Rasikh Salam Dar had almost given up on cricket after he was dropped during trials in 2017 for the state’s under-19 team by selectors of the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association.
For months, Rasikh stayed off the ground and huddled in his room, momentarily believing that he didn’t have it in him to play until persuasion by his brother and cousins brought him back to the field.
Little more than a year later, Rasikh, who just turned 18, has become Kashmir’s newest cricketing sensation and changed the way his home district of Kulgam, in the Valley’s troubled south, looks at sports.
On the evening of March 24, wearing the Mumbai Indians (MI) uniform, Rasikh paced up the twenty-two yards in Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, bowling to Delhi Capitals’ Shikhar Dhawan in the star-studded Indian Premier League. The youngster, however, overstepped on the first ball of his first match.
It wasn’t, perhaps, the sort of debut that Rasikh had in mind but there still was jubilation hundreds of kilometres away from the stadium in Rasikh’s village even though a power cut had interrupted locals keenly watching the match. This was the furthest from home that Rasikh had played.
As the villagers saw Rasikh on TV, many eyes were moist. “We were perhaps more excited than him,” said his elder brother, Irfan Salam, at their house in Ashmuji village. “We never thought he would be given the first ball. His dreams have come true.”
His bowling during trials had caught the eye of the state cricket council’s mentor and one-time Indian star pacer Irfan Pathan, who groomed Rasikh further, the brother said, adding that after a good performance in the Vijay Hazare tournament, the youngster played with the seniors in the Ranji tournament.
However, Rasikh was first spotted by MI coaches at the Cooch Behar Trophy last November and they invited him for trials in Mumbai, said Irfan Salam. The following month, Rasikh was picked up for Rs 20 lakh by the Mumbai Indians at the IPL auction. “18th December 2018,” Shameema Akhtar, his mother, remembers.
For the better part of the 18 years, there was nothing on Rasikh’s mind except cricket. “He started playing ever since he started walking, throwing balls at the walls, alone, for hours,” said Shameema. Irfan added: “When it rained he would play inside the house. There is not a single window that he hasn’t broken.”
As he grew a little older, all of 12 and in Class 6, he began playing in the open, at the uneven playground of Ashmuji. Their father, Abdul Salam Dar, a teacher by profession, would always urge Rasikh to focus on studies besides sports, said Irfan. “I don’t want to be an officer, I want to be a sportsman,” Rasikh told their father, his brother recalled.
In the corner of the Ashmuji ground, Rasikh practised with Irfan, and their cousin, Nadeem Dar, who is also the captain of the Rehmat Alam cricket club of which both cousins are members. “He would make us bat while he bowled, for hours,” Nadeem said as he warmed up in the ground, adding that he helped Rasikh work on his slower ball. After months of practice, the cheeky Rasikh told Nadeem that his slower ball was not good, your pickup is weak”.
Rasikh is known for his aggression on the ground, likened to Zaheer Khan by some, but he himself looked up to Pakistani pacer Shoaib Akhtar and Indian skipper Virat Kohli. In the cricket clubs of Kulgam and Anantnag, players are wary of Rasikh for keeping batsmen guessing with pace and slower balls.
Nadeem says he always knew Rasikh would someday reach greater heights. “He laughed when I would tell him he would make it big,” he said. “Earlier people would look down upon us as if we were wasting time playing cricket, but now I lift my kit with pride. Our own boy has made it to the IPL.” Asked if the club had nicknamed Rasikh on similarities or his fondness for any cricketer,
Nadeem said, “Now others in our village will be nicknamed Rasikh.”
Rasikh’s story is that of a cricket-obsessed village boy beating the odds to make it big. From the dusty ground of Ashmuji to rubbing shoulders with the game’s stars, his debut in the IPL has renewed sporting passions in the village and given hope to the many who make do with the village’s common playfield they call a stadium. According to locals, it was reclaimed from encroachers by the efforts of the four-time communist legislator Yusuf Tarigami.
At the school opposite the ground, where Rasikh studied the last two years, a 16-year-old Class 11 student, Faheem Sabzar, said Rasikh’s success had motivated students to pursue their sporting dreams. “Because of Rasikh even our parents now think that if there is talent, it might not go waste,” he said, taking a break from practice. “They always say that we need to study but now they realise sports is important as well.”
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