When Mohammad Siraj was picked up by Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) for ₹2.60 crore in the 2017 Indian Premier League (IPL) auction, the internet was flooded with articles depicting the pacer’s rags to riches journey.
An auto-rickshaw driver’s son becoming an overnight millionaire was the kind of story that captured the whole country’s imagination. Needless to say, the Hyderabadi pacer has now established himself as an automatic choice in India’s Test team, and is striving relentlessly to overcome his white-ball shortcomings.
Siraj’s story is quite similar to that of another Hyderabad-born cricketer, Shaik Rasheed. Earmarked as Team India’s “future no. 3” by former chief selector MSK Prasad, Rasheed was the vice-captain of the Indian team that clinched a record fifth U-19 World Cup title in the West Indies earlier this year.
Rasheed’s consecutive half-centuries against Australia U-19 (94) in the semi-final and England U-19 (50) in the final earned him fame, but the road wasn’t so smooth after all. The 17-year-old contracted COVID-19 after India’s first league match against South Africa U-19 and needed a big score to prove his mettle post his recovery. Not only did he shine on the world stage, but his calming presence in India’s middle order testified to his ability to deal with big match pressure.
Like Siraj, Rasheed has had humble beginnings. He grew up battling financial hardship as his father, Shaik Balishavali, lost jobs and frequently relocated cities. Driven to the extremes, they had to travel almost 50 kilometers on a scooter every day from their home in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur to the ACA academy where Rasheed used to train.
These travails continued until academy coach J Krishna Rao, who was fascinated by Rasheed’s technique, convinced his father to let him stay at the academy. The right-hander realized at a tender age that only cricket could rescue his family from troubled times, so he put his heart and soul into honing his skills. His father, meanwhile, went to great lengths and made many sacrifices to keep Rasheed’s cricket ambitions burning.
The second installment of the interview carries his reflections on India’s victorious U-19 World Cup campaign, his thoughts about his competition with India U-19 captain Yash Dhull, his batting resemblance with New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson, and more. Here are the excerpts.
Q: How have you been dealing with all the media attention after the U-19 World Cup?
Rasheed: After the World Cup, I specifically went up to our mentor VVS [Laxman] sir and asked him how to deal with the media attention. He helped me, and now I've come to terms with it (smiles sheepishly).
Q: How are you keeping yourself fit now?
Rasheed: I've always kept things in control when it comes to fitness. I follow the diet very strictly. I do my workouts. You have to be on top of your fitness if you want to represent your country for a long time. That's what I'm striving to do.
Q: The Indian U-19 team was labeled 'underdogs' despite winning the Asia Cup in December last year. How satisfying was it to lift the World Cup undefeated and despite the COVID-19 outbreak in the camp?
Rasheed: We had a very tough outing in the tri-series. When we went to the Asia Cup, our aim was just to do well in that tournament. We weren't thinking of the U-19 World Cup or beyond. We lost to Pakistan, and that's where the tables turned. After the loss, we were determined to stage a fightback. Everyone was motivated. Everyone was hungry. We even had a team meeting, which lasted two to three hours. The main agenda of the meeting was how we could put the loss behind us and fight back. The rest is history, as they say!
Talking about the World Cup, it was a roller-coaster ride! Team management informed us that a few of us had tested positive. Obviously, we were all very disappointed. I went to my room. I was dejected. I thought I won't play anymore in the tournament. Thankfully, I recovered quickly. We fought together and stuck together as a team. Lifting the trophy was a surreal moment. I will never forget that evening. It was a special moment for all of us. Most importantly, it was the first of many more steps to be conquered.
Q: Kindly recount your 94 in the semi-final against Australia U-19. How important was the knock for your own confidence?
Rasheed: After we lost two quick wickets , Yash and I decided to play the full 50 overs. We even got a message from the team management during the drinks break that we should play as many overs as possible. We planned to keep certain equations in mind. We had a target for the next 20 overs. They became lazy after 20 overs, and we pounced on the opportunity. It was a special partnership with Yash. That's one such partnership I would treasure for the rest of my life.
Q: You're a classical batter who loves playing in the V and with a straight bat. Who's your batting idol?
Rasheed: Sachin Tendulkar! I've always admired his batting. The cover drives, the square cuts, the straight drives, the pulls, the uppercuts - when he used to bat in full flow, it was just a sight to behold.
Q: You’re adept at playing the sweep, a shot Indian batters traditionally avoid trying out. How important is it for a batter of your generation to play shots all around the ground, especially the sweep?
Rasheed: My mantra is simple - “Certain situations demand certain shots”. I think it's important for a player to assess the pitch and the bowler, and then execute the shots depending on that.
Q: I've heard some experts compare your batting style with that of Kane Williamson. Your thoughts...
Rasheed: It’s an honor to even hear that! Many have told me that my elbow position while playing a few shots resembles Kane Williamson. I enjoy watching him. Our prototype of batting is also similar - from anchoring initially to accelerating towards the end of an innings.
Q: Many former cricketers have said that Yash Dhull and you are going to be India's future batting stars. Do you enjoy your competition with him?
Rasheed: As we all know, there is cut-throat competition for cricket in India. I don't pay much heed to the competition. Ultimately, I just focus on scoring heaps of runs in every domestic tournament I play - be it the Ranji Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy, or Col. CK Nayudu Trophy. The results will follow eventually.
Q: Your father has worked very hard to make you a professional cricketer. One gift that you dream of buying him once you prosper more in your career?
Rasheed: My father has been my pillar of support ever since I started playing cricket. He has made many sacrifices for me. I owe everything to him. That one gift I dream of buying him would be a house!