A break that was long overdue
Vinay Kumar's friend, Harshan, used to tell him, "If you get Sachin's [Tendulkar] wicket, you will definitely play for India. Whoever has bowled him - Sreesanth, Piyush Chawla - has played for India." Last year, in the IPL in South Africa, Vinay got Tendulkar with a beauty in Port Elizabeth. It pitched just short of driving length, just outside off, and then held its line enough to take the edge.
Vinay, by then the most consistent and successful bowler on domestic scene, had right to be cynical. He was no middle-order batsman, who couldn't get past the Fab Four. Despite strong performances in Ranji Trophy, he had seen bowlers get into the Indian team on the back of IPL performances. There were vacancies, but they were being filled by bowlers who didn't have first-class credentials but had done well in the IPL.
So Vinay called Harshan, and asked, "Okay maga [mate] I have got his wicket, now tell me, I'll play for India or what?" Harshan, like the selectors, had an excuse ready. "No, I told you to get him bowled."
In the third season of the IPL, at the Brabourne Stadium, Tendulkar was in much better form than he was in Port Elizabeth. He was moving across and playing unbelievable flick shots from in front of the stumps. Vinay, though, got one to nip in a touch extra, and hit the exposed leg stump. Harshan texted immediately, "Get ready to play for India." Six days later, when he was driving to another friend's place, on a short break from continuous IPL matches, Vinay got the belated call-up.
It is a nice story to tell, but the irony is not to be missed either. Between those two Tendulkar wickets in the IPL, he had seen that the national selectors didn't consider him one of the best 41 players, the contracted ones, in the country. Between those two Tendulkar wickets, he had carried Karnataka to a Ranji final, but he also saw his team-mate Abhimanyu Mithun get an ODI debut after just one good season. Mithun had got only one more wicket than Vinay.
For years, in front of empty stands, he took wicket after wicket with classical outswing bowling. Over the years, he developed the inswinger to become a more effective bowler. One fine day, when at the Chinnaswamy Satdium, Sanjay Bangar was negotiating his bouncers well, he developed a slower bouncer too. But only the Ranji tragics knew Vinay Kumar, the man who did all the hard work and saw others steal the limelight. Selectors didn't seem to know him, and hence a vast majority of Indian fans.
The same stadiums were now full, the roles had reversed too. Vinay was now capitalising on the pressure created by the likes of Anil Kumble and Dale Steyn. And just eight wickets in the IPL proved to be the final nudge for the selectors.
Vinay doesn't grudge the other bowlers the chances they got ("They also did well, so they got their chance."), but admits it wasn't easy to stay motivated. "When you do well for years and are not doing well, negative thoughts come to your mind," he says. "You think [about] what the selectors are thinking. So you can get desperate, and give it all up, and get into some other work."
That the BCCI has made sure first-class cricket is now a viable working option by itself meant Vinay, the eldest son of an auto-rickshaw driver, didn't have to look for "some other work". He could concentrate on his game. "Maybe God wanted me to work harder and longer. Few people get their chance early, few have to wait."
Such philosophical thinking wasn't easy to come by, but he had - besides his coach LM Prakash - two of the wisest and strongest personalities of Indian cricket to advise him. "Whenever I got upset I would speak to my coach, Anil Kumble or Rahul Dravid," Vinay says. "They used to tell me you are doing well, just don't give up.
"Especially Anil bhai was a great help. Whenever I got very sad, I used to message him. Because I didn't know what to speak, I just used to message. 'This is what happened, they haven't picked me again.' Anil would tell me, 'Don't worry Vinay, you are doing well. I also feel bad for you, but keep doing well, your chance will come.'"
Perhaps this back-up in his corner kept Vinay going. He kept growing as a bowler. From one relying on just outswing, he now had a potent inswinger, and to adjust to the demands of limited-overs cricket, he has now developed legcutters, offcutters, slower bouncers, all sorts of tricks. He kind of mirrors his Royal Challengers Bangalore team-mate Praveen Kumar - only that Praveen went from being an outswing bowler to an effective all-round limited-overs bowler in public eye. Both of them have limited pace and unlimited heart.
"Really glad to have Praveen in our team," says Vinay. "Street-smart cricketer. How he manages to bowl to big batsmen, how he implements himself. If you bowl 130-135 with swing, you can trouble any batsman. But when it stops swinging, which is usually after four overs with the white ball, then only it is trouble. So we both have both swings, but we both have accuracy and variations."
Vinay can also see the positives that the snubs have brought him. "My coach used to say, 'See Vinay, your chance will definitely come, but the thing is, when it does come, you don't want to just play one game and come back.' I think I am mature enough now, I know how to handle pressure now. That feeling won't be there, that 'Oh I am playing for India, and this is the World Cup.' I will just play my game."
Before he "plays his game", though, he will need to get another break, a chance ahead of either one of Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra or bowling twin Praveen.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo