"That saying 'when you're happy, you enjoy the song; when you're low, you understand the lyrics' is so true, bhaiyya (brother)," Kamlesh Nagarkoti says as he reflects on life over the past 12 months. We are sitting in his hotel room in Bengaluru, a couple of weeks before the IPL began. Nagarkoti has been in the city for rehab, recovering from a back injury.
His thunderbolts at the Under-19 World Cup last year elicited genuine excitement from former West Indies fast bowler Ian Bishop. "I salivate when I see bowlers like him, so impressive," Bishop had said at the time, before adding, "but I do hope coaches have a watch over him, that action concerns me."
Those words cannot ring truer than they do now.
Nagarkoti last played a competitive game 13 months ago. Injuries to his ankle, heel and lower back have now derailed him for a second straight IPL season with Kolkata Knight Riders, who bid INR 3.2 crore for him last year. A recovery, Nagarkoti says, is still "four or five months away".
"When I return, I will be the same Nagarkoti with a new OS"
Since April, Bengaluru and the National Cricket Academy have become his second home. "Recently Yuzi bhai (Yuzvendra Chahal) asked: 'Brother, yaha pe hi settle ho gaye kya? Aapne ghar khareeda hai kya yaha pe? (Are you settled here; have you bought a house here?)' Sometimes, I laugh, sometimes I feel bad, but I know they're trying to cheer me up."
He's refreshingly candid, willing to speak about his insecurities. It's a different side to the Nagarkoti most of his friends and team-mates have seen. He was the mischief monger, who led the cake smash on Rahul Dravid's face to celebrate the coach's 45th birthday during that World Cup. The memories and friendships from the U-19 campaign seem distant as he recounts his journey. He has watched good mates Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill graduate to donning the India colours, and while he couldn't be happier for them, he can't help but keep asking 'why me?'
Often, he found himself brooding after returning from his daily rehab sessions. "At 19, I must be running in and bowling fast. But here I am, not playing, not studying, out injured, away from home, all by myself, and trying to get fit even as my friends are playing in the IPL and for India A," he reflects. "It's been tough, no doubt."
As coach, Dravid knew of Nagarkoti as the mischievous kid. Team-mates say he would have been the first to opt for a bungee jump if not for the contracts they had signed. The lively teenager is now in his own bubble, needing an arm on his shoulder. Dravid had heard from the NCA coaches that the boy had been agitated. He took time out to counsel him.
"Sir [Dravid] was there for a meeting during an India A series, when he asked for me through someone," Nagarkoti recounts. "He told me, 'don't think life is over if you miss one or two IPL seasons, you have to play for India. You have to be strong for that.' He cited the example of Pat Cummins, how he missed six years of cricket after his Test debut because of a back injury, and how he has made a comeback to top-flight cricket."
Nagarkoti was encouraged by Dravid's gesture, but wouldn't know yet that another setback was awaiting him. As his heel injury was on the mend, PET scans detected a stress fracture on his back in August last year. He flew with NCA physio Yogesh Parmar to London to consult two surgeons, and it was decided that surgery would be the last option considering he was anyway going to spend at least a year on the sidelines.
"I realised how he has played for the country for four-five years and is still so positive at 35. I have no reason to feel depressed when I'm just starting out" NAGARKOTI ON EXCHANGING NOTES WITH WRIDDHIMAN SAHA
Since his return, Nagarkoti's daily routine is somewhat like this: At the NCA from 9am to 5pm, alternating between rehabilitation and training, the intensity of which is tailored to his recovery plan. Swimming, squash, basketball and wall climbing have also become part of his strengthening process to ensure monotony doesn't creep in. For every three weeks of intense rehab, he spends a week at home or away from the NCA, "trying to distract myself from cricket".
Fortunately, he has had a big brother for support. A man fighting his own battles. It's an unlikely friendship, but one Nagarkoti is thankful for. "I used to meet Wriddhi bhaiyya (Wriddhiman Saha) at the NCA daily during the lunch break. Over time, we both got used to the familiarity," he says. "One day, we just spoke about dealing with injuries, our lives - a lot of it outside of cricket. I realised how has played for the country for four-five years and is still so positive at 35. I have no reason to feel depressed when I'm just starting out."
For three months, Saha and Nagarkoti frequented restaurants together - the occasional onlookers notwithstanding - played UNO cards in their room and watched movies. "After some time, I wasn't alone in my room anymore, because Wriddhi bhai wouldn't allow me to be by myself in the evenings. Pooja Vastrakar, the India women's fast bowler, was also in rehab at the time, and we all bonded together. It's a great gesture from a senior player like him to be so welcoming towards his juniors when he himself was undergoing intense rehabilitation."
Nagarkoti has also been in constant touch with physios and coaches at Knight Riders. The franchise's academy project is aimed at keeping open channels of communication with their uncapped Indian players even during the off-season.
"The support staff is fantastic," Nagarkoti says. "Venky sir (CEO Venky Mysore) knows what a player needs, so their support has been amazing. They have handled not just me but all young players with tremendous respect. You never feel you are only a youngster starting out. They trusted me and sat me down to explain I will be retained even when I was sent back after injury last year."
To him, his family and their sacrifice are often on the mind when his thoughts start getting negative. His father, a Subedar (a mid-level junior commissioned officer) in the Indian army, used his small retirement corpus to buy a one-bedroom flat in Jaipur to further Nagarkoti's cricket career. These gestures have kept the teenager grounded. "My parents have just one advice: 'try to make peace with your problem and work towards your end goal.' I've waited for nine months now, I'm sure another four months will fly by in no time."
Nagarkoti jokes that he doesn't remember his action anymore, but is focused on returning as a fast bowler and not one who has compromised on his speed because of his injuries. "When I return," Nagarkoti says, "I will be the same Nagarkoti with a new OS."