On the last ball, with five needed, Shahrukh sent the ball soaring over deep square leg before being engulfed by jubilant teammates.
‘Stay deep in the crease and wait for the yorker. If he misses, you will definitely hit a big one,’ was the Tamil Nadu dugout’s message for Shahrukh Khan with 16 needed from the last over of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy final. On the first two deliveries Shahrukh faced – the third and the fifth of the over — Karnataka left-arm seamer Prateek Jain was more or less on target. But on the last ball, with five needed, he wasn’t and Shahrukh sent it soaring over deep square leg before being engulfed by jubilant teammates.
In January, too, Shahrukh had hit the winning runs for Tamil Nadu in the 2020-21 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy final against Baroda, although that chase was nowhere near as close, completed with two overs to spare. Days later, Punjab Kings would win a bidding war with Royal Challengers Bangalore and Delhi Capitals to buy Shahrukh for Rs 5.25 crore.
The word ‘finisher’ has stuck to him, and why won’t it when he can hit last-ball sixes to win national tournament finals. But during his maiden Indian Premier League stint, Shahrukh had to clarify that he could play the “normal” game too. After all, in the 2019-20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy final – Tamil Nadu and Karnataka seem to make it all the time – he had actually opened the innings.
That same month, December 2019, he had gone for a Rajasthan Royals selection trial but hadn’t made it. “This set of boys wanted to DESPERATELY be part of IPL,” Dinesh Karthik, who led Tamil Nadu in the previous two SMAT finals, wrote as part of a tweet on Monday.
“It was a blessing in disguise for Shahrukh. That is what I had told him then. He went to multiple (IPL) selection trials but was not selected,” Tamil Nadu assistant coach Ramaswamy Prasanna told The Indian Express.
“I always kept telling him that you first win games for Tamil Nadu, and then people will recognise you. There was a time where he was getting runs for Tamil Nadu but was not winning games. He started doing that a couple of years back and ultimately got what he deserved last season [at the IPL auction.]”
Shahrukh went from opener to finisher as a result of a complete role change, and has revelled in it. So much so that Prasanna said that the Tamil Nadu dugout was confident of their chances even when the asking rate was galloping because they had complete faith in Shahrukh.
“He has the skill level to get 50 or 60 in the last four overs. He has been working precisely for this for the past three years,” Prasanna said. “We always tell him that ‘this is your role, you will be playing this situation, so you be match ready.’ And exactly that situation happened this afternoon and he delivered.”
Karthik and Prasanna have had key roles in getting Shahrukh attuned to his role. “We have been practising in such a way that the situational awareness is there for him.”
Prasanna, a former Tamil Nadu batsman, was Shahrukh’s first captain in first-division cricket in Chennai when the latter was around 15. “When I first saw him, he was happy-go-lucky. Now he has come to the realisation that he has everything in him to play at the next level. Even then, he had that flair when he batted in the nets. He would tonk the best of club bowlers. He had the natural ability to hit fast bowlers.
“And he has evolved to play the slow bowlers well too. Now he has evolved to the stage where he believes he can win matches from any situation.”
The Tamil Nadu team management has tried to create pressure situations for Shahrukh in the nets. It is not only about getting a 20-ball 40 or a 15-ball 35. He has been told he has to stay in the middle long enough to win the game for his side.
“Whenever we practise, the role assigned to him is always difficult. More often than not, he gets home in the match simulations. Some might think the assigned target is impossible, but he keeps it simple.
“We try to put pressure on him in match simulations too. We make sure he faces M Ashwin – he can be a bit vulnerable against a leg-spinner. We always give him the best we have. We have Natarajan who is one of the best in the country at the death, we have M Ashwin and R Sai Kishore, two of the best spinners in the shorter formats.
“We also sledge him during match simulations, I personally do that,” Prasanna jokes. “We make sure there are enough people around him to sledge him.”
All the work behind the scenes has helped Shahrukh mature to the extent that he doesn’t get overexcited when he aces tough chases. “He was composed after the final. It was one more win for him. This is the level to which he has developed.”
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