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The 500-rupee man who made it big

"As soon as I earned some money in cricket, I repaid the family's loans. My father finds it hard to believe I'm capable of doing something like this, because he felt I wouldn't do anything with my life" Shashank Kishore / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"Tell us something about Kulwant Khejroliya," Simon Doull asked AB de Villiers in a spot interview during Royal Challengers Bangalore's IPL season opener on Sunday. "Ah well, I don't know honestly," he replied.

De Villiers wasn't the only one with little or no knowledge about Khejroliya. A number of his other RCB team-mates didn't know much about their colleague either. The 25-year old from Jhunjunu, a small village in Rajasthan, calls himself a chalbaaz (trickster) who found ways to make a buck here and there doing odd jobs - working in a grocery store, cleaning tables, delivering food, and taking orders.

Khejroliya only started playing competitive red-ball cricket properly from 2016 when he moved to Delhi to pursue the game. "I was working at a restaurant in Goa, but I thought if it is in my kismet that I do this, I could even do it five years later. I wanted to badly play cricket," he says. "I told my parents I'm moving to Ahmedabad to join the roadways department. I somehow managed to hide it from them for six months. Only my brother knew the truth."

Khejroliya shared a flat in Ashok Vihar, outside the city centre, with six others to save on expenses. A room-mate happened to know someone who played cricket at Japanese Park in Rohini in the north-west outskirts of the city, and took him along. Khejroliya's bowling abilities earned him a regular team, who paid him Rs 500 (about US$8) per match. It was during one of his weekend matches that he met Sanjay Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj is famous in Delhi's cricket circles, having mentored players like Gautam Gambhir, Unmukt Chand, and more recently Nitish Rana. With some grants from Delhi's education department, he has helped a number of young cricketers from financially straitened backgrounds make a mark at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Cricket Academy. But for Bhardwaj to accept Khejroliya, he had to see something in him.

"I told Sanjay sir I'm ready to do whatever he asks me," Khejroliya says. "I pleaded with him and told him I have lied at home that I'm in Ahmedabad for work, when I was actually in Delhi for cricket.

"That's how serious I was. He saw me bowling in the nets regularly. I didn't miss a single training session. One day he asked me to come over to bowl to some of the state players. Once he was convinced I was decent, he offered to take care of my workout and diet requirements. He adopted me when I was a nobody."

If making a mark in the academy was one thing, Khejroliya would go on to be surprised by the attention from the Delhi selectors. He filtered through a difficult system and eventually made his Ranji Trophy debut in October 2017. In January this year Khejroliya was bought by Royal Challengers for Rs 85 lakhs on the back of a strong showing that helped Delhi win the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy. He finished with 14 wickets in ten matches, fourth best in the tournament, at an economy of 6.56. His 2 for 24 in the final helped Delhi defend 153 against Rajasthan.

"Khejroliya only started playing competitive red-ball cricket properly from 2016 when he moved to Delhi to pursue the game. "I told my parents I'm moving to Ahmedabad to join the roadways department. I somehow managed to hide it from them for six months"

"I was on the flight home to Delhi when the auction was on. My name came up just minutes after I reached home," Khejroliya recalls. "When someone raised the paddle, I became happy. See, I was nobody three years ago. I was earning Rs 500 playing tennis-ball matches in Delhi. Suddenly hearing someone pay lakhs of rupees was a bit of a shock, but I was happy about the auction this time.

"Last year also I was picked, by Mumbai Indians [for Rs 10 lakhs], but I couldn't get any games. This time, I am confident I will get my chances because I'm a lot more mature mentally. I feel I am more responsible now."

The confidence came from not just his performance in the domestic T20s but also in the Ranji Trophy. In the semi-final, his fiery spell on the third day on a green top in Pune skittled Bengal for 86. Khejroliya finished the match with six wickets and Delhi were in the final after seven seasons.

The maturity he attributes to circumstances. "We had to take a loan for my sister's wedding, but even that wasn't enough. My father borrowed money from relatives. I used to see how difficult it was to repay. My brother was studying, so those were difficult times.

"As soon as I earned some money in cricket, the first thing I did was repay the money. Even today, my father finds it hard to believe I'm capable of doing something like this, because he felt I wouldn't do anything with my life, that I would go astray. My mindset changed after that. I started looking at life differently."

Khejroliya's family is now at peace with his choice of career. His father has now managed to extend their business to a small provision store, in addition to selling the agricultural produce they get from their small plot of farm land. His brother is a chartered accountant and sister happily married.

But Khejroliya still hangs out with the same friends with whom he used to do "time pass" all those years ago. "Nothing has changed, not money, not position. I want to play well for Delhi and take it step by step. I met Virat Kohli for the first time last week, this is what he also told me. When I see some of these senior players tell me they're impressed with my bowling, it makes me remember my struggling days."

For now, chalbaazi to get batsmen out is all he's concerned about.