How Mohsin Khan achieved fast bowling perfection despite growing up on UP's flat pitches

Mohsin Khan celebrating a wicket in IPL 2022. (PC: BCCI)
Mohsin Khan celebrating a wicket in IPL 2022. (PC: BCCI)

Wednesday, May 18. It was Kolkata Knight Riders' (KKR) last league match of IPL 2022. A qualifying spot was on the line. The opposition had set them 211 to chase, a number they reached through a record-breaking, unbeaten opening stand.

Knight Riders' opener Venkatesh Iyer was at the crease, almost certainly feeling the pressure of giving a similar start. The first ball he received was exactly what he didn't want - a 150 kmph rocket, targeted at the top of his off-stump.

It hit the shoulder of his bat hard and rolled over to mid-off. He looked at the willow with worry and got it checked by an opposition fielder. A dot to start the innings.

The next ball was even better, at 151 kmph. The on-air commentators were as stunned as the batter. This time, the impact was just below the handle. Iyer had another worried look and decided the bat had had enough and needed to be changed. Another dot.

The third ball was slower but not slow by any means, at 145 kmph. But the impact of the first two was such that the batter played it early and almost gave a catch to point. Third dot.

Given what had happened in the first innings, this was supposed to be a flat pitch. But there was no time to breathe for Iyer, and he was pushed back, the perfect setup for a 132 kmph in-swinging fourth ball that took the inside edge off his drive to the right of the wicketkeeper, who lept and grabbed one of the catches of the season.

The wicketkeeper was Quinton de Kock but the bowler wasn't Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lockie Ferguson or any overseas pacer or even any of the emerging Indian right-arm quicks. He was a left-hand pacer from Uttar Pradesh with a killer instinct, height, pace, accuracy, swing, seam movement and variations. His name was Mohsin Khan.

Mohsin showcased that last skill abundantly in the rest of the match. In his second over, he got Iyer's partner Abhishek Tomar out off a slower one, a rarity in the powerplay.

His next over was the 13th of the match, by when the Knight Riders had rebuilt to 125-3. The previous three overs had gone for 20, 16 and 12 runs. But Mohsin came in and conceded just two runs.

When he was put in to finish his quota in the 17th over, Knight Riders were at 144-5, and a red-hot-form Andre Russell was out in the middle. Mohsin straightaway bowled a wide cutter, slow enough not to let the West Indian get much power behind it. Russell was out caught and the Knight Riders fell inches away from victory.

With an economy rate of five, Mohsin's name stood out on the scorecard - a scorecard where the other bowlers' economy rates read 8.50, 11.20, 11.50, 11.50 and 15.

For those who know him and have been following him from the start, that would have been no surprise. After all, for them, standing out is what he's always done.

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Badruddin Siddiqui, Mohsin's first coach, attested:

"One thing was great in him right from the start — he never said no to bowling in the nets. If you tell him you have to bowl for two hours, then he will. It won’t be like he’ll bowl for 10-15 minutes. He never said no. That’s what we see in fast-bowlers: the stamina [because it defines] whether he’ll be alright in the future, whether he can do well as a fast-bowler or not."

Mohsin's cricketing journey started at the age of 13. The younger of his two elder brothers, Imraan Khan, took him to Siddiqui's coaching in Moradabad, a small town 350 kilometers away from Lucknow, where the Khans lived for a few years.

Siddiqui met the Khans through Imraan and knew that Mohsin, then short and slight, was likely to get at least six feet tall. Adding to that were a natural high-arm bowling action and raw pace, which made Siddiqui see him as an exciting project.

There was one fundamental difference to sort out between the coach and the apprentice, though, as Mohsin just wanted to bat! Bowling didn't entertain the easy-going kid's interest much.

Siddiqui had a tough conversation lined up. He recalled:

"I knew his batting wasn’t of that good a standard and his bowling skills were much better. So I told him, do what you do in batting, scoring 30 or 40 runs is good for all-rounders but for you, our main focus would be on bowling.
"We didn’t have a lot of left-handed bowlers at the time either. I talked to him about it and he understood. [He said:] “Sir, I’ll do as you wish”. He did feel a bit weird at the start but once he started having fun bowling and got chances in matches as a bowler, he was fine."

Seeing his talent, Siddiqui fast-tracked Mohsin to the state Under-16 trials. Mohsin shone immediately, taking 27 wickets across four trial matches, which earned him a call-up from the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru in 2014.

A NCA call-up is an official stamp that you are under the radar of India 'A' and Under-19 coaches. It's the decisive stage in any young Indian cricketer's career. For Mohsin and his family, however, a major shoulder injury made it a year-long nightmare.

Mohsin's father, Multan Khan, a former state-level cricketer himself and currently a retired UP police sub-inspector, told Sportskeeda:

"When he went to Banglore to join NCA, he picked up the injury somehow. Then we got his shoulder surgery done. Automatically there was this gap of one to two years... It was a difficult time. Not easy to get surgeries done."

Siddiqui believes his family's support was pivotal in his recovery, commenting:

"Obviously he got very disturbed. Some people told him that this [injury] is untreatable and whatnot. But I told him there’s nothing like that and nowadays it’s not like you can’t recover from injuries and that at this age especially, you can recover easily.
"[I told him] you just put in the work and we’ll see. He was very worried because, in those one-and-a-half years, he was completely cut off from cricket. So it’s obviously difficult for any player. But we got him through it easily. His family supported him a lot, his brother and me too, so he came through."

The comeback was as proficient as the ordeal that preceded it was debilitating. Mohsin's ability to plunder wickets with pace and bounce got him to the state Under-19 team.

Consistent performances there earned him his maiden T20 match for Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the 2017-18 Zonal T20 League. Mohsin featured in four of UP's five matches and, although he didn't put up any eye-catching figures - four wickets in a combined 14 overs for 101 runs - the best scouts in the IPL took note.

Within days of the tournament was the IPL 2018 auction, and now five-time champions Mumbai Indians (MI) picked him for the base price of ₹20 lakh. However, as previously seen in Mohsin's story, a new career jump has never come easy.

Mohsin warmed the bench in Rohit Sharma's team for three years before being signed by them for the ₹20 lakh base price again in 2020. This, despite him being UP's top wicket-taker twice in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy - in 2017-18 and 2020-21 - and bowling with the best average and economy rate for the state in 2019-20.

It was but a difficult time, but Siddiqui knew the importance of getting through it. He said:

"Do you know how to harden some things, you have to put them in the furnace?"

After all, the coach had seen another of his pupils, Mohammad Shami, go through something similar at the Knight Riders during 2011-13 before moving to Delhi Daredevils (now Delhi Capitals) in 2014. Like Shami did by picking the brains of Wasim Akram in Kolkata, Mohsin had to find motivation in being a substitute.

He said:

"He (Shami) also used to be very worried. I used to tell him there are good coaches and players around you there, you’ll only get to learn. That’s what I told him [Mohsin] as well that there’s Shane Bond and [Lasith] Malinga there who are big international players and coaches; just spend time with them, and your chance will come when it’ll come.
"It definitely hurts a bit if you don’t get to play for two years, but it’s all about how you can rise up and recover from it. One becomes a big bowler or player only if one can come out of such situations quickly."

Mohsin also looks back fondly at that time, remembering lessons he took from Jasprit Bumrah and the team's then bowling consultant and now director Zaheer Khan. In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Mohsin said:

"The time with Mumbai Indians was something I would always cherish because I got such good guidance and learned a lot from the senior players and management of the team at a young age. I always looked up to Bumrah Bhai and Zaheer Bhai because they are one of the best bowlers that Indian cricket has produced.
"Both have played a huge role in my improvement, and I will always be thankful to them about it. They always helped and guided me a lot about pace, yorkers, and slower bouncers. Also, I learned a lot from them about off-the-field habits because that matters in player improvement."

Shami's connection with Mohsin didn't end with a difficult start to the latter's IPL career. Shami helped his junior to get out of the rut via special lessons on reverse swing and seam position during the pandemic-inflicted lockdown in 2020-21. Siddiqui, the organizer of the camp, said:

"Everyone knows Mohammed Shami’s a world-class bowler and he also liked working hard alongside a hardworking kid. He (Mohsin) learned a lot from him. He has worked on his fitness and developed that desi fitness where there’s less focus on the gym and more on running on ploughed land. These things become easier together."

In previous interviews, Siddiqui had talked about how Shami thought Mohsin was a better fast-bowler (and batter) than him. But Mohsin is keeping his feet grounded.

"He shared tips about bowling, his experiences, and struggles, which motivated me," he said. "I think that it’s a huge praise that Shami Bhai feels I will be better than him, but I believe that I still have a long way to go, and I have to keep working hard to achieve what Shami Bhai has achieved in his career."

The tips certainly helped as Mohsin, for the third time, was picked for the base price of ₹20 lakh in the IPL 2022 auction - but this time by a different team, the Lucknow Super Giants (LPSG). Within months of running on plowed lands with Shami, Mohsin was running in to bowl at the lush Wankhede Stadium against his mentor's Gujarat Titans (GT).

A start to forget, a campaign to remember

Not many predicted Mohsin's debut to come as early as his team's first match of the tournament. But Siddiqui knew that Vijay Dhaiya, the Super Giants' assistant coach and UP state team's head coach, was aware of his form and would give him the chance.

It wasn't the best of starts, though. Mohsin bowled two wicketless overs for 18 runs. The youngster couldn't get his lengths right, often erring in his lines while trying to swing the new ball. He looked jittery and wasn't trusted to bowl after the 10th over by the captain, KL Rahul, either.

He was dropped for the next match.

"It is difficult because when you get your first chance as a young bowler and unfortunately things don’t go according to plan, then the feeling is unpleasant that I couldn’t justify my selection," Mohsin said.
"However, it pushes me to give my best because that’s what matters in order to make it to the playing 11 of the IPL with so much quality competition all around knocking on the door," he added.

A Siddiqui pep-talk was inevitable. The coach recalled:

"I talked to him after the first match and that’s what I told him: 'You didn’t seem confident at all. It didn’t look like you were playing in a match like this at all. Whatever you are doing, do it with confidence and forget everything else.'"

Mohsin's next chance came as an injury replacement for Avesh Khan, the Super Giants' best pacer, almost a month after his debut. The match was against his former side, the Mumbai Indians. Mohsin's first over was again loose and went for 11 runs.

In his second over, though, Mohsin found his length. He kept the third ball slightly short and on the stumps, letting his height and action make it rise on Dewald Brevis, whose attempted upper-cut went down third man's throat.

The first wicket changed the trajectory of Mohsin's campaign. Suddenly, he was no longer erratic. Like a machine, he stuck to this wicket-taking length as his stock for the rest of the tournament. Everything else became a variation.

In the next two matches versus Punjab Kings (PBKS) and Delhi Capitals (DC), he picked up seven wickets, four of them via stock length. The other three were among the season's best performers - Liam Livingstone, David Warner and Rishabh Pant.

Both Livingstone and Warner failed to pick Mohsin's off-cutters. Livingstone's was in the middle overs, but Warner fell for it in the powerplay. For players of their caliber, experience and, most importantly, form, that was a tad surprising.

Mohsin said he didn't do anything special to make it difficult, and that the trick lay in timing. He explained:

"If the batsman is ready for a slower ball, then it will end up in the stands most of the time. So, I always try to bowl at my regular speed and bring variations in the middle to surprise the batsman. It works most of the time because it is always difficult to hit a slower ball for a long distance when you are not expecting it."

Pant's wicket was as good a set-up as ever seen in the IPL. Remember, this was a batter who had thwarted set-up after set-up in Test cricket. And unlike his recent returns in T20Is, Pant was in superb form in IPL 2022.

Here he was, with the first three balls of the over being bowled on length and wide outside the off-stump. The southpaw tried to hit boundaries but was neither given the line nor the pace to do so. He changed the strike and returned only for the last ball of the over.

Anticipating another wide delivery, the left-hander kept his body open to hit it on the off-side. But Mohsin had other plans. He bowled it straight and full at 145 clicks, slipping it through Pant's twisting blade to castle the stumps emphatically.

Recalling the dismissal, Mohsin said:

"The plan was to keep bowling back-of-a-length balls, and once he is ready for a short-pitch ball. I bowled a fast high-pitched delivery and got his wicket. That was a massive wicket for me as it turned the game in our favor."

Mohsin's figures in the next two games read 1/6 in three overs and 1/18 in four. From being the Super Giants' strike bowler, he had temporarily become unplayable.

Swinging the ball at the start, beating both edges, cramping top-order batters with pace and bounce, surprising them with slower ones and not giving anything to sloggers - Mohsin showed all of it and more, that too on flat wickets where other bowlers kept being costly. It was a rare display, one that had years of effort brewing behind it.

Explaining the process, Siddiqui said:

"Cricket has got very tough here (in UP). Wickets everywhere have become batter friendly. You’ll get batting wickets even in local cricket so you have to do something or the other to prevent getting hit. You would have rarely seen a bowler bowling slower ones in the powerplay. All international cricketers bowl it with the old ball but rarely with the new ball but he started it with the new ball itself.
"So… in T20s, the main thing isn’t to focus on wickets but to avoid getting hit. When you do that, wickets will come automatically. My advice to him always used to be that you have to give away as few runs as possible; you don’t let him (the batter) freely, he’ll try to do something extra and if you have bowled two good overs, you’ll definitely get your chance [to get him out]."

Mohsin ended the season with a 0/43 display against the Rajasthan Royals (RR), 0/43, the aforementioned match-winning outing against the Knight Riders, 3/20, and a 1/25 against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in a losing cause.

Mohsin's first recorded average in the IPL was 45. By the end of the season, he had brought it down to 14.07. Similarly, he went for nine runs to the over on debut, but after the match against the Royal Challengers, his economy rate read 5.97 - the second-best after only Sunil Narine's 5.57.

His economy rate in the powerplay, 5.25, was the best in the league. In death overs, he was the fifth most economical, 8.62, among bowlers who had bowled at least eight overs in that phase.

Skill-wise, he became a bowler that his captain not only trusted, but was "scared" of facing. Mohsin understood the value of the praise. He told Sportskeeda:

"I always prefer to give my best, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m in the nets or on the field. If I have the ball in hand, my main aim is always to trouble the player and pick his wicket... Something like this coming from Rahul bhai is very motivating because it just means I’m moving in the right direction."

The competition in Indian cricket is such that despite being one of the finds of the tournament, Mohsin has been far from a national call-up. Many believe that the selectors want to test the second-season theory (that a brilliant year is usually followed by a poor one as the opposition gets to know the player) with him first.

Even with the small sample size, Mohsin has shown he can match the skills of his counterparts: Arshdeep Singh's guile, Umran Malik's pace, Avesh Khan's bounce and accuracy, and Harshal Patel's middle-overs prowess. All he needs now is experience.

Mohsin Khan could be the difference-maker for India

There's one skill, though, where Mohsin has been one step ahead of his peers - batting. Siddiqui made him switch wood for leather but Mohsin never forgot his love for batting. He often finds time to have six-hitting competitions with his teammates.

Siddiqui himself accepts now that Mohsin has what it takes to be an all-rounder.

"I have always considered him a 20-30-run batter," he said. "He can make runs in every situation. If you want someone to bat defensively and save their wicket, he can do that and if you want someone to play the strokes and go for runs, he can do that as well. With such players, there are always chances for making them all-rounders. If a bowler is giving you 30 runs, there’s nothing better than that."

Mohsin added:

"Bowling has always been my main focus, but I know how to bat also, which I feel is an added advantage. As competition is increasing every day and if you can help your team in multiple ways, then it will always be more beneficial for you and the team."

If not in Australia for the T20 World Cup later this year, Mohsin could be in line, at least as a reserve bowler, for the 2023 T20 World Cup in India. Many might have forgotten his IPL performances by now, but Mohsin is making sure he works hard enough to not be set aside as a one-season wonder.

He said:

"I always dreamt about playing for the Indian cricket team as a kid... I’m working quite hard to make it come true... Nothing can beat the feeling of representing your nation, and that too among such tough competition in our country.
"Whenever I play a match, I think about picking as many wickets as possible and helping my team because that would bring me closer to my India debut, and that day my parents and my dream would come true."

The benchmark for him is quite clear too. Siddiqui said:

"The most important thing for a fast bowler is fitness. And on fitness, there’s no competition for Shami. Touch wood, there’s no bowler fitter than Shami currently. I don’t think Mohsin is that fit. Shami’s fitter even at this age. He didn’t use to work a lot on his fitness. But now since he has connected with Shami, Mohsin has started to work a lot on his fitness."

Mohsin had said in a post-match IPL interview that by playing in the tournament, he had fulfilled one of his parents' dreams. We can only imagine what it would mean to them if he reaches the highest level.

Multan Khan remarked:

"...It's my last dream he wears India's jersey and plays for India. It's every father's dream and mine is the same as well that my kid wears India's jersey in front of me. That's everything for me."

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Edited by Samya Majumdar