The other side of the IPL

Chewed up and spat out

Anand Vasu


Paul Valthaty, a mainstay of Kings XI Punjab at one stage, faded away after impressing for two seasons © AFP

In the dusty village of Nadwa Sarai in Uttar Pradesh, where the population was 5,000 last time anyone bothered to count, a 25-year-old in a Pune Warriors jersey is working the wheat fields. Depending on the season, he sows or reaps; either way, it's tough, and times are hard. He is used to bending his back - he's no shirker - but this son of a woodcutter seemed destined for glory in a different field.

A few years earlier, in 2009, the Indian Premier League moved to South Africa because of a general election back home: police could not be spared to provide security at the cricket. At picturesque Newlands, far removed from the fields of Nadwa Sarai, Rajasthan Royals captain Shane Warne threw the ball to Kamran Khan, an unknown, freakish left-arm seamer, just turned 18. Kolkata Knight Riders needed seven off the last over, and Sourav Ganguly was at the crease. The move was brave - but it paid off. Kamran kept Kolkata down to six, forcing a super over, which he himself bowled. Rajasthan won; a star was born. Kamran said Warne spoke English so fast he was unable to understand his instructions, but was effusive anyway.

"I had not played any serious cricket before this, and if I am playing at this level all credit goes to The rise and fall of Kamran is hardly a unique sporting tale, but this does not make it any less poignant. After his father died of a lung ailment, his mother - desperate to make ends meet - took to rolling beedis, the cheap cigarettes made from unprocessed tobacco, and smoked in rural India. Two years later, she died too. Then, at his lowest ebb, cricket handed him a lifeline.

In March 2009, Darren Berry, the former Victoria wicketkeeper who was working with the Royals, spotted him playing for a police team in a local Twenty20 tournament, and signed him for $24,000, more than the boy had ever heard of. Several weeks later, he was in Cape Town. But before he could enjoy his new-found wealth, life changed again.

Kamran's action - a loping approach followed by a full-bodied explosion - was declared suspect, and he was banned from bowling. A spell of rehabilitation helped, but in 2011 Kamran - now with Pune Warriors - played just one IPL match, against Royal Challengers Bangalore. He fell in a heap trying to deliver his first ball, and was smashed by Chris Gayle: his first two overs cost 37, and he was not picked again. He was reduced to serving as a net bowler for Mumbai Indians.

"When I was called to Wankhede Stadium to bowl in the nets, I felt ashamed," he says. "It was not a good feeling. I did my best to hide, hoping nobody would notice me or recognise me." But Allan Donald, who had coached him at Pune, did notice - and was shocked to hear he had not played a serious game of cricket in years. "Of course it was the highlight of my life to play in the IPL," Kamran says. "I only wish it had happened a little earlier.

Then I could've used the money for the medical treatment of my parents." He has all but given up on a game that gave up on him. The IPL is excellent at blowing its own trumpet, so you might have heard how West Indian all-rounder Kieron Pollard used his earnings to build a huge house for his mother, who had raised him in a Port-of-Spain slum. But have you heard the story of Harmeet Singh?

A wiry left-arm spinner, he came to attention in New Zealand in January 2010, when he was playing the second of two Under-19 World Cups. Tossing the ball up fearlessly with a repeatable, easy action that had purists purring and batsmen guessing, Harmeet was the darling of the commentators. Writing on ESPNcricinfo, Ian Chappell likened him to Bishan Bedi, "with that same natural flight and guile that would right now place him as the best spin bowler in any Test side bar England".

The fanfare travelled swiftly from Christchurch to Mumbai, where Harmeet, the son of a property dealer, had barely begun making a name for himself. Ahead of that World Cup, he had played two Ranji Trophy matches, picking up 12 wickets against Himachal Pradesh and Railways, both relatively weak. But when he came back from New Zealand, the praise went to his head: he started to believe he really was good enough to walk into most Test teams.

Seasoned Ranji Trophy campaigners begged to differ. Rumours of Harmeet's fondness for a drink, coupled with tales of indiscipline, did not help, and batsmen set out to teach the young tyke a lesson. Harmeet played only one match for Mumbai in 2010-11, and would not play first-class cricket again for two seasons. Picked by Rajasthan Royals for the 2013 IPL, he seemed ready to mix with the big boys once more. But he managed a single game before getting caught in the match-fixing controversy that would result in the suspension of Sreesanth, the former Test seamer, and Ajit Chandila. Harmeet had reportedly been introduced by Chandila to bookies, though he says he thought he was meeting Chandila's cousins - a plausible explanation given the two had been team-mates for several years. Yet Harmeet never reported the approach, which he claims he turned down. Released by Mumbai, and unable to play for Vidarbha - who wanted his services - until he was cleared by the disciplinary committee, Chappell's next Bedi couldn't get a game anywhere. Since then, no IPL team have touched him.

"I was given a clean chit by the BCCI, and the Delhi Police also said I never had anything to do with spotfixing," he says. "I don't think that is the reason I have not been picked in the IPL. I was keen to play, but sometimes this happens in auctions. Maybe teams had already formed their squads by the time I came up for bidding. Sometimes it's about having the right luck also." A player who was an integral part of India's victory at the Under-19 World Cup not getting an IPL offer? No matter how hard Harmeet tries to convince himself, that's down to more than luck. By the end of 2016, still only 24, he had played only 14 first-class matches, most recently for unfancied Jammu & Kashmir. His left-arm spin, which once floated like the prettiest butterfly, was stung by the IPL. He now waits in limbo.

While cricket may still be regarded in some quarters as the gentleman's game, the IPL has never thought it crass to splash the cash. And you might have heard how Chris Morris, the South African all-rounder, went from being a franchise player with a modest salary to a Rand millionaire in the space of ten minutes at an auction. But the IPL would rather you did not ask about Paul Valthaty, once toasted as all that was good about cricket's glitziest spectacle.

In 2011, aged 27, Valthaty was bold enough to say that wearing the India cap was every cricketer's dream, and he had "taken a small step in that direction". He was referring to his own blistering 120 not out from 63 balls for Kings XI Punjab against a Chennai Super Kings attack including Ravichandran Ashwin, Tim Southee and Morne Morkel. He had not even come close to playing first-class cricket, yet this innings - in which he comfortably outscored his opening partner Adam Gilchrist - had emboldened him to speak about playing for India.

Valthaty brimmed with promise as a youngster, put in the work, and made it to the Under-19 World Cup team in 2002. But a blow to his right eye when he was batting against Bangladesh cost him a year in the game, and he never quite graduated to the next level. Playing club cricket in Mumbai, he stuck with the dream, eventually building a reputation as a Twenty20 specialist. Then the IPL came calling. Abhishek Nayar, a Mumbai regular and India occasional, persuaded Kings XI Punjab to give Valthaty a go, and that century against CSK looked like his breakthrough. It would prove the falsest of dawns.

Himachal Pradesh picked Valthaty in the Ranji Trophy in 2011, but he averaged only 20 in five matches, and has not played first-class cricket since. He was given six games by Kings XI in the 2012 IPL, but averaged five. In 2013, he played once, scoring six. Since then all doors, IPL or otherwise, have stayed shut. The son of an engineer and a doctor, he was a rarity among Indian middle-class children, encouraged to pursue sport over academia. "My father used to push me a lot to play cricket," he says. "He is a great enthusiast of the sport. My mother, too, supported me. My family and friends have been behind me through thick and thin, which has motivated me to do well." Now aged 33, Valthaty is all but forgotten. Shreyas Iyer, the latest wunderkind from the Mumbai school of batsmanship, had to be dragged to the Wankhede by his friends to watch the home team in action: he preferred playing to spectating. Barely a year later, he entered an IPL auction at Rs10 lakh (about £1,200), and was bought by Delhi Daredevils for Rs2.6 crore (about £310,000). He wasn't quite as reluctant to attend IPL matches after that.

Not everyone is so fortunate. "Don't feel bad if someone *rejects or ignores* you," began a pointedly asterisked tweet from Manpreet Gony in July 2016. "People usually reject and ignore *precious things*, because they cannot *afford* them." For two years Punjab, his state team, had all but ignored him, and for three the IPL had rejected him. Kings XI Punjab were the last to take a punt on this tall, strapping seamer. Gony owes his two-ODI career entirely to the IPL. In 2008, its inaugural season, he had a fine run with Chennai Super Kings, whose captain M. S. Dhoni was sufficiently impressed to alert the national selectors.

In an international career that lasted four days, Gony took none for 11 against Hong Kong and two for 65 from eight overs against Bangladesh. He has never been seriously considered for India since. Gony had already seen a bit of life before the IPL turned everything upside down. When he married Manpreet (they do indeed share a first name), Gony was ostracised by his family, who disapproved of his choice. The couple took refuge in each other's arms, but personal tragedy struck when their child died after only 15 days. The IPL lifted him for a time, but when it dropped him, the fall was precipitous. Embroiled in a property dispute with his mother, who claimed Gony had sent her death threats, separated from his wife, and abandoned by cricket, he put on a brave face, posting photos of rides on his beloved Harley-Davidson, growing a luxuriant beard, and posing as the successful cricketer he was not.

Desperate for money, he went to America and bowled in leagues that were beneath him. "I was not thinking clearly because my personal life was a mess and there was a lot of pressure on me," he says. "In India, it's difficult to make a living from cricket if you're not playing at a certain level. I couldn't concentrate on cricket, so I left India. At least I could pay my bills, but now I know I wasted two years of my career." In 2016, Gony - at the age of 32 - was trying to rebuild his life and career in the Ranji Trophy, but he knew, in his heart of hearts, that his best days were behind him.

At 37, Australian left-arm wrist-spinner Brad Hogg had hit rock bottom. In an effort to save his marriage, he retired from international cricket, though he was desperate to play more. Life behind a desk was not easy; soon he had lost both family and vocation, and seriously contemplated suicide. Four years later, the IPL resurrected him. But life does not begin at 40 for all cricketers. Bharat Chipli, a promising batsman who once racked up the runs for Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy, now plays in the Karnataka Premier League, a tournament that includes a team of film stars who have not won a game in five seasons. Chipli was obsessed with cricket from a young age, but admits he never thought he would play at a serious level.

Not a natural thumper of the ball, he added muscle to his batting, and in 2011 Deccan Chargers came calling. A 35-ball 61 against Royal Challengers Bangalore brought Chipli front and centre, even in a team containing some of the biggest names in the business. "Kumar Sangakkara would give me a bat whenever I wanted," he says. "Dale Steyn never showed any attitude, and Darren Lehmann, our coach, would take me out for a cold beer whether I had performed or not." But he hasn't added to his 20 first-class appearances since 2012: form deserted him, and other young batsmen - K. L. Rahul, Mayank Agarwal and Karun Nair - jumped the queue.

Kamran bends his back only in the fields these days. Harmeet can't toss it up or make it dip, no matter how hard he tries. Valthaty would love to clear the ropes, but he can't find a team. Gony is starting again, but is not sure where it will lead. Chipli aimed to be a serious cricketer, and had to settle for a lot less. The IPL has its success stories - of course it does. But the seduction of dollars, the flirtation with the spotlight, the embrace of fame - these can all be followed by a kiss of death. They loved the IPL, these young men, but the feeling was only fleetingly mutual.

© John Wisden & Co.