VRV Singh returns, tougher and still hungry
His deliveries still bounce as steeply as they used to when he first played for India as a chubby 21-year old in 2006. That toothy grin, broad and childlike, has not changed. He still runs in like a locomotive struggling to control its momentum as it rumbles downhill. It is hard to believe that last week's Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy match against Assam was VRV Singh's first game for Punjab in more than four years.
Four years. The Indian Test middle order had all of its four big batsmen intact four years ago. Anil Kumble was India's Test captain. The IPL had not yet come to town. And the veteran Pankaj Dharmani was leading Punjab. India's cricket map has been altered in four years. And VRV Singh has seen the best and worst of the life of a professional sportsman in these four years.
All he had wanted to do was to bowl as fast as he could. It was said that he needed his coach to console him if he came back from a game without hitting an opposition batsman on the head. No less an authority on fast bowling than Ian Bishop, the former West Indies quick, was impressed after watching VRV Singh in his debut Test in Antigua in June 2006.
And then the injuries arrived. Foot, ankle, back. VRV Singh still tried to keep going through the pain. His pace dropped, lack of match practice ruined his rhythm. He had ankle surgery in 2008, but got injured during a practice match before the Ranji Trophy in 2009, limiting him to playing for Kings XI Punjab in the IPL that year.
He almost disappeared after that, playing just one match in IPL 2010. Forget India, making the Punjab team was appearing to be improbable. It was then that he made the big decision to go in for back surgery in Australia in late 2010. "Initially, the injury was not that bad. But it did not improve much and went on deteriorating," VRV Singh said. "After IPL 2010, I played some local games to see how it went but it was not good."
A whole year would pass after the surgery, before VRV Singh would be able to resume bowling. "You cannot play around with your body in rehab," he said. "I slowly started with exercise for my lower back and hip muscles, then started working out in the gym, then running and eventually began to bowl from two-three steps." He resumed bowling with his normal run-up around December 2011.
It was way back in March 2008 that he had last played for Punjab. That meant he was starting all over again. So the man who has played five Tests for India turned out like any other probable at the trials for the Chandigarh district team. Did he have any ego issues? He smiles at the question. "I never felt like I was an India player who now had to turn out for district-level teams. When you want to play cricket, you don't have the option to think about such things. After I played some 15-20 games like that they picked me for the Punjab side [for the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament]." You sense he is glad - to just be back on his feet, able to do what he is good at.
But the comeback process was a grind he can never forget. For nearly 18 months VRV Singh had barely touched a ball. The question did come up, but not once did he feel that he should quit the game. "Giving up on cricket was never an option. If I had wanted to do that, I would have never gone in for this surgery. After surgery, I never thought that I won't play cricket. I always had it at the back of my mind that I want to make a comeback. The good thing is, I gave myself time to recover and didn't hurry back."
Though the ultimate objective was quite clear, there were obviously days when the enormity of the task would get to him. And that is where the encouragement from his parents proved to be crucial. "I think family support was the main thing. My parents had the biggest role to play in my comeback. You cannot go around paying attention to negative things said about you. What matters is that you should have the support of people close to you.
"There were days when I used to get frustrated with not playing or not being able to bowl. That is the time when they supported me. They told me to give myself some time, and wait till I was 100% fit and not jump in when I was, say, 90%. Little things matter, like when you are not able to bend to pick up something from the ground and they would do it for you."
There were others who helped as well. "I have a good friend in Sydney, Surjit Singh, who supported me a lot. Also, Patrick Farhart [the Kings XI physiotherapist]."
He says he has also tweaked his action to lighten the load on his body. "I have changed it a bit and worked on my back-foot landing. Earlier I used to not think much [about my action], but after the surgery I thought that if I slightly modify it to front-on from side-on then it might help make my follow-through easier and it might not [put too much pressure] on the lower body. I tried it in Chandigarh and it was getting better. I am still working on it and hopefully by the middle of this year I will get there."
For now, a haul of eight wickets in four games at an economy-rate of 6.37 was quite satisfactory as Punjab made the Syed Mushtaq Ali final. The bounce he extracted in the competition was steep, the pace decent. "The more I play, the more pace and bounce I will get. I don't think my pace has reduced much after the surgery, it's still the same."
Someone asked him if he was depressed at not having an IPL contract. His reply said it all. "If a player has not played for more than two years then no franchise is going to pick him. I wasn't depressed. I would have been depressed if I hadn't had the surgery. I am happy that I am back to normal. After the surgery I have become mentally tougher. As a fast bowler, when you undergo surgeries, it is tough."
His major concern right now is the lack of match-practice options with the domestic season having ended. "You cannot improve much in local cricket. There will be a few Punjab off-season camps before the next Ranji Trophy. I'll keep working in the gym. But at the moment, matches toh hain nahin [are not there]."
VRV Singh is still not giving up though; he is being pro-active in dealing with this challenge. Immediately after the Syed Mushtaq Ali final he went up to his captain Harbhajan Singh and senior India fast bowler Munaf Patel to seek counsel about the best way to not only stay match fit but also mentally strong. Clearly VRV 2.0 is hungry. He does not want to lose his focus.
Sometimes, you can never win. For two-and-a-half years, he could hardly play. Now when he can, there are no avenues available. But for the moment, VRV Singh is happy about just being able to bowl again. Remind him of his early days, when it was all about pace for him, and he smiles knowingly again.
"I am more mature now. You are obviously wiser at 27 than when you are 21-22. I have understood my body much better now. That fire is still there [though]. It will always be there."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo