In the 2019-20 domestic season, Shahrukh Khan was assigned the role of a finisher by Tamil Nadu captain Dinesh Karthik and assistant coach R Prasanna. Shahrukh became the team's designated finisher and Karthik took it upon himself to nurture him in that role.
During the net sessions, he would walk up to Shahrukh, give him a target, a particular bowler, and a number of balls and ask him to chase it down while he stood behind him. There would be countless hours of chat with coach R Prasanna about his game and continued guidance from Karthik.
He was getting better, working on his weaknesses and had mentors to take him to greater heights. Karthik and Prasanna's objective to get a finisher out of him paid dividends, not only helping the Tamil Nadu team but also Shahrukh personally. His Rs 5.25 crore buy by Punjab Kings in the 2021 IPL auction is a testimony to the same. IPL sides look for the right players for a designated role and Shahrukh turned out to be one of those players, a finisher in this case.
To his credit, despite many heartbreaks, and disappointments he carried on. Not to forget, the ICC U-19 World Cup snub in 2014 and then the IPL auction snub last year. But the Tamil Nadu batsman waited, focussed on improvement, and made it happen.
Just scoring runs was not important anymore to get the world to notice him. He had to rise to the occasion at crucial and pressure-cooker situations. And in that regard, the 2021 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy quarter-final would go on to be very important for his career. He walked in to bat with Tamil Nadu still needing 70 odd runs in seven overs and the scorecard reading 68/5. The IPL 2021 auction was around the corner but that was really not on his mind, the target was. The Himachal Pradesh bowlers, like other opponents, targeted the short stuff at him and bowled wide yorkers outside the off stump, which were his weak areas in the last season. But Shahrukh was ready this time.
"I have really worked hard on my overall game in last one and a half year. I have worked on playing the wide yorkers, how to squeeze them through point, worked on hitting the length balls, on which I used to struggle, Shahrukh told Firstpost. "I consistently started doing all those things day in and day out. It would not come in a day or two but come after a period of time. So, I worked hard on wide yorkers and length ball, which I used to miss last year and I think it all paid off at the end where I could get fifty percent of those shots right in the match," said Shahrukh.
He ended up with an unbeaten 40-run blitz, taking his side to the semi-final of the competition. It was sort of a knock that gets the attention of the who's who in IPL.
File image of Tamil Nadu's Shahrukh Khan in action during the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BCCIDomestic
"Definitely, the stage was set. That was a stage when you were down and out. The way I worked hard, that was my chance to go out and play my game. But it (auctions) did not play in my head, you know at that time. We needed 70 odd runs to win off 7 overs and I knew that if I could spend time till the end, we could be on the winning end. Surprisingly for me, we finished with two overs to spare. Yeah, it was very good," Shahrukh recalled.
Shahrukh took up cricket when he was nine. That was when he joined a cricket academy. Before that he would play in the streets with the tennis ball. Soon, his interest developed and he progressed playing all age-group cricket for Tamil Nadu. It was during his Under-16 days that he decided to take cricket seriously and started thinking of it as a career option. That was also the time the Ricky Ponting fan met his life mentor Azhariah Prabhakar.
Prabhakar took special care of him and made sure he never went off track in his career. In Shahrukh's words, Prabhakar did all this 'like a father'.
"I have been training under Azhariah Prabhakar since I was 15. He is like a father figure to me. I can share anything and everything with him. We talk a lot about cricket and life as well. He has really guided me till here. If not for him, I would not have reached here. There were times where I lost focus but he made sure I was on track," said Shahrukh.
And at the Tamil Nadu senior team, he has received the same care from the likes of Prasanna and Karthik.
"Prasanna keeps talking to me day in and day out in practice. He kind of gave me confidence. He likes me as a fearless cricketer and backs me. He really gave me the freedom to go out there and play however I would like to.
DK and I have finished a couple of games for TN and he really guided me very well with insights. I could not have asked for more from him because he had to bat (during those games) and he was more worried for me to bat well and for me to finish the game. That shows the confidence and trust he has in me. The way he wants me to move forward in career."
In 2014, at a very early stage, Shahrukh faced his first real disappointment when despite scoring tons of runs and picking wickets as well, his name did not feature in the squad for the U-19 World Cup. And the wait continued for his Ranji Trophy debut as well. Despite being there in the squad at an early age of 19, he made his debut at 24 but Shahrukh does not see it as a regret.
"I was very disappointed at that time. Had done very well in U19. I had six fifties and 20 wickets as well. I thought I would be there but I missed the bus for I don't know what reason. I was very disappointed for sure. But I knew what was coming. I knew now I had to break into the Ranji Trophy team. I was already there when I was 19. But I was looking forward to making my debut. That did not happen as well. I knew what I had to do to step up. The Ranji Trophy debut however came after five years when I was 24. It was a long wait but worth the wait, I must say," he said.
Despite having made his List A and T20 debuts in 2014, Shahrukh's quest to get better took him to Red Bull Campus Cricket where he played for Hindustan College, Chennai, and ended up as the Man of the tournament. He had taken his side to the final but could not take them to the title win.
"I personally wanted to win the tournament for my team but we, unfortunately, lost it. How I saw it was this would be a chance for me, if I did well there, I would have chance to get picked. RR had called me for a trial after watching me play at Red Bull Campus Cricket. It was a very good experience for me."
Thanks to the good show, Rajasthan Royals invited him to Player Tryouts in Nagpur in December 2019 but he was not picked from there. He did feature in IPL 2020 auctions but even there, he went unsold. His name gathered attention but not for cricketing reasons (his name is spelled the same as Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan). Shahrukh made sure it was not just his name that made him a talking point at IPL auctions but his cricket.
After around 14 months, Punjab Kings co-owner Preity Zinta made a funny remark in the KKR camp," We have got Shahrukh", after picking him up at the auction for Rs 5.25 crore. While it was a witty remark made in relation to KKR, which is co-owned by actor Shah Rukh Khan, the reason to pick Shahrukh was based entirely on numbers and the impact of the cricketer.
While the bidding was on, Shahrukh was hooked to the auction in the team bus travelling from the hotel to the stadium in Indore for practice ahead of the Vijay Hazare Trophy game. He was very relaxed on the morning of the auction but as soon as he saw Prasanna following the bidding war for him, his heart started beating at a rapid pace. His team-mated gathered around the screen, and the bus was soon buzzing with words: "Bhai, irunga bhai, naalu varaikkum irukku bhai!" (wait brother, it (the bid) will go up to 4 crores). His teammates are happy they were wrong as he crossed the 5 crore mark. His phone did not stop ringing. He received 500 calls which irritated him as he was not being able to enjoy the moment. Because of the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy, he has not had time to sit and think about it all so far.
He will soon have a small amount of time to do that and also to think about the challenges that lie ahead.
While IPL auctions are sometimes criticised for players getting more value than what they deserve, Shahrukh, in the upcoming IPL, has the chance to show his real worth.