Rajasthan might still have been without a Ranji Trophy had Pankaj Singh taken up the Army job offered to him five years ago for his volleyball talent. Pankaj, however, opted to continue with cricket, and his 43 wickets this season were instrumental in Rajasthan finally becoming domestic champions.
Pankaj hails originally from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, and was involved in athletics and volleyball from a young age. "I had played the state volleyball championship. During the cricket off-season, I played with the Army for a week in Lucknow, and they offered me a job. I had already made my first-class debut for Rajasthan. There were some issues then within the Rajasthan Cricket Association about non-local players, and the job would have meant a comfortable and settled life, but I did not want to give up on my dream.
"So I decided to stick with cricket. There were only two possibilities after that, either I would go on to play for the country or I would not, but I took the risk. Even if it did not happen, I would have at least tried. Woh bhookh honi chahiye andar se (You should have that hunger from within)."
The intense desire to play on the big stage took Pankaj from Amethi to Kolkata in 2003, from there to Bangalore, and finally to Jaipur. "My first offer was to play club cricket in Kolkata. Munawar Ali, my coach, took me to Bangalore for a tournament where Brijesh Patel got me to bowl in the NCA nets. Even Rahul Dravid was there at that time, and I bowled to him as well. There was an India 'A' camp and I stayed there for around a month. I was then approached by Rajasthan, and that is how I came to Jaipur. It all happened in around a year."
He had never played the longer format, and the first issue was how to stand in the field for 90 overs in a day. But the athletics background helped, and he says he has hardly missed a game due to injury. "I didn't know what a long spell was, didn't know what the importance of a five-wicket haul was. A 10-over spell during those days was like you had achieved something huge. But my fitness has been good since the start, and that helped."
Hailing from a middle-class background meant he had responsibilities, and that only spurred him on. There was not much money in first-class cricket back then, which he found out to his surprise, and had to rely on his father initially. "The dream was to play for India, but I also wanted a better life for my family. I used to wrongly think that there was a lot of money at the domestic level. So I had to depend on my father, who never refused me.
"But coming from a middle-class background, we all know that the end of the month is always a problem as far as money is concerned. And on top of that if I demanded some, it was a further burden. I knew in my heart that they would be compromising somewhere for me, though they would not admit it."
Respect was another thing Pankaj craved for, and that would come only if he made it big. "It is a huge thing to even play for your district, but I knew that unless I reached the top, no one would truly respect my parents. When I started playing, my parents used to tell others that he is doing some job, as there was no recognition for first-class cricketers in those days. Now it is slowly changing with television coverage and all. When more success came my way, my father was called in at the organisation he used to work as a chief guest for the Independence Day function. He was so happy that day."
It is a matter of pride and respect for Rajasthan as well, having won the Ranji trophy on their ninth appearance in the final, and Pankaj says now they have something to show for their efforts. "It is beyond the stuff of dreams for the entire Rajasthan. If you return after losing, it sometimes becomes difficult to meet people face-to-face, as they don't see the effort you have put in. Even if someone casually asks you, how many times you have won, you have no reply. So we were really desperate to win."
For Pankaj, who has been leading the Rajasthan attack for years now, the highlight of the season will remain beating 39-times winners Mumbai. "I wanted to win against Mumbai. If we could not do it with the kind of team we have this season, who knows when another chance would come?"
"I can now move the ball both ways. I am looking to work on my yorker and the slower one for the limited-overs games"
He has performed consistently in both the Elite and Plate leagues, and is not entirely impressed with the perception that Plate performances do not matter. "For instance, I have taken 14 wickets in Plate (against Tripura), and six wickets against Mumbai. Maybe getting 14 is a bit tough in Elite, but discounting Plate wickets totally is unwarranted. Even if you see in Plate, there are a couple of professionals nowadays in each team. And there are two-three other decent batsmen in the XI. So it is not easy to get wickets, whether it is Plate or Elite."
While he has been a reliable performer for Rajasthan, he has had scarce support at the other end, and that is why the emergence of Deepak Chahar as Pankaj's new-ball partner has been so crucial for Rajasthan's fortunes. The duo has 83 victims this year, and Pankaj says that it has created healthy competition within the team. "Last year I had 32 wickets, but still we finished last in Plate. When you are alone, you might take five or six wickets in 20-25 overs. But in that time, the opposition would have played 90 overs and put up a decent total. Now, if I don't get wickets, Deepak can get them. So the pressure is always maintained."
Having already played for the country, Pankaj obviously hopes to do it again, and is working on improving further. "I can now move the ball both ways. I am looking to work on my yorker and the slower one for the limited-overs games. Also, I now put in extra effort regardless of which spell I am bowling. There should not be any difference whether I am running in for my first or the last spell of the day. Hopefully, I'll get more chances. In the end, life takes you where you are destined to go."