Former India pacer and 2011 ICC men’s ODI World Cup winner Zaheer Khan penned a touching tribute to his coach and mentor Sudhir Naik.

Naik, a former India player and a stalwart of Mumbai cricket, passed away on Wednesday after a brief illness.

As an 18-year-old, Zaheer came to Mumbai to pursue a career in cricket and was given his big break by Naik. Zaheer shared a tribute to Naik on Twitter where he recalled how the latter gave him his big break in cricket.

Full text of Zaheer Khan’s tribute

To Sir, With Love

It was the summer of 1996. I was 18 and had just finished my class 12 board examinations. My love for cricket took me to Mumbai which was about 250 kms from my hometown of Shrirampur. 

Although an aspiring engineering student, I wanted to explore the possibility of playing professional cricket at some level.

My father and I went from one maidan to the other, from one gymkhana to another but they were all too expensive. And then as destiny would have it we landed up at the NCC (National Cricket Club) at Churchgate.

Day 2 at the NCC on a hot summer day in April. It changed my life! My coach informed me that Sudhir Naik (sir) wanted to have a look at my bowling in the nets. It was a big deal for me- sir was after all a former India Test cricketer. I had never bowled with a leather ball before. I didn’t even have proper cricketing shoes, no training gear, nothing. However, I went about my business and bowled around three to four overs while sir observed me - I clearly remember - not from close quarters but from a distance.

After I finished, he came to have a little chat with me. I remember it quite vividly.

The First Interaction:

Sir: Where are you from?

Me: Shrirampur

Sir. Which standard?

Me: I just finished my class 12 exams and want to pursue engineering

Sir: How many marks are you expecting? 

Me: I think my exams went quite well. 85%

Sir: What if there is a computer mistake?

Me: That is not in my hands, sir.

Sir: What if I make you play all Division A games in Mumbai? 

Me: (Surprised and shocked and in complete disbelief) I would love that sir. Would be very grateful and give my best

Sir: But if I give you my time and effort I expect something in return. I want your commitment. Don’t come and tell me you are missing home after a few months 

Me: (still stunned) I will take a break from engineering sir. You have my full
commitment. I will give it all I have

Sir: I will tell my captain to put your name first on the list. But you are already 18 and late. Everyone else started when they were 10 or 12. You have to catch up and work doubly hard.

Me: I promise you, sir. I will.

I visited him in the hospital a few days back and recalled that summer day of April.

What did he see in me? I hardly bowled for 15-20 minutes. Why did he back me the way he did? The faith he showed in me gave me the courage and confidence not only to pursue cricket but also to give up on engineering. Till then I was in a big dilemma but post that first exchange with sir it was all clear in my mind. I knew what I wanted.

Sir saw something in me which I did not. At first glance he knew that I would play for India. He had this special ability and throughout his career as a coach and as a selector, he touched the lives of different people in diverse fields in various ways. Sir had an eye to spot talent. And then he went out of his way to nurture and mould you in a way that only he could.

He knew I was new to Mumbai and would need some funds to survive in the city. And it was Naik sir who helped me get my first job in the city-that is the extent to which he cared about the people who he was close to. He had clarity of thought and was a straight shooter-diplomacy was not for him. I still remember he barred my parents from interrogating me about my progress in cricket- he wanted me to learn, grow and enjoy the game without adding extra pressure on myself.

Sir had a massive impact on my life. It is a big personal loss to me. He had always been a fighter-right from his Test debut against England in Birmingham in 1974 where he top-scored in the second innings to the other challenges in life. We hoped he would win the battle this time too.

It’s April again and I keep recalling that day from the summer of ‘96. I did not know him. He did not know me. But that belief he had in me and the trust he showed in that initial conversation not only paved the way for my career in cricket but it completely re-shaped and re-structured my outlook and thinking. It changed my life.

Sir will always be special to me, guiding me and mentoring me wherever he is.

Your student always,

Zaheer Khan