MS Dhoni had not batted in a competitive match in over five months when he walked out in the Chennai Super Kings' opening game of this year's IPL, against the Delhi Capitals. The Super Kings had just five overs left and Avesh Khan, the 24-year-old Capitals fast bowler, was wary of placing five fielders in the circle against Dhoni; he wanted mid-on and mid-off on the boundary. His captain, Rishabh Pant, convinced him otherwise. "Even if he hits a six, it's fine with me," Pant said.
Khan says he derived a mountain of confidence from Pant's advice. He accurately pounded in two back-of-a-length deliveries and Dhoni chopped on for a duck when he swung at the second ball, which moved away a little.
In the second over of that game, Khan's first this season, he had trapped Faf du Plessis, among the best Super Kings batters in the last few years, with a skiddy inducker. By the time the IPL was suspended in early May, Khan's list of 14 dismissals included the names of Virat Kohli, Jonny Bairstow, Suryakumar Yadav and Nicholas Pooran, and he was joint second on the wicket-takers' list with Chris Morris, behind Harshal Patel.
With this showing, Khan has vaulted himself into the second rung of India's premier fast bowlers, as reflected in his being picked as one of three standby quicks for the WTC final and the five Tests against England.
Born and brought up in Indore, Khan was spotted at 13 by former India batter Amay Khurasiya at an Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association trial from out of nearly 500 boys. Khan, who played for the Indore Colts Cricket Club then, stood out for Khurasiya because he was "nippy" and had good bounce, two qualities that mark his bowling even now.
Khan's emergence is a result of relentless effort over the last couple of years. He has been part of several India A tours - to New Zealand in 2020, the West Indies in 2019, and at home against the England Lions and South Africa A in 2019. He was also an India net bowler during the 2019 World Cup.
In recent times he has added a higher level of fitness and more specific skill sets to his armoury. When he was with the India Test squad in Chennai during the England series earlier this year, Khan rang his personal dietician and his Madhya Pradesh Ranji Trophy trainer. He weighed 90kg then, and said to them that he wanted to shed some weight before the IPL. They advised him to get to about 85kg.
Khan started immediately, putting in place different diet plans for match days, training days and rest days, and generally becoming more mindful than before of what he was eating during the day. As required, he shed five kilograms over two months. The leaner version of Khan was meaner too, as batters found out in the IPL.
Khan says he had been raring to go for the last couple of tournaments but didn't get chances to play because the Capitals had a pace-heavy bowling attack, with Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Ishant Sharma in the line-up. Khan made sure he would be ready for whenever his turn arrived. Leading up to the 2021 season, he tried to perfect three deliveries - yorkers, slower balls and bouncers.
"You can't bowl the same kind of deliveries again and again in the IPL," he says, "because as bowlers if we are watching videos of batsmen, they are also watching our videos to plan.
"I thought if I practise these [deliveries] every day, my muscles and mind will react and remember them.
"I would also think of match situations. At the start of my run-up, I was clear about which ball to bowl. If my plan was to bowl a yorker, I'd focus only on that while running in, and similarly for a slower one.
About ten days before their IPL opener, the Capitals management informed Khan he would feature in the opening game in the absence of late arrivers Rabada and Nortje, and because Sharma and Umesh Yadav were carrying niggles.
"I told myself, 'This is the time to perform and show my talent.' I knew that the moment I had been preparing for for the last few years had finally arrived, so I didn't want to lose this opportunity. My mindset was to do well in the first game, because that would confirm my spot for the next two games as well."
Khan's game plan was to rely on yorkers in the death overs for the flatter pitches in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and to bowl more slower balls on the sluggish tracks in Chennai. "We used to see the pitches and in Chennai I didn't bowl yorkers also because of the size of the ground. I bowled cutters there," he says.
He followed his 2 for 23 against the Super Kings with the middle-order wickets of Shivam Dube, David Miller and Riyan Parag of the Rajasthan Royals in a 3 for 32 in Mumbai. In his first game in Chennai, he took 2 for 15 in two overs against the Mumbai Indians. The game after that, he made decisive breakthroughs as the Capitals bounced back defending 159 against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, with the wickets of Jonny Bairstow, Virat Singh and Vijay Shankar.
In his three games in Ahmedabad, he took a wicket each, keeping things relatively tight. "The wickets were flatter so yorker was the main option because batsmen were connecting with the slower ones more easily," he says.
According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, Khan bowled 15 yorkers this IPL for just 11 runs, and 13 of those came in the death overs.
Even after Rabada came into the XI to lead the Capitals' attack, the management kept Khan on, given the value he was offering. They used him in all three phases of the game, and at times threw him in at the deep end - in the last overs of the powerplay and of the innings. Khan, with hours of meticulous preparation behind him, shone like never before.
In the powerplay, he was among the six most economical bowlers in the tournament, conceding only 6.50 per over. In the middle overs he was the leading wicket-taker among fast bowlers, with seven dismissals and an economy rate of 7.33. In the death overs, the most brutal phase for bowlers, his economy rate of 9.10 was again among the top six.
No wonder Khan made an impression on the likes of Ian Bishop.
One of the biggest highlights for Khan this season was his temperament and his ability to hold his own against the top batters. It was a stark change from his first IPL, for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2017.
"In my first IPL I was very raw," he says. "I didn't have much idea about the IPL. Then Delhi picked me up in the mega auction [in 2018]. I played six games that year and I understood properly where I had to improve.
"When I trained during the IPL, I used to focus on my role and part. Like sometimes in an entire practice session I would bowl only yorkers or slower ones, or sometimes bowl only with the new ball. And then consult the coaches about where I could improve.
"This time they gave me a chance from the first game and I was completely ready for it, physically and mentally. I knew what to do and what not to do on what kind of pitches, because while watching [from the sidelines] I used to visualise how I would have to bowl in certain situations with what kinds of fields for which kind of batsman."
This IPL, Khan also reaped the rewards of his friendship with Pant, who he knew from their India Under-19 days dating back to 2015. They spent countless hours together that year, and Pant led that side a few times in the lead-up to the U-19 World Cup in 2016.
"Rishabh told me a day before the first game, 'Enjoy karna, mast apna ball daalna [Just enjoy yourself and bowl the way you usually do], don't worry about anything, and give your 100%,'" Khan says. "If your captain is also your friend, that gives you extra motivation.
"He is really fearless, and I enjoy playing with him. He plays with aggression and attitude, and he always thinks about the team. Like, he sent Lalit Yadav to bat above him in the match against Mumbai Indians. Lalit had played only two-three IPL games and the match situation was critical but Rishabh believed in him and asked him to show his talent. As a captain he backs his players and when they perform, he also enjoys it."
The pandemic has complicated a lot of things in cricket around the world, but Khan has tried to stay ahead of the curve. There are times when players have to be in hard quarantine for up to six days before a series, and once out of the hotel room, they need to be match-ready in a few days. That's how it was for Khan when he played for Madhya Pradesh in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, India's domestic T20 competition, at the start of the year. Knowing he wouldn't be able to train in quarantine, he made up in advance.
"When I knew six days would go in quarantine, I had already trained and loaded my body for the five-six days leading up to that," he says. "So quarantine was not really a problem. Nowadays in the eight-ten days before [a quarantine period] I focus on my body in terms of strength and conditioning."
Khan made his Ranji Trophy debut for Madhya Pradesh a week before he turned 18 in 2014. That season he played five games but an ankle injury kept him off the field for the most part. In the 2017-18 season, he played just three matches. In 2018-19 he roared back with 35 victims from seven games, at an astonishing average of 16.37.
He kicked off the 2019-20 season with 11 wickets at 19.81 in three games for the victorious India Red side in the Duleep Trophy, and then took 28 from five Ranji Trophy matches at 19.85.
"I like to bowl long spells with the red ball," he says. "Bowling with the red ball is also my strength, and I usually pick wickets in every session and provide breakthroughs.
"I used to chat regularly with Ishant bhai. He told me the biggest challenge with the red ball is when it doesn't swing, you have to bowl consistently in one place. In Chennai and Ahmedabad [during the England Tests this year] he told me about the grip of the ball, how to bowl to what kind of batsman. I'll try to implement these things in England."
Khan has personified hard work like few have in his quest to reach the pinnacle - being part of India's Test squad. If India's last series in Australia, with its high turnover of participants, is anything to go by and he makes his Test debut in the UK, it won't be too much of a stretch to say that he is ready to live up to his billing.
Stats inputs from Sampath Bandarupalli