'Jammu and Kashmir is a huge state, so to get the players together and put them on the right path, it is not easy, but I hope they will reap the benefits in the years to come.'
The Kashmir valley has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently. But hope seems to have arrived in the form of Irfan Pathan who is working tirelessly behind the scenes in his quest to provide the youth of Jammu and Kashmir with a platform to achieve sporting excellence.
The former India all-rounder, who was appointed coach cum mentor of the J&K cricket team last year, has been instrumental in locating talented youngsters in the last year or so.
One of them, 17-year-old fast bowler Rasikh Salam, has been picked by the Mumbai Indians for this year's IPL. Irfan discovered Rasikh at a district selection camp in Srinagar.
Rasikh is only the third cricketer from Jammu and Kashmir to be picked by an IPL team. He was bought by the Mumbai Indians for his base price of Rs 20 lakh.
The teenage fast bowler hails from a small village in Kulgam, south Kashmir, and only made it to the state side last season where he produced impressive performances in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
"If he gets the chance to play in the IPL, he will do well," an excited Irfan tells Rediff.com's Harish Kotian.
"His action is very good and he swings the ball well. His rhythm is good too. If someone has the ability to swing the ball both ways, then it is a big plus point for any bowler. He has the ability to swing the ball late, which is a great thing to have for a fast bowler," says Irfan.
"He bowls at a decent pace, averaging around 135 kmph. Once his action starts getting settled, he will get better. He is skiddy, the ball comes on much quicker than expected and he is capable of beating any top batsmen," Irfan -- only the second Indian to take a Test hat-trick -- says about his discovery.
It took Irfan, who played 29 Tests and 120 ODIs, just one delivery to gauge the youngster's potential.
"Rasikh had joined the district selection camp in Srinagar in June. When he bowled the first ball, immediately I knew he has it in him to go to the next level," says Irfan.
"And when he bowled the second ball, I took him aside and didn't allow him to bowl the whole day," he recalls.
"I was sure he is talented and needs to be protected and gradually groomed for the next level. We still need to work on a lot of areas like his run up, his action, his follow through. I sent his videos to T A Sekhar Sir to help out on his action," says Irfan. "He also suggested a few things which helped."
"We brought in a coach -- Milap Mewada -- to work with him. Whenever I went home to Baroda, I used to study his bowling videos during my free time," says Irfan.
"He had never worked on the body strengthening part before so we worked on the strength part and we put him on heavy weights. We first got his loading part of the bowling action passed at the start."
"So, whether it was issues related to on the field or off the field we used to discuss a lot. Even if I was away from J&K we used to talk a lot on regular phone calls and chats," says Irfan.
"When you want to develop a young kid, you have to be with him all the time even when you are not together," adds the former India all-rounder.
The coming IPL, says Irfan, could be a good launch pad for young Rasikh's career. The Kashmiri teenager will get a chance to play and train alongside some of the biggest names in world cricket at three-time IPL winners Mumbai Indians.
"If he plays in the IPL it will be very good for him. Being with the team and the big star players from India and overseas will teach him a lot. This will be the first time he will be in such an environment and it will be a good move for him," says Irfan.
"He has a good head on his shoulders, his father has been a teacher, and he has had a positive impact on his young son. He is a sensible guy and is keen to learn, which is very important."
"I think he will continue to learn and in a year or two, he will be ready to play at a good level of cricket."
Along with Rasikh, Irfan has spotted another impressive youngster, left-arm fast bowler Mujtaba Yousuf.
At Irfan's recommendation, the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association organised a district-level tournament for the first time where around 40,000 youngsters got a chance to showcase their potential.
"It was in this tournament that Rasikh was first noticed. He doesn't belong to a big city like Jammu or Srinagar, but comes from a small village. Similarly, Mujtaba also hails from a small village. I was specially given this responsibility of identifying talent from the small villages and districts," says Irfan.
"It was hard work. I visited districts from Sopore to Kupwara and many other places. I saw a lot of youngsters. Jammu and Kashmir is a huge state, so to get the players together and put them on the right path, it is not easy. I hope they will reap the benefits in the years to come," he adds.
Irfan had to make some sacrifices to take up the J&K offer, including giving up a lucrative cricket stint overseas and also not doing television commentary.
"I played so many games for India that I thought I had to give something back to the game," he says.
"When I met J&K cricket officials, I made my decision that this was the perfect opportunity to give something back to Indian cricket by developing the sport in Jammu and Kashmir."
"I am happy that the team has done well in the last year since I took over and a young guy has been picked for the IPL. Hopefully, in the time to come, I will be able to achieve more things for J&K cricket."
"I had a commentary contract with Star Sports. I missed quite a few days because I was helping the cricketers here. Commentary pays you more, but giving something back to the sport is more satisfying and more rewarding personally," Irfan says.
Asked if cricket helps Kashmiri youth find a new direction in their life with the valley under the shadow of terrorism for so long, Irfan replies: "I was signed up to play cricket for the team and leave a positive influence on the players. I will stick to that only."
"The responsibility I was given was to play for the state team and also mentor the players along the way by passing on my experience. I am enjoying that challenge," he says.
"We have produced results on the cricketing field. We beat a star-studded Tamil Nadu side (in the Vijay Hazare one-day tournament in October) which included players like Vijay Shankar. We have started to punch above our weight, which is a good thing."
"I have made a few recommendations for the state team and also how cricket is run at the district level, which if implemented will only make J&K stronger in the next few years."