USA's Ali Khan in the fast lane to T20 stardom

Ali Khan bowls Getty Images

On June 3, even as USA's selection panel was focusing on regional trial matches in New York, there were a few who had their eye on the player draft of the Global T20 Canada. The interest stemmed from the rules - each team had to pick at least one Associate player outside the minimum four to be selected from within Canada.

This elicited interest among USA cricket circles, for there was a chance a number of their players would be picked. Of special interest were those who were acquired at the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) draft in March. Ali Khan wasn't one of them, after Guyana Amazon Warriors let him go in part due to persistent fitness issues. But Winnipeg Hawks felt otherwise by making him their ninth-round pick, unusually high for an Associate player.

A number of USA players and officials present at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx were confused at the selection, unsure that it was "the same Ali Khan" who kept getting injured. Was this Ali Khan a domestic cricketer from Pakistan who just happens to share the same name?

Over the next few hours, it was established it was the same Ali Khan, the injury-prone Ali Khan. There may have been doubters, but one man - Pubudu Dassanayake, the USA head coach - always had the belief. "His talent really came through in the Global T20 Canada," he says.

Ali Khan, the 27-year-old fast bowler who resides in Ohio, elicited further interest after his solid campaign with Hawks when he got called up for a CPL gig with Trinbago Knight Riders as a replacement player. As the tournament in the Caribbean reaches its business end, Ali Khan is now in the race to finish as the leading wicket-taker of the season.

"When you get someone that comes in for their first big tournament so to speak, there's always going to be a bit of pressure on them but he's handled it really well and I think he'll get better with the exposure," Trinbago coach Simon Katich, who also serves as batting coach for Kolkata Knight Riders, told ESPNcricinfo. "There's going be a lot of awareness [around Ali Khan] now and it wouldn't surprise me if there's a fair bit of awareness when it comes around next year to the IPL auction.

"Ali is a world-class bowler. [Last year] I stood at slips and watched the way he ran in, the way he bowled ... and I said to my brother, 'This guy is a very talented player." Dwayne Bravo

"If he continues this form throughout the tournament, I'm sure that he's caught the eye of a number of franchises. Because he's got a tough role bowling with the new ball in the Powerplay and then at the back end of the innings. He's got raw ingredients there with pace, with good control, but he's also been clever about how he's bowled. In this format, if you're not clever with how you bowl, you pay the price. He's prepared to do the homework and he trains hard."

Ali Khan has been a model of consistency this CPL season. He has taken a wicket in seven out of eight matches for a total of 13 overall to put him just one behind joint-tournament leaders Andre Russell and Oshane Thomas of Jamaica Tallawahs. His economy rate of 8.09 in 28.4 overs is seventh best among fast bowlers in a list that has Sohail Tanvir, Mohammad Irfan, Wahab Riaz, Obed McCoy, Carlos Brathwaite and Thomas. So what's the secret to this success for someone who featured in just one CPL game in two seasons prior to this one?

Ali Khan simply puts it down to the team environment. "From coach to the owner Shah Rukh Khan to [CEO] Venky [Mysore] sir, the manager, every team-mate has welcomed me," he said. "I feel relaxed there, I feel at home. I'm just happy to be there and the results are coming out good because they make me so comfortable and they made me part of the family since day one."

It also helped that Dwayne Bravo, his captain at Trinbago, was also the leader at Hawks. "It was a great experience there playing with him. He gives me a lot of confidence when I go out there and bowl. I had a good outing in Canada and now I'm continuing that in CPL. Hopefully I can finish it all the way and win the title."

Bravo is one of Ali Khan's biggest supporters within the set-up. The Trinbago captain first saw Ali Khan bowl at a T20 tournament called the US Open, at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Florida. Bravo is among many West Indians who have featured at the annual event involving US club sides, which has a USD 100,000 prize pool. Last year, Bravo was a guest player in Ali Khan's team, and, before long, he was mighty impressed.

"Ali is a world-class bowler to me," Bravo said. "I remember playing last year in the US [Open] tournament. I stood at slips and watched the way he ran in, the way he bowled, the skills that he has especially with the old ball coming back and I said to my brother, 'This guy is a very talented player.'

"It's sad that he's in the US obviously where he doesn't have much exposure. As soon as the opportunity came about to get him in our squad [as Ronsford Beaton's replacement], straightaway I grabbed him. When there was the Canada tournament, I picked him in my team as well. So he's somebody that I will take anywhere. If I have the opportunity, I would love to have him in my team."

Bravo aside, Ali Khan also found a strong endorsement from Chris Lynn, his closest ally during the 2016 CPL season at Amazon Warriors. Lynn could even be seen helping his American mate with some batting tips during a recent Knight Riders training session in Florida. Such support has helped him not just enjoy life when times are good but also get past some bumps in the road earlier this season. Despite taking three wickets against Jamaica Tallawahs in the second match of the season, Ali Khan wound up being the villain for dropping Andre Russell and then seeing him blast an unbeaten century in a record chase.

He wasn't hung up on the drop, though, returning strongly to finish with a three-for in his next outing, against St Kitts & Nevis Patriots. "It definitely hurt me a lot because I dropped him on zero but he played a very good innings after that," Ali Khan said. "After the game, I was a little disappointed, but coach Simon Katich, bowling coach Carl Crowe and DJ Bravo, I spoke to them and they said whatever happened just put it behind you."

Aside from his skillset, which includes being able to bowl consistent yorkers at 145 kph, Katich says Ali Khan's mental toughness in overcoming that incident has stood out. "You can do all the planning you want but if you don't have the skills to back it up then it doesn't matter on game day," Katich said. "He's got the pace, the swing with that new ball and the ability to hit the yorker when he needs to under pressure.

"He's had great learning so far in this tournament. Obviously he's had a couple of tough games where we've had guys like Andre Russell or Kieron Pollard get away from us at the end. But that's all part of his development as a player."

"We have our bowlers meeting the day of the game and one thing that he's done religiously every game is his homework. He's looked at the footage with us the coaches and our analyst and planned really well. One thing that he said recently after one of the games is that he feels he's done well because he's done the work off the field and in his thought process and planning. That doesn't guarantee success but what it does do is it probably means you go in fully prepared mentally."

As the CPL playoffs approach with defending champions Trinbago in pole position, the interest around Ali Khan will continue to grow. Dassanayake believes his significance in franchise leagues can have a ripple effect in USA, much like how it has been in Afghanistan after Rashid Khan's rise. Now, they have a number of other next-gen spinners picked up by T20 franchises in Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, Qais Ahmad and Zahir Khan.

"This tournament is just the start of his career and he can be playing in every premier league in the world now," Dassanayake said. "He's good enough and it's just about performing in every tournament and growing from there. They're playing with top players and when they perform at that level, definitely the same top players playing in the other leagues will recommend them, they'll support them to be in the other leagues.

"Ali is already on that route. That gives a picture of USA cricket to the world, the talent that we have. Definitely we have a good pipeline. We are not short of any talent, it's just about grooming them properly here and if they have an opportunity to play in top leagues I think it'll be fantastic for USA cricket."