he says.

That innings illustrated Shahrukh’s suitability for the role, and he has seldom let the team down since. What, though, prompted the TN think tank to back Shahrukh in the first place?

“When you play the role of a finisher, you have to face the fast bowlers the majority of the time. We felt that he has the range and power to hit the fast bowlers. Before the 2019-20 season, he was well prepared and his striking ability had improved further,” says TN assistant coach R Prasanna, a long-time mentor of Shahrukh. “He was snubbed for the 2019 IPL. Everyone expected him to be picked. We had a few conversations at the time on what kind of work he needed to put in. He took the disappointment in his stride. He was comfortable against pacers, but I told him to improve his game against spin. He needed to become a complete player, and not (be) one-dimensional.”

Composure and ability to rotate strike

While towering hits into the stands in a pulsating finish tend to garner eyeballs, one of the underappreciated facets of an able finisher is the ability to keep dot balls to a minimum. At his peak, Dhoni was a master at scampering ones and twos in between those bludgeoning hits.

In spite of his brawny appearance, Shahrukh seems to tick that box. Boundary-hitting prowess alone can’t fetch strike-rates of 110.75 and 136.4 in List A and T20 cricket respectively.

“At the nets, I try and work on taking singles. Suppose I go in to bat in the middle overs, I need to take singles to start with. Six-hitting is a totally different segment of practice. My practice depends on my mindset before a game, whether I need to refine the ability to take singles or do range hitting,” says Shahrukh.

Prasanna, a former TN captain, has been a driving force behind his evolution. He was Shahrukh’s first captain in the highly competitive Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) league, when he was just 15.

“He had the X-factor right from the time he was 15 even though consistency wasn’t always there. He would play eye-catching strokes even then. His ability to rotate strike now is a big strength. He has batted in the top-order and middle-order too. So he has the experience of batting in different positions. Instead of offering a dead defence, he has worked on nudging ones and twos,” says the 39-year-old Prasanna.

Another attribute that is serving Shahrukh well is calmness in pressure situations. The Mushtaq Ali final is a pertinent example. Coming in at 95/4 chasing 152, he was compelled to do most of the scoring with the lower-order and also contend with the fact that he may not always get the strike. At no point did he seem to get flustered and overawed.

“He is much calmer now. The focus is on keeping a simple game plan and trusting it. When he started out, he used to feel the pressure. Once the sense of belonging came, he became calmer. Now he feels he can pull off even 60 off 4 overs. There will always be 2-3 dot balls. It is important to think with a cool head at those junctures,” Prasanna says.

Early initiation

Shahrukh’s consistency in domestic cricket may be a recent development, but the big-hitter—he also bowls off-spin—had for long been earmarked in Chennai circles as a youngster brimming with potential. While the attention may have been initially steered towards his famous name—interestingly he is a Salman Khan fan—his cricketing aptitude becomes clear once you watch him bat. Even in his early teens, he was rubbing shoulders with senior pros in Chennai league cricket.

Early interest in the game was sparked by his father Masood, a former TNCA second-division cricketer who would take Shahrukh along to the nets. “I used to go with my father to the ground for his training sessions on Sundays. I started going to an academy and playing with the red leather ball from the time I was six,” Shahrukh says.

Sometime in 2012, he got a first glimpse of the CSK franchise too. He was in the 12th standard and took part in the inaugural Junior CSK tournament. He finished as the tournament’s most valuable player, earning selection for a camp at Chepauk.

“It was the inaugural year of the Junior Super Kings tournament. The best players of the tournament were selected for a camp. CSK coach (Stephen) Fleming came for the camp and was apparently impressed with the way I was playing. That is what I heard. Mike Hussey and Faf du Plessis were also present,” Shahrukh recollects.

It meant a big deal for the CSK fan then, but the early impression he may have given observers was of a casual approach to the game.

“He doesn’t take a lot of pressure. He is happy-go-lucky. I used to see him when he was 15 or 16 and wonder if he is serious about a career in cricket. He used to come and enjoy batting but was not involved a lot in other aspects like fielding,” Prasanna says. “He has worked hard on those things. Youngsters generally like to field at hotspots but Shahrukh used to be at sweeper cover or deep square leg. He had that sort of attitude. He has had a terrific attitude shift. It has been quite nice to see.”

Even now, he doesn’t necessarily indulge in excessive analysis of his opponents or fret over what death bowlers might have up their sleeve.

“There isn’t too much video analysis. Shahrukh keeps it minimal and just knows what to expect from different bowlers,” says Prasanna. “He has other interests outside of cricket. He likes to dress well and enjoys watching basketball.”

These other interests help him switch off from time to time. Given the fickle demands of his high pressure on-field role, he cannot afford to be affected by lavish praise or stinging criticism.

“If I finish one game, everybody will praise me. If I don’t, they will be critical and say you didn’t get the job done. But that’s how general life is,” says Shahrukh. “I don’t care about what people say. You are bound to have more failures than successes as a finisher. It is a tough job to do, but I love that pressure.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Vivek Krishnan is a sports journalist who enjoys covering cricket and football among other disciplines. He wanted to be a cricketer himself but has gladly settled for watching and writing on different sports.

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Saturday, January 22, 2022