It was a small room with seven occupants - all from different parts of the subcontinent - braving Dubai's oppressive heat and humidity to try and make a living. In March 2016, an eighth joined them. He was KM Asif, a 23-year-old from the southern Indian state of Kerala. Like many others from the region, Asif had arrived in UAE in search of work and, in general, a better life.
Cricket was Asif's first love, but financial constraints had forced him to shelve his dreams of playing cricket as a career to take up work as a storekeeper at a beverage bottling plant. His room-mates couldn't have known that two years on, Asif would have MS Dhoni's arm around his shoulders and Shane Watson egging him on to bowl as fast as he could, in the yellow of the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL.
"He's not the traditional Indian fast," says Biju George, his mentor and a coach at Sports Authority of India in Kerala. "He didn't have the typical fast bowler's body back then," says George of the first time he met Asif in 2014, "but he had raw pace and a superb bouncer."
Asif hadn't played any form of age-group cricket and time was running out for him - he had to decide between cricket and earning for his family of five. "Asif comes from a very humble background. He was confused, didn't know how long to continue playing for just passion," says George, who is part of the Sunrisers Hyderabad set-up this season.
Asif's father is a daily wager who does odd jobs. His mother has been a home-maker. His younger brother is intellectually disabled; his younger sister has had challenges after suffering a brain injury during her formative years. Asif has been the only real breadwinner.
"Every trial he would get rejected and be disheartened," George continues. "I had a few friends in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so I managed to find him a job as a storekeeper. I arranged for his tickets and visa and sent him to the UAE hoping at least he'll make some money for his family." Asif left reluctantly but couldn't turn his mind from cricket, even though he knew he had made the right decision.
"I'd see my roof leaking in the rains every year, and I'd feel terrible to not be able to even give my family shelter. We only had temporary roofing," he recalls. "I had to take up the job [in Dubai], but I didn't like the living conditions. The heat was bad, there was no air conditioning. I was being paid close to AED 5000 (approximately INR 100,000, USD 1350) for a month's work, so it wasn't about the finances, but it [life] was very tough. I missed my family, missed cricket."
After the first paycheck arrived, Asif decided to return home, around April 2016. "Don't ask me how I had the guts," he laughs. IDBI, an Indian bank, had partnered with former Australia fast bowler Jeff Thomson to conduct fast-bowling trials across the country, and Asif had heard about it. The incentive for shortlisted candidates was a scholarship to train under Glenn McGrath at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai.
"As soon as I landed in Trivandrum, I boarded a bus and headed to Wayanad directly for trials," says Asif. George, who had been in touch through Asif's short stint in UAE, was unaware of his return until two days after the talent-hunt programme, when he found a beaming Asif, shortlisted by Thomson, working out at a gym they used to frequent.
"I just want to play. You give me a cricket ball and ask me to bowl in the hotel corridor also, I'll bowl"
"I didn't know what to tell Biju sir," says Asif. "He arranged my tickets and visa to work, and I just came back after one month. I thought, if I'm shortlisted, I will tell him. But he found out anyway."
At the trials, Asif remembers Thomson having a "one-minute chat" with him. "He told me, 'Whatever you do, don't compromise on your pace. Only that will get you far.' It felt special that he took time to speak to me."
There was assurance from selectors and state coaches that he would be considered for the next domestic season, and it kept Asif motivated. But when it turned out he wasn't shortlisted even among the probables, a decision had to be made.
"I went back to Dubai," he says. "I thought this time it was final; come what may, I will stick there. I didn't want to waste any more time thinking of cricket." But the more he tried to run away from cricket, the harder it seemed to pursue him.
He had limited time in Dubai, since he was on a visit visa. While he looked for a job, he heard of open trials for the UAE national team at the ICC Academy. He immediately registered and bowled flat out for three hours the next day, he says.
"I'd given my phone number and contact details to them [organisers of the trials], and the next day, someone called me and said Aaqib Javed wants to see me," Asif remembers. Javed, the former Pakistan fast bowler, was head coach of UAE at the time, and was impressed with Asif's raw pace, like Thomson had been.
"Aaqib sir asked me where I'm from, what I'm doing in UAE. I told him I've come looking for work and if given the chance, I'd like to train and play cricket too. He helped me and recommended me for a job at a company. I was okay with the money they were offering me also."
However, a background check by his prospective employers resulted in him being blacklisted because he had quit his earlier job in a month. The offer was withdrawn and with his visit visa about to expire soon, Asif had no choice but to return to India for the second time.
He came back to find a surprise in store. A regular day at the Kerala nets turned into a memorable one when he was named in the squad for the 2017-18 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Kerala, though, were on a losing spree and were out of the reckoning for the title when Asif was finally handed a T20 debut against Goa. But the match was televised and a short 45-second package of him hustling batsmen for pace went viral in Kerala.
"L Sivaramakrishnan was one of the commentators, and he was astonished at how quick this boy was bowling," George says. "I sent him a message and asked if he could help put Asif's name up for IPL trials at Chennai Super Kings." Soon, Asif was bowling to the likes of Suresh Raina.
A year before, in 2017, Asif had trained with the Delhi Daredevils upon the recommendation of Sanju Samson, one of his close friends. Then during the IPL that year, he had taken an overnight bus from Chennai on George's request to bowl at the Kolkata Knight Riders nets in Bengaluru. George, who had worked with the Knight Riders as fielding coach earlier, also happened to be in the city for a camp with the India women's team.
"He arrived that morning, stayed at some lodge near the bus stand, came directly to the KKR nets and bowled from start to finish," George says. "By the time nets ended and he was about to return, someone in the camp asked him about his travel.When they heard he was to go by bus, some of them pooled in money, got him a taxi to the airport and sent him back to Chennai by flight."
In 2018, finally, after his T20 debut for Kerala, he landed an INR 40 lakh (about US$55,000) contract with Chennai Super Kings and also made his IPL debut that season, in Pune, against the Delhi Daredevils, thanks to an injury to Deepak Chahar. Asif remembers being unable to sleep for four days before the game.
"Watson told me, 'I've heard you're a very good tennis-ball bowler. Think this is tennis-ball cricket, just bowl fast, don't worry about being hit.' That calmed me down," says Asif. "On match day, Dhoni bhai put his arm on my shoulder and told me to not worry, 'even if you bowl four overs and give 40 runs, no problem. This is your chance.'"
Asif has only played two matches for the franchise so far, but he has continued to remain in the team as a back-up fast bowler. The 2019-20 domestic season has been productive for him. He made his Ranji Trophy debut, featured in three one-day matches and seven T20s. This is the most cricket he has played in a single season so far for Kerala.
He has trained to be mean and lean, understands his bowling better after stints under McGrath and M Senthil Nathan at MRF Pace Foundation, and is hoping for more opportunities. With Kerala's front-line fast bowler, Sandeep Warrier, shifting to Tamil Nadu, George hopes Asif will be able to capitalise on his chances.
"I'm not looking at the competition," Asif says. "I just want to play. You give me a cricket ball and ask me to bowl in the hotel corridor also, I'll bowl. Money is important, but not the most important thing. I've seen tough times. Now, thanks to my IPL earnings, I have been able to build a house, afford medicines for my siblings and take care of my parents.
"The IPL has changed my life. It's only now that I am able to have some confidence, the very fact that I am speaking to you is because of this confidence. It's good to put food on the table, give my parents and siblings a comfortable life. I only feel a little surprised at how quickly I've been able to achieve this. I'm very happy to see them happy. Now that side of life is tension-free, so hopefully I can make up for lost time and do well for both CSK and Kerala whenever I get chances."