Devdutt Padikkal held his tentative and futile forward defence pose for an extra second, trying to wrap his head around what had just happened as Gujarat Titans celebrated in the background. Rashid Khan had already wreaked havoc on the sluggish Jaipur surface before the 18-year-old Noor Ahmad arrived, planted a seed of doubt in Padikkal’s mind about which way the ball was going to turn and knocked back the left-hander’s off-stump. Rajasthan Royals were six down in the 12th over, and somewhere in the Titans dugout assistant coach Aashish Kapoor could chuckle with pride.
The former India spinner crossed paths with the Afghanistan youngster in his capacity as the junior selector for India between 2018 and 2021. In November 2019, Noor travelled to the subcontinent for an U19 tour when he was still a month and a half shy of turning 15, and walked away with nine wickets in five youth ODIs. He had several run-ins against India over the next two years, most notably picking four wickets against Yash Dhull’s side in the 2021 U19 Asia Cup.
Kapoor took cognisance of the left-arm wrist spinner and passed on his glowing scouting report to Zaheer Khan and VVS Laxman. But neither Mumbai Indians nor Sunrisers Hyderabad acted on it. When Kapoor got an opportunity to be at the auction table himself with the Gujarat Titans last year, he didn’t let his eye for talent go to waste, even if it needed him to pester Ashish Nehra for it.
“I told [Ashish] Nehra you pick whoever you want, but let me pick one guy, that’s Noor,” Kapoor says. “Not many people knew about him. For me he was a left-handed Rashid Khan. If you want Rashid Khan at whatever amount and you’re getting another one who is a left-hander… both can be a deadly combination.”
The comparison is unavoidable. Noor, like Rashid, has burst through as a wicket-taking spinner at a very young age and comes armed with a similarly-whippy bowling action and an equally deceptive wrong ‘un. By the time he was picked in that auction, unopposed for his base price of INR 30 Lakh, Noor had already played two Under-19 World Cups (2020 and 2022), was Melbourne Renegades’ youngest debutant at 15 and just a few months away from his senior team debut.
Yet, Nehra was not fully convinced he would straightaway cut it in a league like the IPL. At a time when franchises have the resources to scout for talent around the world, unearthing them is merely the first, and relatively easier step of a long process. To be able to turn the identified gem into a player worthy of making the XI regularly in a gruelling two-month period is where the backroom staff earn their buck.
Kapoor spent the whole of last season working with Noor and his bowling at a microscopic level – his body positioning during the action, the pace at which he ran in and the consistency of lengths. For all of his likenesses to Rashid, Noor’s bowling went haywire for a month when he attempted to emulate the senior spinner’s action in its entirety, despite being told not to by both Kapoor and Rashid.
“Rashid kept telling him no you can’t bowl like me, you have to bowl like yourself. Your action is different, my action is different. When he realised that, he started bowling better,” Kapoor says.
The teenaged Noor Ahmad was extensively scouted and pitched for by Aashish Kapoor.
The teenaged Noor Ahmad was extensively scouted and pitched for by Aashish Kapoor. ©BCCI
In the IPL off-season, when Kapoor travelled to Bahrain to be their head coach, Noor was given instructions on what he had to specifically work on. Noor stayed in touch with the Titans coach, exchanging texts and his bowling videos via Whatsapp in the lead-up to his second season. As he joined up with squad this year, after having made ODI and T20I debuts for Afghanistan, Kapoor got Nehra to unleash the spinner.
“The [ploy of] five pace bowlers really doesn’t work when you play in India. In the middle overs we were going for plenty of runs at times so that’s the reason why I kept pestering Nehra that we should play two spinners. Guys can’t pick one (Rashid), so it’ll be difficult for them to pick both together,” Kapoor says.
It wasn’t just the senior team bow – in both white-ball formats – that convinced Kapoor about Noor’s readiness for the IPL. Bowlers, in particular, have needed loads of mental fortitude to go with their incredible skills to be able to withstand the pressure that comes with playing in a predominantly batter’s league and format. Noor brought plenty of that wrapped in a feisty demeanour that has existed through all the age-group cricket he’s played.
“I’ve seen him bowl in junior cricket where he was a very, very confident young kid,” Kapoor recalls. “He played against India when India was the top team at the U19 level and he was never scared. He was always there for a fight and there were some matches that we lost because of him and some matches we won closely because of him.”
Noor’s first IPL opportunity came as an impact substitute in the home game against Rajasthan Royals, where he struck in his opening over to remove the Royals captain Sanju Samson. Though Titans couldn’t turn the tide entirely that game, Hardik Pandya singled out Noor for praise, chiding the rest of the bowlers for not keeping up. Nehra too had seen enough to trust him to replace Alzarri Joseph in the following matches.
The Titans bounced back from that defeat to RR by defending 135/6 in Lucknow, with Noor conceding just 18 in his four overs and dismissing Krunal Pandya and Nicholas Pooran. In the next fixture, he dismantled MI’s engine room with the wickets of Cameron Green, Suryakumar Yadav and Tim David. Noor is now up to 10 wickets in 6 matches, and has shown a propensity to dominate the middle-overs in tandem with Rashid while also giving his team an attacking tactical flexibility.
“Earlier, because of having one spinner, we had to use two overs [of Rashid] up front, one in the middle and one at the death and that was not too many options for us. But now if Rashid is bowling well, we can bowl four overs up front because we have another spinner there who is going to be difficult [to pick],” Kapoor says.
On Friday, Rashid bowled one of his best spells in the IPL, flummoxing batters for fun on his way to figures of 3 for 14 in 4 overs. What Noor offered from the other end was the kind of sustained spin devastation that Kapoor had envisioned for Gujarat since that evening of February 12, 2022 when he got Nehra to reluctantly raise the baton.