“Koi accha ladka hai kya?”
In November 2019, VVS Laxman rang Milap Mewada, the Jammu and Kashmir coach, to ask if he knew of any good young players Sunrisers Hyderabad could shortlist for trials ahead of the IPL auction that December. Sunrisers’ requirement was specific: they were looking for an Indian finisher.
“I said, there’s one – Abdul Samad,” Mewada remembers saying.
Laxman and Mewada go back a long way. They were India Under-19 team-mates in 1993-94. A few years ago, Mewada also coached at Laxman’s academy in Hyderabad.
Mewada’s endorsement, and a strong one from Irfan Pathan, J&K’s mentor, played a part in Samad being signed for Rs 20 lakh (about US$28,300 then), which made him only the fourth cricketer from J&K – after Parvez Rasool, Manzoor Dar and Rasikh Salam – to earn an IPL contract.
“I always wanted to play cricket,” Samad says with a smile when I meet him during J&K’s Ranji Trophy quarter-final against Karnataka in Jammu in February. “But even five years ago, if someone had told me I would be playing with big players like David Warner, Kane Williamson and Manish Pandey, I would have laughed. Now I could really be playing with them.
“People keep asking me, ‘How does it feel to be in IPL?’ I tell them, ‘Wait, wait. I’m not there yet. I will experience it and tell you. Until then, I can only dream, like you all.'”
That Samad has come so close to living his dream is a tale in itself.
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Pathan and Mewada first spotted him as a 16-year-old in 2018, at a trial in Jammu. His driving on the up against fast bowlers from 18 yards had Pathan digging up Samad’s scores in districts cricket.
It took some work to get the six-hitting youngster to learn how to put a price on his wicket. “He was effortlessly hitting the ball,” Pathan says. “But when I looked through his numbers, he didn’t have one 50-plus score. I took him aside and told him he would be put in the probables, but he needed to work on preserving his wicket. It’s not about six-hitting.
“When he put his head down and started batting, he was taken aback at how easily he could score runs. Boss, it’s simple. I had to tell him, ‘You bat 25 balls and easily you will be 40-45 not out.’ Once he saw for himself, he started to think: why didn’t I do it earlier? I knew we had won half the battle there.”
It’s a day before the Ranji quarter-final. J&K are the underdogs against fancied Karnataka. The hosts’ training session is coming to an end, but Samad takes guard again. He is enjoying range-hitting against the enthusiastic net bowlers. The real net session is over, so there is no pressure to “put his head down”.
Irfan Pathan and Milap Mewada (right) have had crucial roles in Abdul Samad’s development as a player ESPNcricinfo Ltd
“This is typical Samad,” laughs Mewada. “If you don’t stop, he’ll want to keep batting. He loves big-hitting – the sixes give him a thrill.
“Now he’s actually a little better. Two years ago, we had to tell him sixes will only get him twenties and thirties. ‘Focus on the big scores, you have a superb technique.’
“He has very good game sense – it has always been the case. For us, it was just a case of pointing out his mistakes and helping him iron out his thought process. The moment he realised his game is more than just about six-hitting, he became a thinking cricketer. I feel in the years to come, he will be an excellent captain for J&K.”
Pathan has his eyes on Samad. “Watch now, watch,” he tells me with a smile. “Just look at this young kid.”
The first ball is whacked outside the boundary. Six.
“Uff, that power, man. Baap re,” Pathan says.
Another big hit. “Watch out, watch out!” Pathan yelps at the groundsmen who are preparing the strip for the quarter-final.
“It’s a bit like Yusuf [Pathan]bhai’s hitting in his prime. Clean and muscular.”
Yusuf himself had a taste of that hitting in Vadodara last year, when Samad made a half-century during a pre-season warm-up, with seven sixes, to give J&K an improbable victory.
Yusuf, the opposition captain at the time, asked his brother about the “bachcha.” Little did he know then that the bachcha would be a regular visitor to the Pathan household in the months to come. The brothers have taken a special interest in Samad. The sentiment they share, Irfan says, is: “Ladka lamba khelega” [He will play for a long time].
“When he put his head down and started batting, he was taken aback at how easily he could score runs. Once he saw for himself, he started to think: why didn’t I do it earlier?”
In Jammu, everyone seems to share that notion. If you happen to ask for Samad in Kachchi Chawni in the old heritage area of Jammu cantonment, people will give you precise directions to his home. From the grocery store owner to the newspaper vendor, street hawker to auto-rickshaw driver, they have all seen reporters, photojournalists, IPL TV production crews, team officials, and Irfan Pathan make regular visits to the area.
All these people will also tell you about his love for cricket, especially neighbourhood games. “He keeps playing gully cricket with his friends in the colony when not training or playing matches,” his father, Mohammad Farooq, says.
“Typical tennis-ball rules,” Samad says. “One-tip, one-hand. If you hit behind the wicket, no runs. No lbws. if you hit it into a house, you’re out.
“I love playing all the time. I prefer it to being indoors and playing video games or spending time on social media. If I’m indoors, I’m mostly watching videos of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli or David Warner. Occasionally I watch movies.”
Samad is nearly 5’11”. He is muscular and his handshake is crushing. Little surprise his sixes are so powerful.
His family is middle-class. Farooq is a physical-education instructor with a government school in Jammu, and Samad’s mother is a home-maker. His older brother Tayyab, once a cricketer himself, is currently pursuing a master’s in physical education from the University of Nagpur.
Farooq has tried to see that his younger son has not had to compromise in his pursuit of cricket. “There were times when I would face a time crunch,” he says. “I had to be in school from 8am to 4pm on weekdays, so I couldn’t take him twice for training. I purchased a two-wheeler on loan and gave the responsibility to my elder son. We knew he had talent, so whatever I could do, I’ve done.”
The excitement around him intensified as he kept hitting big runs during the course of his breakout 2019-20 Ranji Trophy season. He would eventually finish with three whirlwind centuries and two half-centuries. In all, he made 592 runs, but the number that perhaps stands out more is the 36 sixes he hit – the most by anyone in the season. These exploits coincided with J&K reaching the quarter-finals for only the second time.
Samad (centre) at training with J&K team-mates ESPNcricinfo Ltd
“Against spin, you could see he always tried to dominate,” says Ishank Jaggi, the veteran Jharkhand batsman, who watched Samad make a blistering 75-ball 128 on a turning Ranchi track against Shahbaz Nadeem, a left-arm spinner with over 400 first-class wickets.
J&K were in a precarious position at 149 for 4, trailing Jharkhand by 110, when Samad walked in. For the next three hours they watched him hit ten fours and 11 sixes, single-handedly turning the game around with “good, clean hitting”, as Jaggi describes it.
A couple of months earlier Samad smashed four sixes off Piyush Chawla in a 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy game in Jaipur, much to the astonishment of IPL talent scouts, many of whom later asked for more videos from the J&K analysts. The Rajasthan Royals, who play their home games in Jaipur, were one of the teams Samad trialled with.
“Sometimes there is hype around many players, but being a coach at the ground level, you have a sense if that hype is worth it or not,” Mewada says. “With Samad, you could say it definitely was worth it.”
Hyderabad, November 2019. Samad has been called in to trial in a chase for Sunrisers. With his team needing 80 off seven overs, he makes 48, and remembers smashing five sixes in “about 16-17” balls to help his side win along with Kerala’s Vishnu Vinod. The knock proves to be a turning point.
“Sometimes there is hype around many players, but being a coach at the ground level, you have a sense if that hype is worth it or not. With Samad, you could say it definitely was worth it”
Milap Mewada, Samad’s coach
“After that, Trevor Bayliss [Sunrisers’ head coach] came and told me, ‘Well played,” he remembers. “Before that also, I had trialled with two franchises. So I was hoping somewhere, someone would pick me.”
On the day of the auction, December 19, Samad played an innings in the Ranji Trophy that he says is his favourite. He made 78 on a green Pune pitch and J&K steamrolled hosts Maharashtra. Samad’s knock helped arrest a batting collapse and build a significant lead. The victory would help J&K open up an advantage in Group C and remain in the hunt for a quarter-final berth.
“That knock gave me the belief that I can play and score runs by playing proper shots even on tough wickets,” Samad says. “Earlier I used to only attack my way on surfaces where the ball used to be doing things. But here I applied myself and I could see how much time I had.”
How was the innings different from the others he had played till then in the season?
“I’m not sure,” he says, “but from my point of view, that is my best innings, even though I made three centuries in the season. There was lateral movement, bounce. Normally on such wickets, as a batsman, your first instinct is to attack and try and get as many runs as possible before one good ball gets you. But that day I thought I should occupy the crease and the runs will come.
“Their fast bowlers made life tough for us. Normally, if you’re bowled out for 100-odd [like Maharashtra were] in the second innings, the bowlers lack energy. But they kept coming at us, and had I got out, we could have been in trouble. To get out of that situation was very satisfying.”
There was more joy that evening as he sat down with his team-mates in the team hotel to follow the auction.
“It just happened too quickly. Someone raised the paddle and then thhak, I was picked just like that, in 20 seconds. Everyone started asking me for a treat. J&K beat Maharashtra, so we made it a double-celebration.”
The Ranji season, however, would end in massive heartbreak, though, with Samad at the centre of it. With 15 runs to make for a lead in the quarter-final against Karnataka, which could have potentially decided the winner of the match and sealed a semi-final berth for J&K, Samad slog-swept and was caught. The last two batsmen lost their wickets without adding to the score.
Samad (right) with coach Irfan Pathan and his father, Mohammad Farooq Abdul Samad
Until then, he had been front and centre on a mission that had as many as 2000 home fans dreaming. They had crammed into the Gandhi Science College ground to cheer their side, and for Samad, who had shown great maturity and class to keep Karnataka on their toes. With his dismissal J&K’s Ranji Trophy dream came crashing down in minutes.
“It felt like a dream – goosebumps,” Samad says. “So many people rooting for you. This is why we play cricket. It was an amazing atmosphere. I keep thinking, ‘Yaar, what if I didn’t play that shot to J Suchith.’
“Normally I’m not someone who will think too much about a day’s play once I am off the field, but that day I just couldn’t sleep. It took me a few days to get over it. We were so near yet so far. I told myself, if I’m going to be in a similar position next season, I will win the Ranji Trophy for my team.”
Irfan Pathan’s and Mewada’s contracts with J&K ended with the 2019-20 domestic season. But they have formed strong bonds with the players and are part of the team’s WhatsApp groups and of the set-up in spirit. Players have been seeking the two out for counsel in these uncertain times.
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For ten days in March, before India went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Samad spent time in Vadodara, training under Mewada and later Pathan, to help him prepare for the IPL.
“Irfan has played for Reliance, and when he requested the ground, they kindly obliged,” Mewada says. “We organised centre-wicket training for Samad, which was hard to get anywhere, especially at an international ground. He used to bat for three hours every day. During those ten days we worked on a couple of shots which he was struggling to play. And at the end of it, he developed it so quickly.
“He is a very quick learner, provided he gets the information at the right time. In Jammu, he may have just been hitting the ball aimlessly. Here we watched him and suggested a few tweaks, like having two options for any kind of delivery.
“Whenever the bowlers bowled short, he used to instinctively pull or hook, even from way outside off. We worked on his upper cut. Similarly, wide yorkers he used to always jam towards the off side. Towards the end of the stint, he was effortlessly hitting it between point and short third.”
Back to the present day, and Samad has little option but to stay indoors. He spends time skipping, doing push-ups, stretching and spot-jogging – basic fitness routines that don’t require equipment. And enjoying home-cooked meals.
“I would have loved to be playing, but I know when everything goes back to normal, there will be enough cricket,” he laughs. “For now I am enjoying home time. I grew up watching IPL, so to be playing in it will always be special. Maybe this break gives me more time to think of that perfect moment. When I will walk out to play and make my debut.”
“Koi accha ladka hai kya?”