Cooper's fairytale journey
Kevon Cooper did not expect to be here. Before the IPL began, the 23-year-old allrounder from Trinidad & Tobago was just hoping he would get a game with Rajasthan Royals. But having picked up seven wickets from his first two matches, he now finds himself in possession of the Purple Cap as the tournament's leading wicket-taker. For good measure, he hit his first ball in the IPL for six. And the second for four. It was a start beyond his wildest expectations, and is a far cry from where Cooper found himself a little over a year ago.
Following the 2011 Caribbean T20, match officials raised concerns about Cooper's bowling action, placing his cricketing future in doubt. Luckily the Trinidad & Tobago government stepped in and sent him and team-mate Sunil Narine to the University of Western Australia in Perth to remodel their actions under the supervision of ICC-approved experts in biomechanics.
Over the course of ten days, using a combination of biomechanical tests and remedial exercises, Cooper practised mornings and evenings to re-learn the seemingly simple art of bowling a cricket ball. He recalled sitting in his room confused and depressed, wondering whether his career was over before it had even really begun. "That was a very difficult time for me," he told ESPNcricinfo. "[But] it taught me to never give up."
Cooper comes from a footballing family. One of his brothers, Kevin Molina, was part of T&T's squad that played in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the London Olympics.* Cooper grew up playing football as well but was persuaded by his father, a cricket fan, to switch his allegiance. When he was picked for the T&T Under-19 squad, he left football behind. Then he found himself in Perth, his cricket career hanging in the balance.
His determination paid off and a rejuvenated Cooper was cleared to play in the Champions League T20 for T&T later the same year. His spinning team-mates, Narine and Samuel Badree, may have grabbed the headlines during that tournament, but Cooper was almost as effective. Mixing up the speeds of his medium-pacers to good effect, he took five wickets in six games while conceding just 5.29 runs an over. "The wickets in India suit my bowling," Cooper said, explaining that though they are slow, so are the wickets in the Caribbean. "It's not like when Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall were bowling." Cooper was explosive with the bat too. Coming in at No. 7, he posted a Gayle-esque strike rate of 191.17, with an average of 21.66.
It was these attributes that drew the attention of the Royals, who bought him for $50,000 in the IPL player auction earlier this year. "We had done a thorough analysis on him, especially on his Champions League performances," Raghu Iyer, the franchise's chief executive, said. "The coaching staff was extremely impressed. It was based on their insistence that we bid for him."
With so many better-known cricketers in the side though, Cooper wasn't about to get carried away with earning an IPL contract; he was prepared to wait his turn. But the Royals had other plans for him.
The team lacked a big hitter down the order last season. When Cooper met Rahul Dravid and the coaching staff, he was told that was the role they wanted him to fill as an allrounder.
Cooper admitted to being nervous in his first game. "Any player will tell you there are a few butterflies when you take the field, especially in front of such big crowds," he said. A wicket in his first over - Paul Valthaty sliced a full toss to third man - quickly settled his nerves and Cooper proceeded to strike in each of his next three overs to finish with 4 for 26, ensuring the Royals got off to a winning start. He followed that up with 3 for 28 against Kolkata Knight Riders as Rajasthan climbed to the top of the points table (albeit very early in the season).
Cooper simply wants to build on his first few performances and contribute to the team in any way he can. He would like to avoid being classified only as a T20 specialist, however, as some have come to think of him. Cooper harbours ambitions of playing international cricket in all formats (his idol is fellow Trinidadian Brian Lara).
Having played 31 T20 matches before making his first-class debut in March, though, he is aware he will have to overcome that stereotype. While he had a forgettable opening game against Jamaica, he made a crucial 58 in the first-innings against Guyana to ensure T&T picked up the six points for a first-innings lead. "I hope that showed Trinidad & Tobago and West Indies that I can play first-class cricket," he said.
When he decided to pursue cricket at the expense of football, Cooper said, there were plenty of people who questioned whether he had made the right decision. After his performances in the Champions League and now the IPL, his choice is clearly turning out to be the right one.
07:13 GMT, April 12: The article has been updated to reflect that the T&T football squad didn't qualify for the 2012 Olympics
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo