A ‘WICKET’ GOOD TIME

MAJOR LEAGUE CRICKET| COURTESY

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In a room full of the most renowned cricketers in the world, it didn’t quite sink in for Ali Sheikh when he heard his name called at the inaugural Major League Cricket draft.

“It sort of hit me when I got my cap and sat down. It was one of the greater feelings.”

Drafted as the sixth pick to the LA Knight Riders in July, Sheikh’s world has changed for good. In addition to being an accounting junior at UTD, he now lives a second life as a professional cricketer in the newly accredited Dallas-Fort Worth-based MLC league.

Sheikh, who’s scheduled to graduate in 2024, has been playing cricket since childhood, inheriting a love of the sport from his dad who he would watch matches with on TV. Growing up in Qatar, Sheikh played Twenty20 cricket – a shorter form of traditional cricket, also known as T20 – recreationally with his peers wherever there were open fields, two wickets, a bat, and a ball. Now, as a 20-year-old, he plays alongside and against those same international talents he’d seen on TV.

“It’s fun to be alongside them, these great players who have played at the highest level around the world for their country,” Sheikh said. “I’m a local guy, local for the MLC. So, growing up and then playing with these people has been a great experience.”

Sheikh and his family moved from Qatar in 2015 to a suburb in North Texas by UTD. His dad had noticed Sheikh’s talent back home and wanted to help him cultivate that — so he broke his son into club cricket at the Dallas minor league, where Sheikh settled into the role of a batsman. It was there in the league that Sheikh was spotted by junior league coach and former Pakistani international cricketer Asif Mujtaba.

“The first time I saw him, I said ‘yeah, this guy has talent. If he continues to play cricket he can do big things,’” Mujtaba said. “A lot of people leave when they go to high school. But he’s a person who’s continuing his education and playing at the top level of cricket. He’s a special guy, and … very humble.”

Sheikh packed a powerful swing, making him a natural batsman — but his coach had other plans. He eventually developed prowess for bowling as Mujtaba challenged him with the responsibility of bowling difficult overs. Before long, Mujtaba’s no-nonsense coaching combined with Sheikh’s natural and learned talents turned him one of the most sought-after Twenty20 cricketers in the nation. In 2020, he was poised to lead the USA Under 19 as a captain in the Cricket World Cup qualifiers against Ireland, but the tournament was canceled when COVID-19 hit.

“No one works as hard as Ali — he works hard every game, never misses practice,” Mujtaba said. “He leads from the front and always takes up the opportunity to win for his team … If you see his records, you know how many times his performance impacted his team’s to the win. That’s why he was spotted. And joyous I am that he was.”

It’s no surprise then to hear that Sheikh shone in the selection tournament — the games used to judge players’ skill level for the draft. In fact, Sheikh won MVP of the tournament with 60 runs across two games and eight wickets, the most of anyone, in three. Sheikh is what’s known as an all-rounder: someone who can handle both ends of the pitch, batting and bowling. Specifically, he’s a left-handed batsman and left-arm spin bowler, which means his swing style focuses on the movement of the ball rather than the speed of it. Arguably more impressive than his selection game performance, Sheikh was the youngest player to be drafted in the senior category after the selection games, where he beat out veterans such as Shadley Van Schalkwych and Saif Badar.

The team Sheikh was drafted to is one of six teams in the Dallas-Fort-Worth-based MLC league, and it’s a part of the larger ‘Knight Riders” franchise, headed by the Kolkata Knight Riders in India. Amongst the talent on this team include captain and international bowler Ali Khan and international all-rounder Andre Russell, whom Sheikh looks up to.

“Particularly, our captain, he’s also a spinner and he has 500 wickets,” Sheikh said. “He’s excellent with consistency. Every game he warms up the same, practices the same, he has a certain approach he takes into the game. He doesn’t do too much, and he keeps things simple. And I feel like if I want to play long term at this high level, I have to keep things simple and trust myself.”

The fast life might seem like endless excitement, but being a student by day and a cricketer by night doesn’t come without challenges. Balancing the workloads of cricket and school can prove to be arduous, especially when Sheikh is on the road during exams season. But staying busy is also Sheikh’s order of life. He works best with set schedules — classes, practice and socializing all at certain times.

“I prefer to plan everything down to the T,” Sheikh said. “I work really well like that. Self-discipline is really important for this lifestyle. Even when we’ll be in the off-season this fall, I know I’ve got to be out practicing at night. And coach Mujtaba really helped instill that in me too. He wasn’t afraid to give me the hard truth, and he wasn’t messing around with what he expected of his team.”

Since being drafted, the Knight Riders have wrapped up their first season in the MLC as the sixth seed with four losses, meaning they will not proceed to the playoffs, which are reserved for the top four seeds, nor the finals on July 30. They played their first game on July 13 against the Texas Kings in Grand Prairie Stadium where the team took home a loss and ten overs, meaning all batting members of the team were struck out before they had a chance to surpass the Kings’ runs. Sheikh did not take the field in any of the four games.

“It makes sense with the older, more experienced guys on the team,” Sheikh said. “Still, I loved every minute of being out there as a substitute and sharing moments with the guys. It’s a nice team dynamic, no one treats me like a youngster or someone they can’t trust because of my age.”

Sheikh plans to finish his schooling at UTD before putting his name in cricket drafts across the world to continue his dream of playing professionally.

“My parents have been here for me every step of the way, I have to give credit to them as well,” Sheikh said. “Being able to stay in university and play cricket at this level with my full family’s support is nothing short of a dream come true.”


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