From boxing to cricket: the start-stop journey of Sran
"Yaar aye kiddan de jutte hun? (man, what boots are these?)", Barinder Sran wondered as he was getting ready for his first cricket-ball match about six years ago. Sran was 17, studying boxing at the famous Bhiwani Boxing Club, whose founder Jagdish Singh gave India the Olympic medallist Vijender Singh. A newspaper advertisement changed it all from boxing.
A son of a farmer who just got by, Sran was back from Bhiwani for his summer vacation at his home in Dabwali. It is a town with a shop that is half in Haryana and half in Punjab. While boxing took Sran to Haryana, a Kings XI Punjab advertisement calling youngsters for trials brought him decisively to Punjab. Cricket had been at his heart: he used to play in his village with a tennis ball, but had never played in matches longer than eight overs. He saw the ad, and went to Mohali with his cousin and another friend just out of curiosity.
A Kings XI selection did not happen, but Sran found himself in the Kings Cup as one of the best 35-40 uncapped cricketers in Punjab. At the trials, he bowled wearing normal trainers. Here, too, just before the first game, he sat and looked around at others putting on spikes. Just the fact he had got to the best 50 or so made Sran take up cricket more seriously. He first began to practise at an academy in Sirsa where someone introduced him to KK Cricket Academy in Sector 40 in Chandigarh.
In Chandigarh, Sran came to know of this contest called Gatorade Speedster. He took part, and won the North India leg. That was when Punjab officials saw him and asked him to start practising at the Mohali stadium. That was when Sran began bowling in the nets for visiting teams and also during the IPL. He won the India Under-19 leg of the Speedster. That took him to Dubai where he trained at the ICC academy.
Sran had done all that when he first played inter-district cricket, for Mohali. Next year, he was selected for Punjab, clearly not a product of the system but someone imposed on the system through talent contests and sheer natural talent. Vikram Rathour, a national selector now, was Punjab's coach then. Sran bowled eight T20 overs for three wickets and 40 runs in 2011-12, and also took 14 wickets at 32 in the Ranji Trophy proper that season. Then he disappeared.
A spate of injuries - the last of which was an ankle fracture while playing pre-season warm-ups for Punjab before the 2014-15 season - kept Sran out of all cricketing action. His way back into reckoning, once again, was unconventional. He went to the open trials called by Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals, in Vadodara and Mumbai respectively. Rajasthan's Monty Desai and Rahul Dravid were surprised Sran had played only one season of proper cricket. This was their kind of cricketer: raw, full of promise and a surprise package. They got him into the auction where Mumbai might have bid for him, but did not.
"Only Rajasthan can punt on my kind of players," Sran told ESPNcricinfo during IPL 2015. As is the case with Rajasthan, though, they work on players in the nets for a season before sending him out. Dravid believed Sran would be the finished article in IPL 2016. Dravid and Sran's IPL fate is not known yet, but for sure Rajasthan won't be there.
Thankfully, in between came the traditional cricket season. In his first match back as a first-class cricketer, Sran took six wickets in 17 overs after his side had posted 604 for 5 declared. Yuvraj Singh was impressed. "Barinder saran! Serious spell of fast bowling on a flat track ! A talented fast left armer to watch out for reminds me of a young @ImZaheer," he tweeted that day, with the correct spelling of Sran's name and not the clerical mistake that needs to be fixed in BCCI records.
When India went to play the first Test against South Africa in Mohali , Rathour sent out a special call to Sran to come to the nets. A pass was made at the last minute, and locals recalled how the scenario was similar to the call made to a young Harbhajan Singh during the drawn Test against Sri Lanka in 1997. Anil Kumble was among those impressed then. Four months later, Harbhajan was handed his first Test. Less than three months after those Mohali net sessions, Sran could be making his ODI debut, in Australia.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo